Talking Tactics: Is Marcel Kittel faster than Mark Cavendish?

With the season winding down, I’m going to be looking back on 2013 through a tactical lens, reviewing what happened and what to look out for when the 2014 campaign begins. This week I’m starting by assessing the battle for sprint supremacy between Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish.

For the five years prior to 2013, the roads of the Tour de France had been Mark Cavendish’s playground. 23 stage wins, a green jersey and a perfect four-for-four record on the most famous avenue of all, the Champs-Élysées, underlined the routine dominance he had exerted over the Tour’s flat stages.

Mark Cavendish (OPQS)

Only two wins at the 2013 Tour, but Cavendish now has 25 in six years (Image: Panache)

All that changed this year, though. Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel outscored the Manxman by four victories to two, with the last of these on the Paris cobbles which had been his private domain.

Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano)

A Tour-leading four victories for Kittel, including the final stage in the Paris twilight (Image: Panache)

Opinion was divided afterwards as to whether this represented a temporary setback for Cavendish or a more permanent changing of the guard. No one knows for sure – not even Kittel and Cavendish themselves – but there are certainly arguments both for and against the two men. Here are some thoughts: decide for yourself.

1. Age is no object

Cavendish is younger than many people think – at 28, he is only three years older than Kittel – so in terms of age he remains at his physical peak.

Erik Zabel won the last of his six green jerseys aged 31, and was still winning stages in grand tours after his 37th birthday. The same is true of Alessandro Petacchi, who did not claim his sole Tour points classification victory until he was 36.

There is certainly a new generation of youngsters yapping at Cav’s heels, but he is still some way from slowing down with old age. However, he’s unlikely to get any better either. Kittel is just completing his third year as a pro. Fast as he is now, he may still improve in terms of consistency and tactical ability as he gains experience.

2. Sprint trains

Kittel undoubtedly had the advantage here. Argos-Shimano have not only one of the best sprint trains in the peloton but also one of the most settled – one which has been forged over a couple of years. In Tom Veelers, Kittel’s final lead-out is second to none, as the Dutchman consistently delivers his teammate into perfect position.

Cavendish’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step lead-out was not at the same level. Lead-out man Gert Steegmans is one of the best in the business, but too often the rest of the train lacked cohesion or simply went missing altogether in the closing 10km, leaving Cavendish too much to do himself.

OPQS struggled to establish their best line-up throughout the year, and although young Matteo Trentin bagged a stage win himself, his inexperience in the pivotal last-but-two position showed a couple of times in the white heat of the final kilometre.

Argos-Shimano and Lotto-Belisol remain the benchmark for other sprint trains to aspire to. Can OPQS close the gap in 2014? Possibly. On the one hand, their line-up has been bolstered by the speed and experience of Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi. On the other, the signings of riders such as Rigoberto Uran and Thomas De Gendt may compromise the team’s focus on sprint wins.

3. Illness

Cavendish came into the Tour suffering from bronchitis, for which he was taking antibiotics. The infection would undoubtedly have had an impact on both his aerobic capacity and overall energy levels, at least in the opening days of the race.

However, three of Kittel’s four wins came after stage nine, by which time Cavendish was over the worst of his illness. And Kittel won stage one not because Cav was ill, but because he was held up in a late crash. It’s possible that Cavendish might have won another stage had he been 100% from the start, but the way things panned out it’s unlikely Kittel would have won any fewer. Cav’s illness probably had little or no impact.

4. Heavy legs

If Cavendish’s illness was ultimately a non-factor, the heaviness of his pre-Tour race schedule was more significant. Over the course of the year, only two riders notched up more racing days than his 98. By comparison Kittel registered a more modest 73 days.

Cavendish won the points competition at the Giro - but did this cost him at the Tour? (Image: Sky Sports Cycling twitter)

Cavendish won the points competition at a gruelling Giro – but did this cost him at the Tour? (Image: Sky Sports Cycling twitter)

Entering the Tour, Cav had completed 21 more racing days than Kittel. Or, put another way, he had three weeks of a tough, wet and cold Giro d’Italia – barely a month previously – in his legs. It was noticeable at the Tour that his famed ‘second kick’ didn’t seem to be there when he needed, such as on stage 12 in Tours where Kittel overhauled him in the last few metres to snatch victory.

Stage 12 highlights

Was Cav’s edge dulled by too much early season racing? Quite possibly. To his credit, it isn’t something he ever used as an excuse, but a workload as heavy as that has to take its toll.

This is an obvious and immediate opportunity for improvement. Don’t be surprised if Cavendish – having finally won the points jersey at the Giro – races a lighter programme in the first half of 2014 to ensure he is fresh for the Tour.

Overall assessment

I believe Kittel arrived at this year’s Tour in peak condition and delivered superbly. Take nothing away from him – he was outstanding and deserved each of his wins. He and Cavendish went genuinely head-to-head just twice – stages 12 and 21 – and he won on both occasions.

Stage 21 highlights

But was Cav ever at his best? No. I think the biggest factors were Argos-Shimano’s superior sprint train and his own focus on the Giro points competition to complete his set of grand tour jerseys, which cost him that crucial 1% in France.

So, is Kittel now the faster of the two? I think it’s impossible to say definitively, although I believe Cavendish still holds a slight – but only a slight – edge. But there is no doubt that Kittel represents the biggest threat to his domination that he has ever faced, and the battle between the pair (and Andre Greipel) will form one of the overarching narratives of the 2014 season.

But enough about what I think. What’s your opinion? Cast your vote below.

Talking Tactics will continue intermittently on Wednesdays throughout the off-season.

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