Marcel Kittel is dominating the sprints in a way not seen since Mark Cavendish’s six famous stage victories at the 2009 Tour. The Quickstep man looks unbeatable, crossing the line first in five of the 11 stages completed so far.
There’s no doubting the power of the German and we think the key to his success right now has a lot to do with his use of track sprinting tactics.
Treating the Tour like a keirin
These days, pretty much every sprinter has some form of lead-out train to support them, adding to the chaos and confusion of the bunch sprint. Naturally, this has the effect of neutralising the physiological advantage of the big power-houses (see, for example, Andre Greipel). But recently we’ve seen Kittel and Quickstep adopt a new tactic, one that is often seen on the track in races such as the keirin.
The idea is that you leave a gap to the wheel in front, losing some of the aerodynamic benefit but opening up vital room to manoeuvre and allowing for the fastest and shortest routes to be taken (as well as avoiding those pesky lead out men that get in the way). Another benefit is the acceleration that is able to be generated into the slipstream of the rider in front, meaning more momentum can be carried. This, combined with Kittel’s phenomenal power, is how he’s broken the hearts of all the big name sprinters and left Michael Mathews for dust.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Of course, there’s still a lot of team work from Kittel’s team, Quickstep, in this new successful sprinting style. This typically starts only a few kilometres into the stage, when Julien Vermote takes up his position on the front of the peloton. A position he then holds for the next few hours controlling the break until he gets tired or needs a natural break at which point another engine, in the form of Philippe Gilbert or Lars Bak, takes over. Once the break is within touching distance they ease off again to force the hands of the other sprinting teams to take over the work at the front.
As things start hotting up, Kittel has two men that help position him in the technical run-ins. These are the former cyclocross World Champion, Zdenek Stybar, and Jack Bauer, who help him navigate the bunch into the last kilometre. Once in the last 500 metres it’s left to Kittel and his brilliant ability to hold his own. He leaves a gap to accelerate into, gets the big gear spinning and uses his enormous power to slice through the rest of the field. Meanwhile, the other sprinters waste precious energy trying to not get boxed in, squeezing through handlebar-wide gaps and opening up their sprints later than Kittel providing another slipstream for him to exploit.
Until the other teams can stretch Quickstep during the duration of the stage, Kittel and his teammates can effectively walk up to the hoop and use the opposition as a leg up and a thank-you-very-much to slam dunk another stage into submission.