There will be no shortage of sprinters out to thwart Mark Cavendish into Harrogate on Saturday, not least Marcel Kittel. Nick Westby spoke to Koen de Kort, Kittel’s lead-out man.
Marcel Kittel has already been the star attraction in Yorkshire once this year.
When Giant-Shimano became the first professional team to visit the county to ride the opening two stages of the 2014 Tour de France, the German sprinter with the slicked-back blonde hair was the main draw.
He arrived in a team of six riders and a multitude of support staff, yet it was he who drew all the questions at the press conference, and he whose features the camera lens focused on.
Koen de Kort sat by his side at the press briefing, and on his shoulder through Kettlewell, Kidstones and Reeth, without so much as a glance in his direction from many of the assembled media and onlookers. Yet without someone like de Kort, Kittel would not be as famous.
For a top sprinter is nothing without an equally commendable lead-out man and that is exactly what Dutchman de Kort has become. Every time a sprinter is interviewed after winning a race they immediately thank their team and particularly the man on whose wheel they peeled off to get to the line.
Mark Cavendish – the big name they all want to beat into Harrogate on Saturday – has Mark Renshaw at Omega Pharma QuickStep, where he once had Matt Goss at HTC. Peter Sagan, who has won the green jersey for top sprinter in each of the last two Tours, can win stages on his own, but generally, the lead-out man is crucial.
And Kittel, a winner of four stages in a breakthrough Tour de France last year, is reliant on de Kort.
“I’ve developed into the role of lead-out man,” said de Kort, 31, a junior of prodigious talent, who has evolved down the years. “In last year’s Tour, the last two victories for Marcel I was the final lead-out man for him and when John Degenkolb won five stages in the Vuelta a Espana I was leading him out every time.
“I hope to pick up that role again in this year’s Tour de France.”
The fight between lead-out men to get their man to the line first is one that rages from anything up to 2km out to 200m to go, and can be just as intense.
“It’s a battle within itself,” continued de Kort.
“It’s more tactical than pure power, you have to always look around to see what’s happening around you and try to make the right split-second decision and then still be strong enough to launch the sprinter at the right speed at the right time.
“It’s a really interesting battle, there’s some good lead-out guys.”
De Kort was speaking from the comfort of the Weetwood Hotel in Leeds, where Giant-Shimano were based for their three days of reconnaissance.
Such is the importance of sprinting to the team that they twice rode the final few kilometres along The Stray in Harrogate, where Saturday’s sprint will be decided.
The best practice might be racing, but it pays to be as well-prepared as possible.
“Tour de France is a different level so we have to make sure we have looked at the course, know where the possibilities are, whether there’s space on the left side or a big corner on the right etcetera,” he said.
“It’s very important to know that and to know where the opportunities will come.”
As well as preparation and experience, an unspoken intuition between sprinter and lead-out man is of equal importance.
De Kort continued: “Marcel and I have raced together so often that I always know what he wants and where he is at all times and I always make space so he can follow me.
“We work together so often that we know what to do.
“There’s some conversation but in the final reckoning there’s not that much. The only conversation is when Marcel tells me to ‘go’ because he can see first if someone is coming past him so he can coach me. Otherwise, he won’t say anything else.”
If De Kort and Kittel get it right on Saturday, then they will have a yellow jersey to protect on stage two from York to Sheffield on Sunday.
Not one for the sprinters, the willowy de Kort has already seen first-hand the difficulties that lie ahead in that closing 60km, particularly on Jenkin Road, a gradient so steep he admitted to being tempted to get off his bike and push.
By then, though, Giant-Shimano hope to have had a big say on Yorkshire’s Tour de France.
“It would be nice to poop the Cavendish party,” concluded de Kort.
“Every sprinter will want it, but Cavendish will want it really bad. Hopefully, we can have the better of him.”