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Kittel takes morale-boosting win in Spain

The big German speedster is aiming to return to the top of the sprinter ranks this season.

A win is a win, and sprinters will take them whenever and wherever they can.

Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) surged back into the winner’s column Sunday in the Mallorca Challenge for the first time in nearly a year. The German speedster ended a winless drought dating back to March and Tirreno-Adriatico.

“This is more than just winning a stage here — it is also a little comeback after last year,” Kittel said. “I am very, very happy.”

The Mallorca Challenge is a four-day series of one-day races that opens the Spanish calendar and sees many of the top pros opening up their legs for the first time in a new season. Sunday’s finale at Trofeo Palma featured a punchy third-category climb with about 30 kilometers to go. Kittel got up and over it with the pacing help from teammates, and finished off the sprint to take the emotional victory.

For Kittel, it might as well been a grand tour stage.

“The team protected me so well,” Kittel said. “They stayed with me during the difficult climb and I’m very happy.”

The victory couldn’t come soon enough for Kittel.

The 30-year-old German struggled during his move from Deceuninck-Quick-Step to Katusha last season, and won only two races all season long. Both of them came during Tirreno-Adriatico last March.

By the Tour de France, the pressure was mounting following his smashing 2017 Tour, yet Kittel could not deliver the goods. Troubles within Katusha’s lead-out train didn’t help — the team lost services of Marco Haller and Tony Martin throughout different points of the season — and a public criticism of Kittel from sport director Dmitri Konyshev, who accused Kittel of playing with his smart phone during pre-stage meetings, only poured gas on the fire.

Kittel missed the time cut in stage 11 to La Rosiére high in the French Alps, a shadow of the sprinter who won five Tour stages in 2017 before crashing out.

This year, Kittel seems intent on regaining his spot as the fastest man in the peloton. It won’t be easy, especially with threats from the likes of Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), and Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Emirates).

Kittel has been training on the Spanish island the past few weeks, and re-conned the final climb alone four days ago just to be ready for a chance at the win. Climbs have never been big Kittel’s forte, but he managed to stay with the pack over the steep hump and then regroup for a run to the line.

A revamped Katusha-Alpecin approaches the 2019 season with big ambitions. The team saw eight riders leave, including Martin to Jumbo-Visma, and brings on six new riders. The team is hoping Rick Zabel and a healthy Marco Haller will be Kittel’s key men in the bunch sprints. New arrivals like Jens Debusschere and Ruben Guerreiro can also help out in key moments.

Everyone inside the Katusha organization hopes the win is a harbinger of more good things to come. No one more so than Kittel himself.

“I could feel that my legs were good, and I’m very happy that I could give this victory to my teammates as well as the confidence it gives me at the start of the season,” he said. “It’s very important.”

Up next are sprint opportunities at the Clásica Almería (February 17) and the UAE Tour (February 24-March 2). More wins would only confirm Kittel is back.