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A happy, healthy Marcel Kittel is ready to return...

Giro-bound Kittel is the spring’s best sprinter

Marcel Kittel is ready to return to grand tour racing after nearly a two-year absence, happy aboard his new, capable Etixx squad.

APELDOORN, The Netherlands (VN) — Marcel Kittel returns to grand tour racing after a disastrous year wracked by sickness. The Giro d’Italia, starting Friday, is his first since he won four stages and wore the yellow jersey in the 2014 Tour de France.

The blond German arrived in Apeldoorn and met with the press Thursday. Tomorrow, he will race a 9.8-kilometer time trial and Saturday, with the firepower of team Etixx – Quick-Step behind him, he will sprint for his first grand tour stage win since July 27, 2014.

“When I compare 2014 and now … This year was the best year ever in my career,” Kittel said. “I’m going in a good way. I don’t know if it’s possible to say I’m back to that shape. It’s hard to compare.”

Somewhere between sprinting to victory on the Champs-Élysées in Paris and the spring of 2015, it fell apart for the friendly German. Kittel won the People’s Choice Classic criterium prior to the Tour Down Under, but back in Europe, he fell sick. It led to a string of race cancellations, delays, and restarts. He hoped for a spot in the Tour, but former team Giant – Alpecin decided it was better to focus on John Degenkolb and Warren Barguil.

During the same time, team Etixx said goodbye to star sprinter Mark Cavendish and asked about Kittel. Kittel and Giant – Alpecin negotiated to end their agreement a year early, and Kittel found a new home and new motivation for the 2016 season.

“I had a good winter, mainly. I was never sick. I could focus on the new year,” Kittel said. “I had good support from my new team and teammates. My training went very well. That had a huge influence on the start of the season. That’s true, I can especially say that when, in 2015, everything went the opposite for me.”

Kittel galloped out of the gates with determination this 2016 season. He won two stages and the overall in the Dubai Tour and kept charging. He is the most successful WorldTour cyclist in terms of wins to date. He counts eight. Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) has seven and further down, cycling’s former top sprinter, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), has three.

“I don’t want to compare teams anymore, I don’t know if Mark Cavendish gets those questions, if he has to compare his new team to the old one where he was before. It’s not possible to compare them,” Kittel explained.

“I found that it was easy to make the connections and to work together with my teammates. When you look to the results we had this year, I can’t complain how the lead-out works. We’ve been successful in many races with the lead-out, but also in races like Scheldeprijs and the Tour de Romandie with some rides who never led-out before. We were able to react with confidence.”

It bodes well for the 27-year-old, with around seven sprint stages on tap in the 99th Giro d’Italia, including two in the Netherlands, where this year’s race starts. Stage 2 to Nijmegen and stage 3 to Arnhem suit fast finishers. Kittel named André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek – Segafredo), Elia Viviani (Sky), and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) as some of his rivals.

He hopes to last longer than in 2014, his last Giro. He won the first two stages in Belfast and in Dublin, and then had to abandon with sickness. But regardless, Kittel is ready to get back to his grand tour-winning ways.