Not everybody love Scheldeprijs. It’s a flat windy race, stuck mid-week between two races of much greater prestige, a time when most fans are either basking in the afterglow of De Ronde or looking ahead to Paris-Roubaix.
The race is 200km long and part of the Flanders Classics organisation group, but it stands apart from its stablemate – races like Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Scheldeprijs lacks the hills and the cobbles that make those races selective.
In recent years the race’s main obstacle has seemingly been the pile-ups that decimate the field as riders fight for places before the finish in the town of Schoten, north-east of Antwerp. Things were changed this year, with an alternate route designed to prevent a repeat of last year’s mass crash in the final kilometre.
Other than that, it’s the lack of obstacles that make the race notable. Aside from adverse weather conditions and the usual bad luck of ill-timed mechanicals or crashes, Scheldeprijs is almost always destined to end in a sprint – in fact the race is informally known as the ‘Sprinter’s World Championships’.
And today it did. Whether it was down to the redesign, good luck, or just a more careful peloton, there were no major crashes on the run-in, so we saw a clean sprint. A clean sprint featuring the generation’s top three sprinters – Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, and Marcel Kittel.
Six years may separate them, but Cavendish and Greipel came to prominence at the same time, battling to be top dog at HTC-Columbia between 2008 and 2010. Cavendish, armed with his low-profile aero style, came out on top, taking 15 Tour de France stage wins as the German was consigned to “shitty small races” (Cav’s words, not mine).
During that time Greipel won the Tour Down Under twice, along with four stages of the Vuelta a España and two at the Giro d’Italia. 2011’s move to Omega Pharma-Lotto saw him ride the Tour, finally. He won a stage, but Cavendish was better, taking three and later winning gold to Greipel’s bronze at the World Championships in Copenhagen.
Meanwhile, ProContinental team Argos-Shimano were nurturing their own sprinting talent. Kittel, another big tall German (both are 10cm taller than Cavendish), was busy winning a variety of Europe Tour races, also tasting victory at his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta.
At the 2012 Tour it was a draw as both Greipel and Cavendish won three stages, while Kittel left the race after five stages due to illness. The next two years would see him usurp the title of ‘World’s Best Sprinter’ though.
In 2013 he took four stages including Paris, a stage which Cavendish had claimed ownership of, having won it four years in a row before. The Brit won two stages that year, Greipel just one.
2014 saw Kittel win another four, including Paris once again. Cav crashed out early and Greipel took another solitary win. It was also the final year of his Scheldeprijs three-peat, though none of those races saw the all of the ‘big three’ take the start.
Of course we all know what happened last season. It was Kittel’s annus horribilis, as he was plagued by a virus which saw him take only one win all year. Cavendish took Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and a host of stages at the smaller races he had once derided Greipel for having to ride.
Meanwhile Greipel, at the age of 32, took advantage to win four Tour stages to Cavendish’s one. The tables had finally turned.
While Kittel may have won this race three times, he had never before faced off against his two great sprint rivals here before. That has been something of an oddity, but you can file it alongside the fact that the trio only have one Tour de France green jersey between them.
Back to today though, and it was Kittel who triumphed, taking a record fourth win at the race. He sprinted from the front, and was unassailable. Cavendish, hidden behind him, was able to draw alongside him but couldn’t move ahead. Meanwhile Greipel came in behind the duo, unable to get near either of them. On the line Kittel took it by just half a wheel.
Today’s race was the first time that the calendars of the three men have lined up so far this season. The next, should all go to plan, will be in July. The last meeting of the year, most probably, will be at the actual World Championships, in pan-flat Qatar.
In 2016 it’s round one to Kittel, just.
The sprint, in their own words
Cavendish – “I was a little bit late to go actually. When I saw 150 metres to go I thought there was still 50 more metres so I thought I better go now.”
Greipel – “Because of the tailwind in the final road to the finish line I’d planned to take the initiative.”
Kittel – “I started my sprint with around 200 meters to go. I made a small mistake, sprinting in a gear which was too big at first, so I had to shift up. It wasn’t easy, but I gave my all.”
Cavendish – “When I came alongside Kittel I thought I had the better of him. He was just able to pull that little bit more out; it was something I used to be able to do but not anymore. I’ve lost by closer this year – it is how it is.”
Kittel – “I saw Cavendish come around and tried to shift down again, but it didn’t work. Suddenly my legs got really soft and I just tried to hold it as good as possible to the finish. I managed to keep my advantage.”
Greipel – “But then [when it came to the sprint] it became clear that I can’t compete with Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel at the moment. I know I can sprint better than I did but today is today and the best rider won.”