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Erik Zabel ventured onto the dirt for the Canyon...

Erik Zabel rates Tour of California’s top sprinters

Retired sprinter Erik Zabel analyzes the top sprinters on the start list for the Amgen Tour of California.

It may compete with the Giro d’Italia on the race calendar, but the Amgen Tour of California has managed to attract one of the strongest crops of sprinters of any race on the calendar. Fortunately, we crossed paths with Erik Zabel at the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride back in April and got his perspective on today’s top sprinters.

Zabel won the Tour de France’s green jersey a record six times in a row, although he later admitted to doping during his career. Nowadays, the retired sprint ace works as a team liaison for Canyon bikes and is still very tapped into the race scene. In fact, his son Rik is one of Marcel Kittel’s key lead-out riders on the Katusha-Alpecin team.

While we couldn’t discuss every favorite on the start list, we touched on some of the highlights the afternoon before the California gravel race where he, unfortunately, suffered three flats on the shorter “Wafer” route.

VeloNews: What are Mark Cavendish’s (Dimension Data) strengths and weaknesses?

Erik Zabel: His biggest strengths are his instincts, so his eye to see some open roads, just at the last moment, and then, of course, his super-aerodynamic position. He always was and is like a little cannonball. He can push even 300 watts less than some other guys and still beat them because of his super position on the bike.

Cav is still a brave guy, who is fighting for the best position.

His weakness, what happened this year, he crashed three times in a row. It’s bad, It’s never happened to him before. So, of course, he crashed sometimes, but not three times in a row. So I think it was very smart for him to take a break, recover completely. It’s hard to say if he’ll be right in shape for the Tour of California because he missed, of course, some miles of racing.

VN: And how about Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)?

EZ: His strength is that he can push over — what I heard — over 2,000 watts. Let’s say that for 10 or 15 seconds, which is amazing. If you bring him in the right position and he is free for the last 200-240 meters, he’s nearly impossible to beat when he’s in shape. His horsepower is unbelievable.

Sometimes he’s still a little bit too much of a gentleman. Like last year in the Tour, it doesn’t matter, he was so much stronger than the rest, so he could start his sprint from far behind, for most of them too far. He just looked last year, which side will be open, and then he took over. It looked so easy. I would say it was just amazing. But I would say sometimes his positioning is his weakness. That’s why he needs such a good lead-out train.

Fernando Gaviria

VN: What do you think of Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors)?

EZ: Honestly I don’t know him so good, I just follow him on the television. It seems to me that he is like a phenomenon, because he came from the track, two times world champion in the omnium. What we saw there was amazing. How he rode on the track, great, I would say that gives him also this eye for the situation on the road.

So he got a little bit in trouble back in Europe this year, crashed as well. I would say for the sprinters, it’s a tough competition. … Will Gaviria create some trouble for Kittel and Greipel and Cavendish? And sometimes this year, I saw him crashing in stupid situations. Normally that doesn’t happen to a rider from the track. Maybe he came back to Europe just in the last moment and he was still in a jet lag … I don’t know.

Gent-Wevelgem

VN: Of course we also have to talk about Peter Sagan. It’s hard to classify him — is he a pure sprinter?

EZ: No, no because then you would take away something from him. Of course, he beats the very best sprinters sometimes, it looks so easy like at the worlds in Qatar, that flat course and he won.

I would say it’s like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault in their time, sometimes they just said, ‘So today I feel like I do the sprint and I won as well.’ And today Sagan is on the same level.

And like Gent-Wevelgem when he won, he beat the best sprinters. It’s just that sometimes he can start very early, more than 300 meters to go, and then the super sprinters are just not able to beat him. In other races, he can finish together in a small group like 20 riders with the sprinters dropped and then he beats guys like Valverde or Alaphilippe. It’s hard to classify him.

VN: If you had the best team from your time to race against Sagan, how would you find a way to beat him?

EZ: In our time it was more open. Today, a team has a tactic and they really follow. If you have a sprinter, you let go some small group at the beginning, then you control the race, hold them between three and four minutes, and then chase them down towards the finish. In our time it was always that the sport director or the team manager would say we don’t want to spend too much time in the chase so better we would put a rider in the break. So we would say to the other teams we have a rider in the break so we wouldn’t work.

It seems to me at the big races, livestream or direct television from kilometer zero, like in the Tour, teams are more happy to chase because their jersey is visible on TV. And the commentators are talking about the team, you are in some way visible. That makes some sense marketing-wise. But to save some energy, really not.

Back to the question, I would say our sport directors would say, ‘It’s really not sure if someone from us can beat Sagan in the sprint so better try to escape earlier, or try to make them weak on the way during the finish.’ And then maybe riders, like they call them in Europe, finisseurs, they can escape in the last two ks. Give Sagan and his team a hard time and try to profit a little bit from the work. That would be our tactic, but it seems to me like those times are over. Which makes it sometimes a bit boring.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.