The first of many? Kittel takes first blood in the battle of the Tour de France fastmen

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LIEGE, Belgium (CT) – It’s an intriguing fact about recent Tours de France — that the winner of the first bunch sprint tends to go on to great success in the race. Last year Mark Cavendish won the first sprint, and went on to take four wins. Andre Greipel won first in 2015, and he too notched up four wins.

In both 2013 and 2014 Marcel Kittel was the first sprinter to win, and on both occasions he left the race with four wins. In 2012, Peter Sagan won first, and he ended up with three victories.

Of course it’s more than mere coincidence that the winner of the first sprint tends to take several wins. More often than not they’re simply the strongest sprinter in the race. Whatever the reason, after winning today’s stage 2 of the 2017 Tour de France — the race’s first sprint stage — Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors) will approach the Tour’s remaining sprint stages with great confidence.

“I think I’m definitely in a very good shape, very good condition,” he said after winning in Liege this afternoon. “I’m also really happy that I have a very strong team with me, a very dedicated one, and the sprints that are still ahead of us in the next days and weeks are definitely good chances for my team and me.

“When we work like we did today — maybe a bit better in the lead-out — then I’m sure we can go for another victory or more.”

The question of Kittel’s lead-out will be cause for much discussion in the QuickStep Floors camp in the days and weeks ahead. The team worked hard on the front of the peloton for much of the day, helping to keep a four-rider breakway in check. And when Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac) and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) got clear of that break and looked as if they might steal the stage, QuickStep Floors were among the teams that helped the peloton wrest back control.

The QuickStep Floors lead-out train was taking shape as Phinney and Offredo were reeled in with a kilometre to go, but then it fell apart.

“We had a plan that we couldn’t really execute like we wanted”, Kittel said. But the German’s teammates rallied when they needed to, bringing their sprinter into position just in time.

“Matteo Trentin and Fabio Sabatini brought me there at the right moment with 500m to go and I still had all the chances to go for the victory,” Kittel explained. “I tried to take that chance by following the other wheels and coming late, which is actually an advantage in a sprint finish that has a little bit of a headwind.”

Kittel timed his jump well, hitting the front with less than 100 metres to go and holding off his rivals to take his 10th Tour de France stage victory. Significantly, it was also the first ever Tour stage victory on a bike with disc brakes. French champion Arnaud Demare (FDJ) was second while Greipel was third.

QuickStep Floors wasn’t the only team that struggled to keep its lead-out train together — indeed, every team lost their way in the final kilometre. Lead-out men were looking around for their sprinters and sprinters were left to surf the wheels of their rivals. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) typified the disorganisation in the bunch, the Slovakian being left with his nose in the wind with about 300m to go before sprinting to 10th.

For Kittel, it’s far from coincidence that every team struggled for position in the final kilometres.

“I think the reason why we had an uncontrolled sprint in the end is because we had so many sprinters,” Kittel opined. “Especially in the Tour, they all try to work with their teams but in the end everyone is realising that it doesn’t work so everyone is in survival mode and trying to just keep a good position.

“And I think today for our team, for my team, it was an advantage to come relatively late and I think I could then jump from wheel to wheel and go to the front when everyone else was already wasting energy before. I guess that’s what we’re going to see more often in this year’s Tour de France.”

Today’s victory sees Marcel Kittel move into the green jersey of points classification leader. It’s a competiton he finished second in last year, but one he sees little chance of winning.

“Of course I want to fight for it,” Kittel said. “I was also in the points today in the intermediate sprint. I will continue that in the next days. But when you look to the last five-six Tour de Frances, every time when Peter Sagan won, then there was always a sprinter who won four stages and I’ve not even a small chance to go for the green jersey.

“I don’t hope that it happens of course, but the only way you can win the jersey I think is by Peter Sagan getting sick or having to leave the race because of another reason. Otherwise the chance is not there for a pure sprinter.”

So what about yellow? With his 10-second time bonus for winning today’s stage Kittel moves into third overall, six seconds behind Geraint Thomas (Sky) and one second behind Stefan Küng (BMC). Could he feasibly finish strongly on tomorrow’s 1.5km uphill finish to move into the overall lead?

“I think this is going to be difficult tomorrow because I think the finish is quite difficult,” Kittel admitted. “I guess it’s similar to the second stage last year. So I will see. I don’t know. It’s hard for me now here to say but I will sit down tonight with the sports directors.

“What I can say is that our team is here to go for stage victories. That’s our main goal and we have not only one guy who can go tomorrow for victory. That’s where our highest chance for success lies and I think that should get priority and everything else … if we can combine it with that goal would be nice, but it’s not the main goal.”

Chief among QuickStep Floors’ options for stage 3 is the Belgian Philippe Gilbert who, in 2017, has shown his best form since his famously dominant 2011. The punchy uphill finish suits the former world champion to a tee but he’ll have plenty of competition, chief among them the reigning world champ Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).

And it’s not just the punchy sprinters that will be keen for a good showing tomorrow. Thomas, who today maintained his overall lead despite being involved in a crash with 30km to go, will be giving his all to fight for a strong finish and another day (or two) in yellow. For the pure sprinters though, tomorrow will perhaps be a day of measured efforts; of saving energy for the more friendly parcours of stage 4.

And the fastmen will have their fair share of chances at this year’s race — a minimum of seven stages, but perhaps even more should the racing fall their way. And when those sprint stages do arrive, it will be Marcel Kittel that goes in as the rider to beat.

Not just by virtue of his impressive win today, nor his impressive record thus far in 2017, but perhaps also, if we can indulge a modicum of superstition, because of what winning the opening stage of the Tour tends to mean in the battle of the sprinters.

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