The rise of Germany’s sprinter generation
When Tour organizer ASO announced that the Tour would be heading to Düsseldorf, Marcel Kittel immediately spoke up. He was proud to see the work of this new generation had been rewarded. Along with Tony Martin (five stage victories) and André Greipel (11 stage victories), Kittel is a symbol of German cycling at its peak.
If we add in John Degenkolb, who has yet to win at the Tour but has claimed victory in five major classics, including Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015, German riders are back to a place at the front of the peloton. Traditionally they’ve shone in time trials, as exemplified by four-time world TT champion Tony Martin and previously by Dietrich Thurau and Jan Ullrich. Today, however, Germany is better known for its sprinting prowess.
“They could be described as a spontaneous generation,” says Tom Mustroph, a journalist at Neues Deutschland. “They’ve very much got the build for sprinting, even though most youngsters are brought through to be time trial specialists.”
That description fits well with the career trajectory of Kittel. Now 29 and with nine Tour stage wins to his credit, the rider who has become almost unbeatable when he’s on form initially gained renown as a time trialist. He won the European under-23 title in 2009 and finished third at the world championship in the same category in 2010.
“German cyclists start young in races that are quite easy,” Mustroph says. “They learn about cycling by racing on the flats and winning sprints, not by climbing hills.”
While Kittel hails from Arnstadt, in what was once East Germany, Degenkolb comes from the neighboring town of Gera and Greipel is from Rostock. Erik Zabel, six times the Tour’s green jersey winner, hails from East Berlin. Their stories remind us of the excellence of East German riders, who were confined behind a wall, and to an amateur career, for 40 years.
Olaf Ludwig, for example, was a great sprinter and winner of the green jersey in 1990. He was only able to turn professional and experience the Tour de France at the end of his career. Countless others before him, and even many of his contemporaries, could only dream of doing so.
Then there was Zabel.
“With his six consecutive green jerseys won between 1996 to 2001 and his 12 stage victories, Erik Zabel is obviously an example,” Mustroph says. “His position could have been filled by any one of the dozens of racers who emerged in the East before him.”
The best example of East German tradition in the contemporary peloton is Greipel. The oldest of all the current German riders, he will celebrate his 35th birthday on July 16. The “Rostock Gorilla” began his career with Team Wiesenhof, another team from the East. There he learned his trade from Jens Heppner and Enrico Poitschke, now sport director at Bora-Hansgrohe. Greipel was a typical product of East German cycling during a period when young people benefited from the experience of veterans. The transmission of knowledge was a core principle in all of the clubs within a country that was more inspired by cycling and the famous Peace Race than it was by European football.
“In recent years, German riders have shone on the Tour’s roads,” Mustroph says. “Kittel, Greipel, Degenkolb, and Tony Martin are very popular athletes in Germany. They’ve won people’s hearts by being strong but, above all, by not being the focus of any doubt.”