Talking Tactics: How do you beat Marcel Kittel?

With victories in each of the three sprints to date, Giant-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel has confirmed his position as King of the Sprints at this year’s Tour de France. But is he beatable? And what must his rivals do to defeat him?

After his narrowest victory yet on stage four, Kittel stated that he’s far from unbeatable. And yet none of his rivals have unlocked how to beat him.

You saw that we aren’t unbeatable … it was very close
Kittel after winning stage four

Kittel’s dominance has left rivals of prodigious speed and talent such as Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Bryan Coquard (Europcar) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) gasping in his wake. With both today and tomorrow’s stages good candidates for bunch sprints, there’s a chance Kittel could enter the weekend with five wins already under his belt.

The problem for Kittel’s rivals is that he is not only the fastest sprinter in the race but he also has the best and most consistent lead-out train. It’s reminiscent of Mark Cavendish in the HTC-Highroad days, a potent combination which is nigh on impossible to beat.

So, how do you beat Marcel Kittel?

Certainly there’s a need for teams to change their tactics if they want to achieve a different outcome, as their current strategies aren’t working. Here are three possible options to consider.

Can anyone prevent this from happening on every sprint stage? (Image: ASO/X Bourgois)

Can anyone prevent this from happening on every sprint stage? (Image: ASO/X Bourgois)

1. Disrupt the Giant-Shimano train

Giant-Shimano have had it too easy so far, as their major rivals have played into their hands.

For instance, Lotto-Belisol like to come to the front of the peloton a long way out. For instance, on stage three into London, they made their initial move at 25km. That means burning matches that leaves them short of energy in the final few kilometres when it matters most.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step typically make their big move inside the final 5km. It’s a tactic they’ve been honing all season to good effect, but it leaves them vulnerable to Giant-Shimano, who typically wait until around 2km out before surging to the front with fresh legs. It’s a risky tactic – you could easily find yourself blocked off – but they’re a well-drilled, experienced team who find a way to make it work, leaving them with an uninterrupted and irresistible train of four or five men in front of Kittel.

One simple tactic is for teams to delay their charges, conserving resources and allowing them to disrupt Giant’s train – get ahead of them if possible, or run alongside them to give them more to worry about.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, and something that only the strongest lead-out trains can hope to achieve. The problem for Lotto and OPQS is that, while Giant retain their full complement of nine riders, they are already missing key men. Greg Henderson was Greipel’s lead-out and the absence of Cavendish means Mark Renshaw has been promoted from final lead-out to featured sprinter. That makes an already difficult task even harder.

Can Lotto-Belisol aid Greipel's challenge by holding back more in the closing stages? (Image: Presse Sports/B Papon)

Can Lotto-Belisol aid Greipel’s challenge by holding back more in the closing stages? (Image: Presse Sports/B Papon)

2. Get an early jump

This was a technique commonly employed by Lampre’s Alessandro Petacchi (now with OPQS) on a number of occasions to defeat Cavendish. He would launch an early sprint from 250-300 metres out rather than 200-250, hoping that the element of surprise would get him far enough ahead to prevent Cav from catching his slipstream and then relying on him being strong enough not to fade too much in the final 100 metres.

This tactic relies on a number of key factors to maximise a rival’s chance of success. Firstly, you have to get on to Kittel’s wheel – which everyone else is fighting for. You need to time your jump to perfection – too soon and you’ll ‘die’ before the line, too late and Kittel will have launched his own sprint. Then you must accelerate sharply enough to prevent Kittel from drafting behind your wheel as you go past. And finally you need to have the strength to sustain a longer than ideal sprint. There aren’t many who can do this effectively: Renshaw is one.

3. Get strong men into breakaways

Giant-Shimano’s modus operandi is well known. But what would happen if Kittel’s rivals changed the nature of the game and forced Giant to do more of the work from further out, wearing down Kittel’s wing-men while they conserve energy further back?

One way of doing this would be for, say, FDJ, Lotto and OPQS to sacrifice a rider from their train to put into the day’s breakaway, which would relieve those teams from the obligation to chase them down. Imagine an escape group including big engines such as Tony Martin and Adam Hansen making the peloton extend themselves to complete the catch in the final 5-10km of a stage.

With the major sprinters’ teams content to sit back, this would put more pressure on Giant to pursue harder earlier. And while they would receive assistance from some of the GC teams at least as far as 3km (beyond which anyone who crashes receives the same time as the group), the onus would still be on them to lead the final charge while their rivals mass on their wheels.

The above are all small things, but in a world of narrow margins it could make all the difference between Kittel romping to victory day after day and finding a way to beat him on occasion. It’s a tactical battle which will no doubt evolve over the next couple of weeks – maybe even starting today.

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