Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Velo magazine, the Power Issue. With Marcel Kittel a double stage winner in the 2013 Tour de France, we look back at the German’s attitude toward sprinting early in his second professional season.
Power, in its simplest terms, is the rate at which energy is transferred. Power is watching the massive German sprinter, Marcel Kittel — all 6-feet-2 inches, 180 pounds of him — rocket toward the line, grimacing in the rain, his huge frame heaving.
Kittel is big, and not in a big-for-a-cyclist way. Just 24, he looks like Ivan Drago of “Rocky” fame: tall, broad-shouldered, a plume of well-coiffed blond hair. He possesses a frame that could have gone either way — cyclist or footballer. In this world, he’s a fine sprinter, one whose top end is enough to win against the very best.
“I like the sprint. I like the action. I like it when it’s exciting. If there is something going on in the last kilometer, that’s for me,” Kittel told VeloNews over a relaxed, hour-long interview at the 2012 Amgen Tour of California.
A rider as large as Kittel doesn’t cut a lean figure on a climb. There is no dancing uphill, no souplesse, but instead survival. In his first race on American soil, Kittel suffered badly on the hilly course, a falling anchor from the back of the peloton. He ultimately abandoned and never was able to challenge Peter Sagan for a sprint. But of course, there are bigger races that better suit him in the months ahead.
Learning to win
Kittel hopped on a bike at the age of 13. His father was a cyclist, and he asked if something could be arranged to get him on a bike. Something, thankfully, was arranged. He jumped on a mountain bike.
“The idea was that it’s smart to first learn a little bit of technique on the bike,” Kittel said. “In my club there was a trainer, and he did mountain bike training. My first race was a mountain bike race. And no, I did not win.”
He enrolled in one of Germany’s elite sport schools. “When you take that step, then your goal is to become a pro later. You’re really going in the direction of high-level sports,” he said. His first team was the European Continental squad Thüringer Energie, where he spent four years. In 2011 he signed with Skil-Shimano, now Argos-Shimano.
Kittel came in as a time-trial specialist, putting his massive frame to work against the clock. His pedigree is credible: he’s an under-23 European champion in the discipline. But management had other ideas — Kittel, it seemed, could be a top-flight sprinter.
“They wanted to make me a sprinter,” Kittel said. “So I changed a lot in training. And they gave me a very good program. I had a pretty fast first success, and I was in a flow. It was a fantastic season,” he said of his neo-pro 2011 season, when he netted 17 wins — second only to Philippe Gilbert — and earned Velo’s Rookie of the Year award.
Kittel’s first win in 2011 came the day after he was assigned as a leadout man. It was at the Tour de Langkawi, and the team reversed roles to give Kittel the chance to flex.
“It was a big surprise for me that I won it,” he said. “I think it was a big push for my confidence and for myself. From that point on, it was like … if I was in a flow, I had enough confidence to do it again.”
So, he did it again, 16 more times that season, including a stage of the Vuelta a España. But that was then. Kittel and his team could sit back in the bunch last year, as other teams sewed races back together for a sprint finish. This year [in 2012], there are no free rides in most races, though the Tour de France should be different, as the bigger budget teams angle their men — Cavendish, Renshaw and Greipel — into position.
Sprinters bear a hefty burden; teammates do a lot of heavy lifting, getting their man into position to win a race, not to mention the dangers they face in the final kilometer. Remember the opening week of this year’s Giro d’Italia? It’s an acute pressure, and something a top sprinter is always aware of. Kittel is no different.
“Of course, when the guys work for me, I have to give them the best result possible,” he said. “If there is a sprint, I want to be there and I want to win it.”
It’s a fascinating notion — thinking about a second-year pro who has to get accustomed to being one of the fastest men in the world. Earlier this year, Kittel won two stages at the Tour of Oman, a stage at Three Days of De Panne and the Flanders classic Scheldeprijs in a rainy, nasty sprint.
“It was for me a really important win and I’m very proud of it,” Kittel said of the Scheldeprijs semi-classic — a race previously won by Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar, and Robbie McEwen. “I’m really proud that my name is also on that list now. I said at the end of last year that I want to do well at the big races, and show that I can win there. That was for me, an important step.”
It signals a logical, Boonen-like progression: Emerge as a sprinter, but use a big frame (and big power) down the line in the classics. Kittel has said his focus is on the sprints now, but that he may look toward the cobbles in the future.
Sprinters, particularly good ones, have a sort of arrogance. They have to. The battle for position takes place well before anyone clips in. Kittel, though, seems a bit different. He knows he’s becoming somewhat famous back home, but it doesn’t get through his poof of blond hair.
“It’s very nice if it’s like that,” Kittel said. “But it’s not the reason I do cycling — to have a lot of attention of beautiful girls, ride for attention of the media and money. It’s just something very special if you can earn money with a hobby, with something that you really love to do. Other people have to go to a factory everyday, but we are cyclists. We travel a lot. We have fun, we enjoy it, and that’s really something special and it’s a special life we can live. I think we should appreciate that.”
No matter where in the world a rider might find himself, winning is hard. But few would argue the fact that it’s most difficult for three weeks in July.
The Tour is the benchmark — for general classification riders, climbers and sprinters. Win there, and you can win anywhere. Kittel will spend July trying to win at his first Tour.
“Every rider wants to win, it’s very hard,” he said. “I really hope that I can challenge Cavendish in the sprint. I want to see where I am as a sprinter. It’s the Tour.” On this, Kittel appears reserved, but not scared.
“It’s my first Tour de France. And for me, it’s something really special. Of course I’m very excited and very motivated.”
How does Kittel rank himself among his peers? “When I’m in good condition, I think [I’m one of the three fastest],” he said. And the other two? “That’s a nice question — definitely Cavendish and … Greipel?” Few would disagree, except maybe Peter Sagan.
It’s impossible for sprinters to talk about sprinting without mentioning Cavendish. You can beat Cavendish, certainly, but he is the metric by which modern sprinters are measured, and must measure themselves.
“He always has a very strong team,” Kittel said. “Almost every leadout is perfect. If you want to win against Cavendish, you need for sure a very strong team and you have to be on his wheel. If you are two positions back, you aren’t going to catch him.”
In mid-June, Kittel won, straight up, against Cavendish, at the Dutch-Belgian Ster ZLM Toer — not once, but twice — proving he can beat him. Now it’s just a matter of boxing him out on the sport’s gleaming stage. Here, things bode well for the big German. The sprint game is obviously about speed, but it’s also about positioning and holding a line, reserving space. In this department, Kittel is covered.
“I think you should not be afraid of the other sprinters. You need to be physically stronger and to make clear your position and that nobody can ride there at the moment,” he said. It’s his second year as a true sprinter. And his first Tour. And he has a legitimate chance to win stages. “I’m not nervous. I have nothing to lose. I just wait for the moment and we’ll see,” he said.
VeloNews asked him in May what the field might expect to see from him for years to come. His response? “I hope my rear wheel.”
Sounds like he’ll be a sprinter after all.