SAINT-MALO, France (VN) — It was a quiet weekday in the cold Belgian spring, and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) wandered through team buses, alone.
There wasn’t any fanfare, and there wasn’t any talk of a yellow jersey, or of Tour sprint wins. He was coming off eight days away from the bike due to illness, and had resumed racing at the VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, or Three Days of De Panne.
“I restarted training, and could do one block of training. Of course, you miss a lot, and you lose a lot. I have to see how I feel. It’s difficult to say now,” Kittel said of his sprinting form on that morning in late March. On a stage Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won with a solo attack, Kittel dropped off the back and wasn’t a factor.
But a week later, he won the G.P. Scheldeprijs for the second time, beating Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), straight up. His confidence returning, he said of the Tour, “That’s where I want to be. I want to develop as a sprinter. I want to get the big wins.”
Just a few months later, he’s gotten them: two Tour stages, and a yellow jersey to boot. He won stage 1 in Corsica, his first-ever Tour de France win, and pulled on the maillot jaune as a result.
“I’m speechless,” Kittel said after stage 1. “It’s unbelievable. I’m so happy. This is absolutely, by far, the greatest day in my whole life. A big thank you to everyone.”
And after a blustery stage 10, from Saint Gildas des Bois to Saint Malo, Kittel is the most successful sprinter thus far at this 100th Tour de France, putting his doubts about the big show — at which he suffered and abandoned in 2012 — to rest.
“It’s something I was really looking forward to — we have that moment that all the sprinters are there and nobody crashed [meaning his sprint rivals]. I’m very proud today that I could show how fast I am,” he said.
The win is the second for Argos at this Tour, both by Kittel. But the big German, 25, isn’t one to take the credit for his efforts. With its team-first, anti-doping ideals, Argos is one of this Tour’s feel-good revelations. In a year, the Dutch squad has gone from being competitive across the European calendar in its debut 2012 campaign to finally achieving Tour success in its second season here.
“I’m very happy how we care for each other, not only on the bike, but also off the bike … I just enjoy being together with the boys,” said Kittel. “The guys worked really great. They had to ride a long time in the wind [on Tuesday] — I’m just very proud in the way we stick together. We work together. The boys brought me in the last 1,000 meters to the front, and it was actually very easy to just sit there and wait for the sprint.”
What’s more, Kittel said, the peloton seems to regard the scrappy Dutch team a bit differently now, after its Tour success.
“They look different [at] us now. If you compare it to one year ago, I think there’s a big change already. It’s still very hard to fight for your position, especially in the Tour de France, if you want to be at the front.”
Asked if the loss was a disappointment, Cavendish said it was incorrect to characterize a Kittel win as an upset — perhaps the biggest compliment he could pay to the budding sprinter.
“I think it’s disrespectful to make it out like it’s a big loss for us because Kittel is an incredible bike rider,” Cavendish said. “His team rides really well … I think [my] team could have done some things differently but we will talk about that later.”