Kittel yearning for return to life in the fast lane

The floppy hair and high-voltage smile are still there, but the only thing Marcel Kittel is worried about right now is returning to the fast lane

CALPE, Spain (VN) — The floppy hair and high-voltage smile are still there, but the only thing Marcel Kittel is worried about right now is returning to the fast lane.

After a nearly-blank 2015, with only win all season, Kittel is hoping his new Etixx-Quick-Step team will help him recapture his position atop the sprinter hierarchy.

“I can learn from the things that went wrong, but I am only looking ahead,” Kittel told journalists Friday. “The hardest part was watching others win the races that I was winning before. The only thing that I am thinking about is returning to the races, and start to win again. I cannot wait for the first races.”

Kittel huddled with journalists at Etixx-Quick-Step’s media day, the first time he’s told his side of the story for months. Last year was a disaster for Kittel, and the 27-year-old German patiently answered questions about his great disappearing act.

“I have fully recovered from my illness,” he said. “I am feeling good on the bike. I am excited and motivated to race for my new team. From the first day I came here, I knew I made the right decision. It’s a new challenge for me, and it keeps my motivation high.”

For two years, Kittel was unstoppable in the sprints, with eight Tour de France stage wins and the yellow jersey to boot, then suddenly last year, the music stopped. He says his troubles began early last season, when he felt ill at the Santos Tour Down Under. Rather that easing back, he went too hard at the Tour of Qatar, and ended up developing a type of mononucleosis, and the only remedy was rest. Kittel could only fret on the sidelines.

By the time Kittel returned in early May, he could barely finish races, and when Giant-Alpecin left him off the Tour de France team, Kittel’s relationship with his professional home since 2011 changed permanently. He felt like he wasn’t being supported enough, and the team was frustrated by a perceived lack of drive on the part of Kittel.

Things unraveled quickly, setting the stage for one of the biggest transfers of 2015-16. Kittel came to Etixx-Quick-Step just as arch-rival Mark Cavendish was making his move to join Dimension Data.

“There was nothing personal. It was simply time for a change,” Kittel said matter of factly. “I am not a replacement for Cavendish. I am Marcel Kittel, and I only want to get back to winning races like I am used to.”

With a new team comes new pressure, but Kittel said he is ready for that. Etixx-Quick-Step made a big bet on Kittel, signing him to a two-year deal that sees the German grocery store chain Lidl sign on as a co-sponsor. He wants to climb back atop the winner’s podium that was once familiar territory, and put to bed any doubts of his ability to win sprints again.

“It’s really important to start the season on a good note,” he said. “I am very motivated to win again. The problems of 2015 are behind me.”

His early season program is about easing back into the peloton, working out the kinks of a new lead-out train, with the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France as the top goals. The Olympic Games’ route is too hilly for his liking, and the world championships in Qatar are too far away. He needs to win races now, and will debut the Tour of Dubai, then return to Europe with the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice. No Milano-Sanremo or anything too fancy right now.

“I will only race Scheldeprijs for the classics,” Kittel said. “I want to build toward the Giro, and I don’t want to be too stressed with Milano-Sanremo.”

Kittel will have plenty of pressure without Milano-Sanremo, and he knows it. When Cavendish left, he took ace lead-out man Mark Renshaw with him to Dimension Data. Kittel didn’t bring his lead-out man Tom Veelers, who stayed at Giant-Alpecin. The Etixx-Quick-Step train is a work in progress. Max Richeze is penciled in as the last man for Kittel, but nothing is set in stone. Tony Martin, Nikolas Maes, Fabio Sabatini, and even Tom Boonen could all play a part in Kittel’s new train.

“We want to leave it open right now,” Kittel said of his sprint support. “We can move different riders into different roles, and see what works best. I know the team will support me. I am the one who must show up with the legs.”

For 2013 and 2014, Kittel was unstoppable in the sprints. He wants to hit the repeat button, and leave 2015 in the rear-view mirror for good.