What's Cool In Road Cycling

How Marcel Kittel Won 14 Tour Sprints with Tactics, Power, and Position

Sprinters will do all that they can to survive mountain stages for the chance for sprint stage glory. So what did it take for Marcel Kittel to win or lose sprints at Le Tour?

kittel climb
Marcel Kittel getting over those climbs

Like prizefighters, sprinters are a special breed. Like GC contenders, their entire season is built around success at the Grand Tours, of which Le Tour is a very distant first amongst its rivals of Il Giro and La Vuelta. We’ve previously taken a look at how Marcel Kittel survived Le Tour stages to get to the sprints.

Combine that with the tendency in recent years for organizers to favour “exciting” stages that might animate the GC versus pure sprint stages, and the pressure on each sprint stage becomes even greater with reducing opportunities.

Throw in the argy-bargy of pack sprinting, positioning, road furniture, leadout trains. All of this is to say that the margin between GOAT and goat is truly razor-thin.

Marcel Kittel has been one of the dominant sprinters of the past decade, with 14 Tour stage wins in his career. Since his retirement, he has worked with my good friends Teun van Erp & Rob Lamberts to make his data available (van Erp et al. 2020). This is a treasure trove that allows us to really dissect the demands of sprinting, along with factors that lead to success or not winning.

The closest equivalent studies were by my Aussie colleagues, who studied the keys to Grand Tour success for a world-class sprinter (anonymized but obviously Mark Cavendish) (Menaspà et al. 2013) but didn’t have power data, and another one on multiple pro sprinters (Menaspà et al. 2015) but which did have power data.

quick-step train
A lot of power in that train

van Erp et al. 2021

For this analysis, the authors took both Kittel’s power data along with analyzing helicopter video of the sprints to determine positioning for both Kittel and his leadout trains.

What was also interesting was that, as Kittel rode 2013/14 with Argos/Giant-Shimano and 2016/17 with Quick-Step, this allowed the authors to see whether the different leadout trains affected Kittel’s positioning and sprinting style.

  • A reminder of Kittel’s FTP and weights for the 4 years were 452 W/90.0 kg, 465/90.0, 454/88.5, 461/89.0.
  • 21 sprint stages where Kittel was actively chasing the win were analyzed. One stage in 2017 lacked helicopter footage, and in two stages (1 each in 2014 and 2017) Kittel stopped sprinting for the win. In those latter stages, analysis stopped at the point Kittel stopped sprinting.
  • Max power output (5, 10, 15 s) for the final sprint were analyzed, along with the entire sprint depending on when Kittel opened up.
  • Helicopter footage was used to analyze Kittel and his train’s number and positions at 10, 5, 3, 2, 1.5, 1 min, and 30 and 15 s before the finish.
  • Mean PO was calculated for the following durations: 10-5 min, 5-3, 3-2, 2-1.5, 1.5-1, 1-0.5 min, and 30-15 and 15-0 s.
  • A reminder that Shimano was solely dedicated to stage wins and Kittel in 2013/14, whereas at Quick-Step Kittel shared leadership with a GC rider who placed 9th and 6th overall in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

cavendish kittel schendeprijs
Cavendish and Kittel in the final surge in the Scheldeprijs 2016

Findings: The Final Surge
14 stage wins out of 21 attempts in 4 years (8/10 with Shimano, 6/11 with Quick-Step) is a stunning run of success, truly marking the apex performances for a world-class sprinter. What did we find out from this analysis?

  • Sprints ranged from 7-17 s duration, with mean PO from 1026-1576 W. That’s not peak but mean! This was done at mean cadences of 103-121 rpm with a 53/11 max gear, and speeds from 52-73 kmh.
  • There was a trend towards team differences in the size of the leadout train throughout all time windows, with fewer riders at Quick-Step. This could reflect the opposing demands of protecting a GC rider there, whereas Shimano was all about Kittel.
  • Tactics differed, with Kittel and team typically riding further back in the pack at Quick-Step throughout all time windows. Pack positioning is a fine balance between drafting and having to surge around corners and road furniture, but Quick-Step Kittel seemed to have found a sweeter sweet spot further back, with several time windows having quite a bit lower mean PO.
  • The tradeoff for being a bit further seemed to have been a larger jump prior to launching the full sprint, with much higher 30-15 s mean PO at Quick-Step.
  • No major differences were seen between won and lost sprints for all variables, including number of teammates, positioning, and power data. The only exception was for being further from the front at 30 s to go in lost sprints. Overall, this seems to reflect the luck and positioning of pack sprints.
  • Interestingly, max PO and mean PO were largely similar throughout the three week Tour, suggesting that despite deep fatigue, sprinting performance remained.

tour 17
It was close between Marcel Kittel and Edvald Boasson Hagen in the 2017 Tour de France stage 7

Photo Finish

Want more proof that “The Tour is the Tour” and how dominant Kittel was during these years? Compared to the 6 pro sprinters studied by Menaspà (2015), Kittel’s peak power was higher by 489 W and mean power was 209 W higher. The average (of the 19 completed sprints) peak 1 s PO of 1737 W is not far off those of track sprinters, and is completed in a fatigued state at the end of a long stage and after up to three weeks into the Tour. Mean PO for these 19 sprints averaged 1411 W for ~13 s.

Interestingly, in both Kittel and also in the Menaspà data, the difference between peak and mean PO was similar at roughly 23%, suggesting that Kittel’s dominance was likely from the higher peak, rather than the ability to sustain a relatively higher PO for the sprint.

Thanks to Marcel Kittel for the data, and I hope you enjoyed this insight into the characteristics of a world-class sprinter at the very top of his game!

Ride fast and have fun!

References

Menaspà P, Abbiss CR, Martin DT (2013) Performance Analysis of a World-Class Sprinter During Cycling Grand Tours. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 8:336–340. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.8.3.336

Menaspà P, Quod M, Martin D, et al (2015) Physical Demands of Sprinting in Professional Road Cycling. Int J Sports Med 36:1058–1062. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0035-1554697

van Erp T, Kittel M, Lamberts RP (2020) Sprint Tactics in the Tour de France: A Case Study of a World-Class Sprinter (Part II). Int J Sports Physiol Perform 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2020-0701

 

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