It’s a battle of the world’s top sprinters except that it’s not. The upcoming Amgen Tour of California will showcase Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish but nobody knows exactly how bright these stars will shine.
Normally, this would be considered an exciting lineup of fast-men but these are far from normal circumstances. All three riders have been struggling, with Kittel the worse of the group.
Sagan had a truly lackluster Spring, failing to make an impact in any of the Classics, especially the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He was pulled before the start of the recent Liege Bastogne-Liege to go rest up before California.
He needed the break but what, exactly, will he do with it? He’s won 16 stages at the Tour of California and yet it’s fair to wonder if he’s capable of taking a sprint victory right now. In his autobiography, he repeats one phrase over and over – “Why so serious?” Well, sponsors, team management and coaches get real serious when you’re paid as a superstar yet fail to win races.
Sure, it’s been an off year and plenty of top riders have one. The laidback, chill attitude of California suits Sagan perfectly. (Hell, he’s talked of buying a home in the state.) Perhaps the sunshine and joy vibe will re-energize Sagan, inspiring him to win a few stages and head to the Tour de France in July feeling loose and confident again. Then again, perhaps not.
Kittel appears to be a basket-case on wheels. There have been questions about his professionalism, weight, health, motivations, team spirit and leadership abilities. About the only thing that remains unquestioned is his hair — it’s still fabulouly sculpted.. Kittel has also arrived in California almost incognito, needing a reprieve from the critics and the pressures and whatever demons plague him.
The man won five stages in the Tour de France a few years back but he hasn’t won since February and has generally been found at the back of the peloton. His Katusha-Alpecin team seem to have little idea just how things went so far off the rails. Can he piece something together in California that he can build on for later in the season? No idea whatsoever. UPDATE: His team just decided to pull Kittel from the race, stating that he is still not healthy enough to race.
That brings us to Mark Cavendish, who was once Boy Racer but is now Mr. Epstein-Barr. That’s the name of the nasty virus that has pretty much wiped out a good chuck of two seasons for the Manx man. It was a stop-start-stop scenario, thinking the virus was gone only to learn it hadn’t. Mix in several high speed crashes and you have a script for several disaster movies.
Cavendish still claims he can get back to winning big races and it’s dangerous to count him out. California will be the re-launch site for another run at the Tour de France where he is chasing Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stages wins. Cav has thirty and would love nothing better than to surpass the Cannibal’s win total. Is Eddy worried Cavendish will suddenly rediscover that blistering acceleration in California? Don’t think so.
Who benefits from all these travails, set-backs and power outages? Look no further than the fourth big sprinter in the Amgen Tour of California: Trek Segafredo’s John Degenkolb. He seems to be trending up and has a 2nd place in Gent–Wevelgem to his name this year. Could the German come away with a sprint win or two in California? More than possible.