IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE, Marcel Kittel’s ambitions at the 2017 Tour de France — and perhaps the trajectory of his entire career — were thrown into chaos on an innocuous stretch of French tarmac.
A touch of wheels, a screech of tires, and the big German sprinter crashed to the asphalt, tearing apart the green points competition jersey that he wore. Kittel slowly remounted his bike and chased back to the group. Blood poured from his knee, he tucked an ice pack onto his injured shoulder, and he grimaced with every stroke of the pedals. As the peloton accelerated into the alpine roads, Kittel lagged behind. Midway through the stage, he quit.
It was a bitter pill for the German, who was untouchable in the sprints prior to the crash. Kittel amassed five stage wins and looked uncatchable in the points competition — all he had to do was finish in Paris.
A year after that fateful day, Kittel is no longer haunted by the crash.
“I do not look back with anger on that day — it was a situation that wasn’t under my control,” Kittel told VeloNews. “Okay, I crashed out of the Tour, but I crashed out with five stage wins in my pocket. I gave it my best.
Marcel Kittel’s sporting life saw major changes after that fateful day in July. In late 2017 his Quick-Step team decided not to renew his contract for 2018; instead the team chose up-and-comer Fernando Gaviria to lead its sprint ambitions. The decision separated Kittel from the talented lead-out train — the men referred to themselves as the “Wolfpack”— that helped propel him to those five Tour victories.
In the winter, Kittel signed on to race with Katusha-Alpecin, replacing that team’s marquee sprinter, Alexander Kristoff. Throughout the early months of 2018 Kittel struggled to gel with his new lead out. He went winless at the Middle East races before snatching two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico. He then dropped out of Belgium’s Scheldeprijs, the race he has won five times. Such results were not up to Kittel’s standards.
Kittel said he is not worried about the slow start. Switching teams often brings a shakeup to a sprinter’s routine, he said. Finding the right rhythm with new teammates simply takes time.
“I never had the expectation, or thought that everything was going to work perfectly,” he said. “To make a group come together, to make winning your goal, you have to work together like a routine. We make plans and analyze how we did and try to get better. That takes a while.”
And that’s where Marcel Kittel finds himself in the final days before the 2018 Tour de France. He is not the favorite to win the Tour’s sprint prize — the undisputed champion of versatility, Peter Sagan, holds that honor. He would love to someday win the points prize, but realizes that his size disadvantage in the mountains will likely make that impossible. These days fast finishers who can also climb, like Sagan or Michael Matthews — who won the green jersey last year — are the ones to win green. For Kittel, the 2018 Tour de France is all about stage victories.
“The green jersey is a big one on my bucket list, but I think my best approach is to keep it a little bit on the sidelines,” he said. “I need to focus on stage victories because that is where I can set very clear goals.”
Of course, Kittel faces a robust cadre of young and hungry sprinters who want nothing more than to beat him. Gaviria comes to the Tour at the head of Quick-Step’s train, while Dutch wonder Dylan Groenewegen will make the start for LottoNL-Jumbo.
At 30, Kittel is hardly old. By sprinter standards, however, he is inching toward the age at which the legs begin to slow. Kittel believes his experience gives him an edge over the crop of young guns.
“When you get older, the advantage you get is that you know more or less what to expect from the final, and you can judge relatively quickly how things will go,” he said. “Someone newer to sprinting, it’s all about how cool he stays or if he gets nervous when things get crazy.”
Will Marcel Kittel’s experience take him to more Tour stage victories? It’s the storyline to follow within this year’s sprinter battle.