When Marcel Kittel took part in the Giro d’Italia in Northern Ireland this May, the Belfast Telegraph namechecked the Giant-Shimano rider as “one of the top 10 things to watch out for in the race”. The Telegraph reasoned the 26-year-old sprinter’s handsome blond looks were sure to cause heads to turn – but as it happened, Kittel did not need to rely on them to be the centre of attention.
The German won both opening road stages in the Giro, in Dublin and Belfast, in blistering style. And in Saturday’s forthcoming Tour de France’s first stage in Harrogate, if Mark Cavendish is the top local favourite, Kittel will be bearing the mantle of the sprinter to beat - for Cavendish and the rest of the field.
It wasn’t just that last year Kittel won the equivalent stage of the Tour de France, in Corsica. The German then took another three bunch sprints, beating Cavendish each time, including on the Champs-Elysées, where Cavendish’s unbroken run of wins had stretched back to 2009.
So is Kittel’s 2014 season “all about Harrogate” - as Cavendish said this February that his year was going to be?
“Cav’s situation is a bit different,” Kittel tells The Independent recently as he sits sipping a coffee in the Sierra Nevada ski station near Granada – where he is altitude training for the Tour.
“It’s the Tour de France in his home country and the first stage ends near where his mum used to live, it’s a special place for him.
“For me, it is a goal. But I’ve also ridden over the first stage route and I don’t think it’ll automatically end in a bunch sprint. As a team, we are ready for all kinds of outcomes in that stage, not just me going for it.”
Should the front group split on the Yorkshire hills, as Kittel believes is very possible, with the “pure” sprinters like Cavendish getting left behind, Giant-Shimano will be ready to work for John Degenkolb – a fast rider, but more of an all-rounder than either the Briton or Kittel.
“The only thing we can be certain about that first stage is that nothing is certain, the second [York-Sheffield] is a day for the GC [general classification] racers, and the third, into London, is the most likely to end in a bunch sprint.”
As Kittel points out, the first two thirds of stage one “are really not easy, with the climbs and small roads, it’s very exposed, too. The last 50 kilometres are more simple, but the final has a lot of undulating roads. If they race very hard, it will be tricky to see a bunch sprint come about.”
One similarity between Cavendish and Kittel off the bike is that both are not afraid to speak their mind. Kittel, for one, is critical of the roads the Tour organisers have chosen to use in stages one and two, saying: “They are dangerous, really narrow.
“Think about it. There will be a really nervous peloton, everyone is fresh and wants to win that opening stage.
“When we get to the narrow roads, the problem is the stone walls,” – on either side of many of Yorkshire’s rural routes. “If everybody is fighting to be on the front, [with the walls] you can’t go left or right,” – or in the case of crashes – “there is nowhere to avoid them. That’s not good for the peloton’s safety, it would have been wiser to choose other routes.”
Like Cavendish, too, Kittel is very modest about his initial Tour targets, saying – as Cavendish invariably does – “if I win one stage this year, and finish the race, I’ll be happy. Riders’ careers can be made around winning just one Tour stage. It’s that difficult to do.”
And if he can take his one stage of the race in Harrogate, then Kittel will be making heads turn yet again from day one of the Tour.