Marcel Kittel: 'Today's sprinters have to be able go it alone'

The former sprint superstar reflects on the Tour de France's sprints so far and how the art has changed since he retired

The Tour de France VIP village is filled with champions of old. Though, in the case of Marcel Kittel, the not so old. Kittel, one of the greatest sprinters of his generation, retired in 2019 at the age of 31, but he is on hand at this year’s race hosting guests for the Tour, not to mention enjoying a front-row seat for the racing. It of course comes as no surprise that he has taken particular interests in the sprints.  

“The sprints have been great this year,” said the German former rider who won 14 sprint stages in the Tour before the start of stage 10 in Orléans. “I think it is clear to see that there is no dominant team, and actually no dominant sprinter so far. It is still pretty open. Sure, Biniam Girmay has two stage wins so far, but it is open.

It’s funny because when we started the Tour, a lot of us thought somebody like Jasper Philipsen would be dominating the sprints like last year," he adds. “But the sprinters this year are pretty much all on the same level, at least so far. Everyone has their chance, which is great for the spectators.”

In addition, Kittel says he has really enjoyed the backstories behind the sprints. “Each of the sprints has been so great. I was very happy for Mark Cavendish and I am really happy for Biniam. Both have really made sports history so far in this year’s Tour de France.”

But while he was happy for his former rival, he was quick to point out that he and Cavendish were far from friendly when he was racing. “No, there was a lot of tension between Mark and I. We were real opponents and I think that both of us were like, ‘I have to go out and kick this guy’s ass!’ Its normal really. A sprinter that doesn’t have this mentality will not win. That said, since I have retired, the tension is gone and we have a good relationship,” he says, before adding with a smile: “I am happy that he is not angry at me because I stopped him from winning maybe 40 stages or something.”

While watching this year’s sprints, Kittel notes that sprinting has already changed immensely since he closed the door on his career just five years ago.

“I was talking with the head of performance at Alpecin-Deceuninck and he was explaining to me just how much data they use today. At Alpecin, for example, they have very detailed database for Philipsen. They have data for something like 80 of his sprints throughout his career, and they can tell you every single thing that happened in these sprints. They can breakdown his performance but also his positioning to try to identify any problems. That’s a new development. The days when we would just study the road book before the start are over. They have an internal online platform to objectively analyse everything.”

Kittel also adds that sprinters today cannot rely as much on their sprint trains. and often must be able to freelance in the final kilometers to maintain the best position. “In this Tour, the sprint train is relevant until maybe four kilometres from the finish and then things get more mixed up. Today the sprinters also have to be able go it alone when the time comes.”

Jasper Philipsen throws his bike across the line on stage 10 to become the fourth rider in win one of the sprint stages in this year's Tour.

Such was the case when Mark Cavendish won stage five of this year’s Tour, and it was again evident a few hours later when today’s stage finished in Saint-Armond-Montrond, as the final kilometre was filled with tight turns that made a traditional sprint train impossible.

Fortunately for Belgian Jasper Philipsen, he could at least rely on world champion Mathieu van der Poel to navigate through the turns before launching him down the final straight.

For Philipsen it was a particularly satisfying victory, since he had been frustrated in the first half of this year’s Tour. Winning four stages like last year, but for now at least, he is the fourth rider to taste victory in this year’s sprints.

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