Editor’s note: This article also appeared on ESPN.com.
PAU, France (VN) — Call it the Tour of Domination.
Through 12 stages of the three-week Tour de France, two teams have a stranglehold on cycling’s biggest race. And they don’t look to be in a sharing mood.
The first is Team Sky, which shows no signs of stopping until Paris. The British outfit won the opening stage in Düsseldorf with Geraint Thomas, and has held the yellow jersey ever since. With Chris Froome poised to consolidate the maillot jaune in two upcoming climbing stages in the Pyrénées on Thursday and Friday, there is a strong chance Sky could sweep the Tour start-to-finish without giving up the lead. That hasn’t happened since Eddy Merckx and a teammate shared it in 1970 on the Faema-Faemino team.
The other steamroller of this Tour is Marcel Kittel and his Belgian-based Quick-Step Floors team. Through seven sprint stages, the big blonde German ace has five wins. No one’s seen this level of domination in the sprints in a decade.
“This is just incredible,” Kittel beamed after he barreled into Pau victorious. “Everything is just going perfectly. We are not making any errors.”
That’s putting it mildly. The 29-year-old German is turning the dangerous, high-speed sprints into a one-man show.
How do you know when a sprinter is winning easily? He has time to post-up and throw his arms in the air to celebrate before crossing the line.
After he blasted to victory in Bergerac on Tuesday to win by an comfortable margin, his rivals finally bowed in reverence to Kittel’s supremacy.
“He’s the strongest rider here,” said compatriot John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), second on the day. “He’s got the best train. I don’t see anyone who can beat him man-on-man.”
“The only way we can win is if Kittel makes a mistake,” said Dutch rider Dylan Groenenwegen (LottoNL-Jumbo). “He is too strong.”
This year’s Tour run is sweet redemption for Kittel. Racing in his fifth Tour, Kittel is enjoying a revival that’s put him back on top of the sprint hierarchy.
Known for his charisma and Teutonic charm as much as his blistering speed, Kittel became an instant success in the heated sprint battles. In 2013, in only his second Tour start, he won the first stage to claim the yellow jersey, added two more victories, and then won the final sprint down the Champs-Élysées — the most prestigious sprint of the season among the cadre of fearless sprinters. Kittel was in sprinter heaven.
Kittel repeated the feat in 2014, book-ending a four-win Tour with opening-day success and a Paris repeat. Kittel was the undisputed King of Speed, eclipsing Mark Cavendish as the peloton’s fastest and most consistent winner.
Things just as quickly went off the rails for Kittel. In 2015, he fell ill with a virus and was overlooked when it came time to select the nine riders to start the Tour. For Kittel, it was more than a snub. He quickly changed teams to Belgian super-team Quick-Step, home to such riders as the now-retired Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, and Dan Martin. By 2016, he was back at the Tour, and won one stage.
Nothing, however, prepared him for what’s been happening this July. When he earned a photo-finish victory by just 6 millimeters in stage 7, karma was clearly shining down on Kittel.
Kittel has had a few things go his way. First off, Tour organizers are serving up a bounty of flat, sprint-friendly stages for the first time in several years. There have already been seven sprint stages — equal to last year’s allotment — and there are at least two, maybe three, more sprint finales to go.
Second, a few of his top rivals quickly jettisoned out of the race. Peter Sagan, the two-time world champion, was kicked out of the Tour in stage 4 for irregular sprinting. Mark Cavendish, the most successful sprinter in Tour history with 30 career stage wins, crashed out in that same stage. And French national champion Arnaud Démare abandoned in Sunday’s brutal mountain stage.
Without those three top riders — both Sagan and Démare won stages before they exited — Kittel is sprinting like he’s cutting through butter with a hot knife.
With 14 career Tour stage wins, he’s equaled and surpassed the all-time German record of 12 held by Erik Zabel since the 1990s.
“Marcel is oozing confidence right now,” said Quick-Step teammate Jack Bauer. “When you win, you get on a roll. Right now, the team is firing. We all have confidence in Marcel to finish off the job.”
With the mountains looming in the second half of the Tour, Kittel changes his focus. Paris awaits for a final-day romp, but first he has to survive the Pyrénées, the Massif Central, and the Alps. That’s no easy feat for the 6-foot-2, 185-pound German. The name of the game now for Kittel is survival.
Sprinters are a special breed. They’re built for speed and have no hope of winning the yellow jersey. They pack big legs and bigger accelerations that allow them to hit top speeds of 60 kph at the sharp end of flatter stage. When the road tilts upward, they’re quickly out of the frame and help drive home the gruppetto to the finish line.
If Kittel makes it to Paris, he is all but assured of another prize: the green points jersey.
Sagan won five in a row and was poised to match the record of six green jerseys — also held by Zabel. Now that the Slovakian is at home, it’s Kittel’s for the taking.
“This has already been an amazing Tour for us,” Kittel said. “Now we look to the mountains and all the suffering that is there. We now have Paris on our minds. It is far.”
For Kittel, Paris can’t come soon enough.