The Tour de France is often referred to as the unofficial world championship for sprinters, and last year the concluding stage of the race on the famous Champs-Elysees lived up to that lofty title.
The four across the line (in finishing order) were Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan. In reverse order, they also made up the top four placings in the points classification, a result of their combined eight stage wins and shared desire for intermediary points during the race.
Kittel's Paris victory was his fourth in his breakthrough Tour de France. The Argos-Shimano man's wins marked him as the previous month's most successful sprinter, but it was Cannondale's Sagan who left in the green jersey as the most consistent point hound.
A year on, this quartet is set to contest these honours again at the 2014 Tour.
Though they are not the only men who are looking to make their mark in the sprints (of which there are about nine, maybe 10 likely available stages to them this year), their past achievements and continuing good form signify them as ones to watch. As 2003 green jersey winner Baden Cooke told the July 2014 issue of Procycling magazine, "I don't think we've ever seen a group of sprinters like this before."
Now riding under the banner of Giant-Shimano, Kittel's advancement as one of cycling's biggest stars has continued apace in 2014.
He followed up early-season wins at the Dubai Tour with first place in the Belgian classic Scheldeprijs. Prior to illness forcing him to pull out, he also took two stages at the beginning of the Giro d'Italia.
Those victories during the Giro's sojourn to Ireland did a lot to reinforce the notion Kittel might be close to cementing his status as the sport's best sprinter (if such a thing can be measured).
The first on Stage 2 was pure dominance, as he finished by more than a couple of bike-lengths ahead of FDJ.fr's Nacer Bouhanni. Arguably more impressive was the following day's win, when Kittel beat Sky's Ben Swift at the last possible moment after it looked like Kittel had been left too far behind the final push.
His speed is frightening at times. He has a well-honed sense for the concluding moments of a race, not to mention team-mates to back him. After a recent win at Ster ZLM Toer, he took to social media to thank them:
Wet sprint today but a great leadout & teamspirit of @GiantShimano!! Happy to win the first sprint since the Giro. Thanks boys!! :))— Marcel Kittel (@marcelkittel) June 19, 2014
Giant-Shimano's success together is not coincidental. The line-up when Kittel is involved is predominantly focused on sprint success. At the upcoming Tour de France, it features familiar names like Tom Veelers and the similarly quick John Degenkolb. Not involved is future general classification hopeful Warren Barguil, though that is partly with an eye on the Frenchman's own development.
This writer briefly spoke to Kittel's fellow Giant-Shimano rider Ramon Sinkeldam at last August's RideLondon-Surrey Classic about the team's ability to fulfill its objectives. The Dutchman was fresh from his own success in the day's mountain and sprint awards.
He said, "It goes a few years back, when we started Argos-Shimano company. We are really focused on the sprints and work together, really perfectly. You see it in results. Of course in the Tour de France, but also the smaller races."
Kittel and Giant-Shimano may be gathering in strength, but they would do well to have it all their own way in July.
Leading the response to their success last year have been Cavendish and his Omega Pharma—Quick-Step team.
With the two he recorded in 2013, the former green jersey winner took his tally of Tour de France stage wins since 2008 to 25. Considering his previous sprint superiority, though, it has led many to wonder if Kittel's bettering of him has now moved the German ahead in the pecking order.
Cavendish admitted to the Daily Telegraph's Jonathan Liew last November he is beginning to feel his age (he turned 29 in May): "I don’t have the punch, I have to work on my sprint now, which I didn’t have to do before." Fatigue may have been a factor in France a year ago too, after he successfully completed (he won the points classification) Giro d'Italia just over a month prior.
In the face of Giant-Shimano's near-relentless efforts—not to mention good work from Cannondale and Lotto-Belisol, more on them later—OPQS members found themselves wanting at times in their first Tour with the Manx Missile. As is his way, Cavendish was not one for dishing out blame. Even so, the need for improvements in their collective finishing ability was clearly realised.
Joining him and existing OPQS men like Niki Terpstra and Matteo Trentin for this year's second grand tour will be the notable additions of former rival Alessandro Petacchi and ex-HTC henchman Mark Renshaw.
The reunion with Renshaw has unsurprisingly harked back to the successful, in-sync earlier days of Cavendish's career. Meanwhile, the explosive Petacchi has provided an extra edge to OPQS' lead-out work.
As buildup to the Tour, the season up to this point has mostly gone well. Every significant stage race Cavendish has entered has yielded at least one stage win. Even the days he has missed out could prove to be good learning experiences.
For instance, after being pipped twice at the Tour of Turkey by Cannondale's Elia Viviani, Cavendish came back to comfortably claim the final stage (his fourth of the race) and the points classification in the process.
His form has been good. Having decided against defending his British national road race championship following a bout with bronchitis, he plans for his health to be good too.
For him to claim the yellow jersey at next Saturday's opening stage finish in Harrogate, England (his mother's former home), he knows it could come down to beating Kittel.
The figures of Greipel and Sagan should feature prominently too—if not then, at some point over the three weeks.
Lotto-Belisol's Greipel has not been without wins this year. However, the collarbone injuries he suffered at Gent-Wevelgem in late March have ensured his season has been the most disrupted of this highly tipped quartet.
His win on Stage 6 last year was notable proof yet again of his ability to win at the highest level. As the eldest (31) of this four, though, questions will be asked about his competitiveness moving forward. Even when he was in his late 20s, beating Cavendish was not a frequent occurrence.
Greipel is also part of a team that will be partly focused on the GC ambitions of Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
Sagan's green jersey successes in 2012 and 2013 have famously stemmed from his all-round consistency. He has the speed to keep up with the fast men, if not beat them, plus the versatility to hoover up points on tougher days in the climbs.
Save for winning E3 Harelbeke, the Slovak did not quite fulfill his lofty spring ambitions. Yet, a further five stage wins and the points classifications in Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour of California and the recent Tour de Suisse have been solid preparations for the summer.
The Cannondale rider's canniness will stand him in good stead for a green jersey three-peat. Stage wins will be harder to predict, both for him and his aforementioned rivals.
As noted, others will harbour ambitions here too.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ.fr) are two announced by their teams at the time of writing who will be worth tracking in those hectic final kilometres. Should things not go to plan for their respective team leaders, Degenkolb and Petacchi could look to be in the mix too.
The battle for the yellow jersey could be among the most captivating of recent years. But on those days where the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador ease off slightly, the battle between cycling's finest sprinters for their own glory should be, at least, just as entertaining.