ORBETELLO, Italy (VN) — The bombshell last week that Marcel Kittel was walking away from professional cycling came as a surprise to everyone, including his own team.
While there was brewing tension and frustration between Katusha-Alpecin and its star sprinter over mixed results since Kittel joined in 2018, no one expected the German ace to abruptly pull the plug on racing mid-season.
“Of course we are surprised,” Katusha-Alpecin boss José Azevedo told VeloNews. “No one expected this.”
Kittel was Katusha-Alpecin’s big signing for the 2018 season, when the Russian-backed WorldTour team penned the German superstar to a two-year deal to deliver wins in the Tour de France and select one-day classics. Things never gelled, and sport directors were openly criticizing Kittel’s work ethic and drive dating back to last year’s disappointing Tour, when he was time cut in the Alps in stage 11 without scoring a win.
Things came to a head this spring when Kittel was struggling once again to finish races. In April, he was dropped at Scheldeprijs on the flat Belgian classic he had won five times. The team pulled Kittel out of planned starts at the Tour de Yorkshire and Amgen Tour of California when it was obvious he was not ready to race.
Last week, Kittel made the decision to step away from racing, citing a lack of drive and other personal reasons.
“One day he came to us and explained his situation and he told us that he did not feel ready to race at this moment, that he needed to take a break and think about his future,” Azevedo said. “Of course we can only respect his decision, and we are here if he needs something from our side.”
Azevedo said Kittel made the decision on his own, and that the team respects his desire to reconsider his future in professional cycling.
“It was a decision by Marcel,” he said. “He felt he needed a break. It is nothing we created. He needed time to think about the future. It doesn’t make sense to keep racing when he does not want to.”
Despite separating on what appeared to be relatively good terms, Kittel’s sudden departure leaves a big hole at the center of the team. Katusha-Alpecin had invested a lot of financial resources as well as personal equity in building up a sprint train around the German ace that boasts 91 victories on his palmares.
A hole to fill
Kittel’s exit will mean more opportunities for riders who were helping him in the sprints, including Marco Haller, Rick Zabel and Jens Debusschere. But his departure also leaves the team without a marquee sprinter for the upcoming the Tour de France just weeks away.
“When you lose one of your leaders, one of the riders whom you expect to win, of course you are disappointed,” Azevedo continued. “When we signed a contract for 2018 and 2019, we never expected this. We signed Marcel to be one of our leaders. We believed in him, and we expected results. We had the whole team behind him with full support. We got to this point and it was his decision. We cannot press a rider to compete when they feel they are not ready.”
Azevedo did not comment on whispers that Kittel was not putting in the training hours and hard work necessary to be able to win at the highest levels of the WorldTour. With an ever competitive sprinter field, Kittel was not posting the results he did earlier in his career.
“When you look at the palmares of the past years, Marcel was one of the best sprinters. I have told him many times that he is the fastest,” Azevedo said. “Of course, it is no secret that you need to be 100 percent to win. The level is so high, and we see there are now many riders who can win.
Would Katusha-Alpecin welcome Kittel back if and when the German decides he might want to race again?
“Only Marcel can answer that,” Azevedo said. “I don’t know what wants to do in the future. He told us he needs a break. He also told us he still likes cycling.”