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BASTIA, France (VN) — In the blink of an eye, German Marcel Kittel transformed, on pro cycling’s biggest stage, from a rider for the future to the rider of the moment.
The handsome young Argos-Shimano sprinter, whose previous notable results included two consecutive wins at the cobbled sprinter’s semi-classic GP Scheldeprijs and a stage win at Paris-Nice, triumphed supreme on a chaotic, crash-marred finish in Bastia on the French island of Corsica Saturday, notching up a stage win that brought with it the first maillot jaune at this 100th Tour de France.
It was, without question, the biggest win for both the 25-year-old Kittel and his nascent Argos-Shimano squad, the former Skil-Shimano team enjoying its first season at the WorldTour level.
“I’m speechless,” Kittel said. “It’s unbelievable. I’m so happy. This is absolutely, by far, the greatest day in my whole life. A big thank you to everyone.”
Last year, as a Pro Continental team, Argos received a wildcard invitation to the Tour, but was unable to deliver on a stage win after Kittel abandoned early, suffering from both an intestinal bug and knee pain.
Instead, the team’s biggest accomplishment in 2012 came at the hands of German strongman John Degenkolb, who won the overall title of the UCI Europe Tour and five stages at the Vuelta a España.
Degenkolb followed up this year with an impressive stage win at the Giro d’Italia in May, while Kittel — a strong, fast sprinter in the mold of Mario Cipollini — won stages at Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Presidential Tour of Turkey, Tour of Picardie, and, most recently, Ster ZLM Toer, where he beat both Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) flat out in a field sprint.
Kittel didn’t have the chance to take on either sprinter during the chaotic stage 1 bunch sprint in Bastia; Cavendish had been caught out in a crash with 4km remaining, while Greipel suffered a mechanical that forced him to take a bike change.
Many blamed the massive pile-up at 4km to go on the race organizers’ decision to shift the finish back to its original spot, rather than stick with the impromptu 3km line designated when the Orica-GreenEdge bus sat stuck under the official finish-line gantry.
Both Kittel and Degenkolb, who served as his compatriot’s final leadout man, said they had heard nothing about the change to the 3km finish line due to problems with their race radios — problems that likely proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“I didn’t know that there was a bus on the finish line,” Kittel said. “I think at 6 or 7 km to the finish, the sports director was shouting. But it was so loud, with the helicopters and the spectators and the wheels, that you couldn’t really understand what he was saying.”
Kittel and Degenkolb represent two of the brightest young stars for Germany, a nation that saw its collective passion for pro cycling wane after the cascade of doping revelations of its former stars, including Jan Ullrich, Jörg Jaksche, Stefan Schumacher, Patrik Sinkewitz and Erik Zabel.
Kittel, in particular, has been both transparent — he described his stomach bug during last year’s Tour in somewhat graphic details — and outspoken about doping and the sins of the previous generation of pro riders.
After several riders, including Alberto Contador, Samuel Sanchez, and Miguel Indurain, expressed support for Lance Armstrong in the wake of USADA’s reasoned decision, Kittel took to Twitter, writing: “I feel sick when I read that Contador, Sanchez and Indurain still support Armstrong. How does someone want to be credible by saying that?” He added, “I mean, it makes it all worse. They should play their false game somewhere else. Or do they ride for money instead of joy?”
It is worth noting that Kittel was once implicated in the unusual practice of ultraviolet blood irradiation, or photo-oxidation therapy, in 2007 and 2008; the practice, said to fight bacterial infection and increase the oxygen-combining power of the blood and oxygen transportation to organs, was made illegal in January 2011. Kittel, who was 19 at the time, was one of several German athletes referred to a Dr. Andreas Franke during an Olympic training camp. The German Court of Arbitration for Sport ultimately cleared Kittel of any wrongdoing.
Kittel’s team has made a point of establishing itself as outspoken against doping. Before picking up oil company Argos as a title sponsor in April of last year, the Dutch team briefly went by the name Project 1T4i — an acronym of “one team for inspiration, integrity, improvement and innovation.”
After Saturday’s podium presentation in Bastia, Kittel was asked about his views on clean cycling, and what the jaded viewing public can believe from today’s peloton — a topic that once again reared its head after French newspaper Le Monde published an interview with Lance Armstrong under a dubious headline that read, “It’s impossible to win the Tour clean.” (Armstrong provided VeloNews with the transcript of the email interview, clarifying that he’d answered only that it had been impossible to win the Tour during his era, from 1999 through 2005.)
“I do think it’s possible to win the Tour clean, and to win stages in the Tour clean,” Kittel said Saturday afternoon. “I think stages like today show it’s possible, and that projects like my team show that in cycling there are a lot of people working on new ideas to make clean cycling. I’m proud of this win, as a sign that you can participate in the Tour and win in the Tour clean.”
Kittel said the win brought validation for the underdog squad. “I have to say a big, big thank you to my teammates,” he said. “They were so, so good today. They deserve this win.”
Then, he added, “I think I showed today that I belong with the best.”
With a Tour stage win to his name, and a yellow jersey across his shoulders, Kittel will now be hard-pressed to find anyone in the pro peloton who might disagree.