BELFAST, Northern Ireland (VN) — As if there was any doubt.
The opening road stage of the 97th Giro d’Italia ended as just everyone expected, with Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) punching the accelerator and blasting to what will likely be the first of many sprint victories during this year’s corsa rosa.
When asked if he’s the world’s best sprinter, the big German ace just shrugged his shoulders, but it’s clear that he is a man among boys here at this Giro.
“It’s your job to make the ranking,” Kittel said after winning his first career Giro stage. “It’s a big problem to become arrogant, because it’s not easy to beat [my rivals]. And we will keep working on that.”
Kittel, who turns 26 Sunday, has emerged as the first serious challenger to Mark Cavendish’s crown as the fastest man in cycling. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step star is skipping the Giro this year for the first time since 2010, and racing the Amgen Tour of California instead.
Saturday’s victory rounded out Kittel’s “triple crown,” giving him wins in all three grand tours. He won a stage at the 2011 Vuelta a España, and then four stages in last year’s Tour de France, where he dominated the sprints. Despite his growing supremacy, he’s still not hunting points jerseys.
“That’s something for the future. Right now I am only going to focus on stage wins,” Kittel said. “I am really proud I could win stages in all three grand tours now. It’s a big relief as well, because it’s a nice goal to have. It makes me especially proud because some of the riders on the team have also won there with me as well.”
Kittel isn’t expected to ride all the way to Trieste, when the Giro ends June 1, but even if he pulls the plug before the Dolomites, he will be racking up plenty of wins.
Without Cavendish or André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Kittel stands head and shoulders above the sprinters’ field here at the Giro. In Sunday’s finale in Dublin, Kittel will be fending off veterans who are losing their kick and youngsters still looking for theirs.
One of those young guns is Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), who inherited the pink jersey from overnight leader Svein Tuft. The self-styled “Bling” could only muster eighth in Saturday’s sprint.
Matthews conceded that Kittel is “the fastest guy in the bunch, and he showed that today.”
“Whether it’s warm or cold, he’ll be there in the flat sprints, so we’ll need some hills,” he added. “I want to try to be around him, second or third, and conserve some energy for stages five and six that suit me better. I will be focusing on them the next few stages.”
Another younger sprinter looking to make an impact will be French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), who is still hunting for his first stage win in a grand tour.
“It’s a bit disappointing for me,” Bouhanni said at the line. “Kittel was unbeatable today. I made a long sprint, and I went too soon to the front. I hope to have more chances.”
On the other end of the spectrum are riders such as Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), whose last grand-tour win came in the 2011 Tour, and Alessandro Petacchi (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who is poised to become the oldest rider to win a Giro stage, if he can manage it, at 40.
Farrar was 10th into Belfast, and Petacchi said he would not be contesting the sprints until the Giro returns to Italy.
Kittel’s authority in the bunch sprints is obviously making him a very hot commodity, not only among the female fans who constantly ask him to pose for photos, but also with teams.
Giant-Shimano still needs to confirm its sponsorship for 2015, prompting rumors that Kittel could fly the coop, with reported links to Tinkoff-Saxo, but Kittel said he’s happy where he is.
“It’s true, the contract is up at the end of the year, but we can always extend a contract,” Kittel said. “I think we are in a good way, so I am not worried. I trust them [team management], as they trust us, so that’s all I can say.”
With Giant-Shimano’s well-oiled sprint machine, Kittel should be king of the Giro sprints, at least as long as he decides to hang around.