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Kittel, Katusha part ways in surprise split

Announcement comes after series of inconsistent performances and simmering tension with team.

Marcel Kittel, the struggling German sprinter, is hitting the brakes on his racing career.

In a rare mid-season exit, the 30-year-old star abruptly announced Thursday he is walking away from his contract with Katusha-Alpecin, which was set to expire at the end of this season.

“On my request, Team Katusha-Alpecin and I have mutually decided an early termination of my current contract,” Kittel said. “In the last two months, I have had the feeling of being exhausted. At this moment, I am not able to train and race at the highest level. For this reason, I have decided to take a break and take time for myself, think about my goals and make a plan for my future.”

Kittel made the announcement via his personal website Thursday morning, and Katusha-Alpecin also confirmed the news with a statement.

“It is with sadness that we have agreed with Marcel’s request to step away from the team and from racing,” said Katusha-Alpecin general manager José Azevedo. “We understand the situation in which Marcel is in, and we fully support him in this difficult time.”

Kittel did not reveal if he was struggling with a specific health issue, or whether there was tension within the Katusha-Alpecin bus.

Kittel’s abrupt exit from the professional peloton comes following months of inconsistent results and struggles both on and off the bike for the German superstar.

Kittel only won once so far in 2019, in February at the Mallorca Challenge, and notched only two wins during the entire 2018 season. That was far below his 14-win season in 2017, including five stages at the Tour de France.

Team officials have expressed their frustration with Kittel on more than a few occasions. During last year’s Tour de France, when Kittel abandoned without a victory, sport director Dimitri Konyshev questioned Kittel’s resolve. And following a disappointing Scheldeprijs in April, a race Kittel had won on five occasions, sport director Dirk Demol said Kittel was clearly from his best and called for a direct meeting between the rider and staff.

It’s uncertain if Kittel’s decision comes in the wake of a subsequent confrontation within the team. Kittel insisted Thursday it was his decision alone to take a break from racing.

Kittel admitted he was struggling with training and delivering results, and said it was best for him to step back from the rigorous demands of professional racing to recalibrate. Kittel vowed to return to racing but did not reveal more specific details of why he’s leaving racing mid-season or when he might try to return.

“I would like to ride and race again in the future, and I have to work out a plan to be able to reach this goal,” Kittel said. “This is the biggest challenge of my career, and I am accepting it.”

Kittel, who boasts more than 90 victories on his palmares, raced three seasons on a small German continental team before joining Skil-Shimano in 2011. He quickly made an impact in the sprints, and won a stage in his grand tour debut in the 2011 Vuelta a España.

After winning stages in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, he made a high-profile transfer to Etixx-Quick-Step in 2016. He joined Katusha-Alpecin in 2018 after Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere needed to make room on his budget to keep other top riders, including emerging sprinter Fernando Gaviria.

Kittel, long a vocal critic of doping in cycling, also recently expressed dismay at recent revelations this winter of an extensive blood-doping ring partially based in his German hometown of Erfurt. The scandal, largely centered around Nordic skiers, has also netted two professional cyclists, including former Skil-Shimano teammate Georg Preidler. Kittel wrote a long message on his personal website, citing the scandal as a “slap in the face” for clean cyclists.

It’s unclear if Kittel’s sudden departure is a consequence of physical problems, burn-out, conflicts with his team or dismay with recent doping scandals. Perhaps it’s a bit of everything.

Here is the remainder of Kittel’s statement:

“It was for me a long decision process where I raised a lot of questions about how and where I want to go as a person and athlete and what is really important to me. I love cycling and my passion for this beautiful sport is never gone, but I also know what it requires from me and what I need to do to be successful. I believe that everyone has his strengths and weaknesses and that it is an ongoing process to deal with them within a team to be strong and successful.

“At this point I’d like to thank the team for the last 1.5 years and their support. Especially I’d like to thank the team staff. From the bottom of my heart I can say that they are the best and hardest working people that I’ve ever seen. I’m sorry that I couldn’t fuel your passion with more wins and results. I’d like to thank the sponsors and partners as well that keep believing in the team with their support and knowledge.

“I’ve taken this decision based on my experience that changes lead you to new paths and opportunities. Despite all the insecurities I’ve got confidence that I ultimately will find new chances and challenges. From now on I will put my happiness and joy above everything and seek ways to find this also in my future. I’m very excited about what is going to come. I would like to ride and race again in the future and I have to work out a plan to be able to reach this goal.

“This is the biggest challenge of my career and I’m accepting it.”