He still has the hair and the high-wattage smile, but does Marcel Kittel still have the kick that made him cycling’s top sprinter in 2014? Etixx – Quick-Step made a big bet that he does.
The 27-year-old German made an acrimonious departure from his longtime home at Giant – Alpecin after illness and poor training knocked him out of the fast lane. With just one victory in 2015, Kittel went sailing straight into the open arms of Etixx.
He began the 2016 season with a bang, winning four stages and the Dubai Tour overall in his first 10 days of racing, but went off the rails at a cold, wet, and difficult Paris-Nice. Kittel bounced back with a stage win at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde and also claimed victory at Scheldeprijs, less than a week later. His ultimate goal is to regain the top spot as the fastest sprinter of them all, and he’s confident he’ll be king of the finishing kick at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
VeloNews joined a small group of journalists to catch up with the German this spring to chat about his dismal 2015 campaign, his confidence, and why he admires Tom Boonen.
Question: Last year was very difficult for you. What happened?
Marcel Kittel: The main reason was that I was sick for a very long time. Everything developed from that point onwards. I couldn’t train like I normally do, and then I couldn’t race much because I didn’t have the correct preparation. I missed that base that you get from racing a grand tour, and everything went backwards. I started to feel better at the Tour of Poland, but by then it was too late.
Q: After only one win in 2015, how important was it to get back to your winning ways early this season?
MK: After a hard season last year, I was incredibly happy to win again. There was pressure, but there is always pressure when you are a sprinter, so it was important to win as soon as possible. Victories always give you confidence. And more important was how the team is working. They gave me great lead-outs in Dubai and at Volta ao Algarve. There are always doubts after not being on the bike for so long. It was my worst season ever, so of course there are doubts.
Q: Was it easy to turn the page on 2015?
MK: Maybe it would be easier just to forget it, but I have tried to learn some lessons from it. I look at what happened and see how things went wrong, and try to take something positive from it. Well, I don’t want to get sick again!
Q: How did the decision unfold to leave Giant-Alpecin?
MK: It just came to a point where it wouldn’t work out for either party. It was a feeling that was growing within me along the year. In the end, we agreed to make it work out like this, and we can make a fresh start — everyone can go their own way. I think it was good for myself, and for the team.
Q: Do you come to Etixx as a replacement for Mark Cavendish?
MK: No, it’s not about comparing to each other. Every time there is a new sprinter, someone asks, “Are you the new Cavendish? The new Kittel?” You are just yourself, and you make your own way. I am not the replacement of Cavendish or anyone else; I am just myself. Every team has its own character, and I want to fit in here as best I can. So far, it’s been great.
Q: What attracted you to join Etixx?
MK: Well, it happened quickly. I wanted to leave Giant, and Etixx had an opening. This team has a big tradition in the classics, and Giant was focusing more on the GC, so there is room here for me to have riders to support me in the sprints in the grand tours. Every team has its own way of working. Here, everything is very professional, and very well organized. Everyone knows what his job is.
Q: Was there any bitterness about how things ended with Giant after being there since 2011?
MK: I cannot say everything was great. In every good relationship that ends badly, you can still have good memories, and be a bit sad about it. I had very big victories with that team, and we worked together very good for a long time. Now each of us is going in a different direction. We can still say hello to each other.
Q: What is your impression of racing with Tom Boonen?
MK: He is like a role model for me. If you look at how long he’s been racing his bike, he is still so motivated, and he still enjoys the work. I hope to have the same joy of riding six hours a day when I am at that point in my career. You can see Tom really enjoys it. He is having fun, and not everyone can do that every day.
Q: Will Boonen be helping you in the bunch sprints?
MK: I know Tom doesn’t have any problem with that. He already showed he could do that, riding with Cavendish before. He is a team player, but everyone knows he is the big captain, and he is going to race his races to win.
Q: Are sprinters getting frustrated by organizers who continue to make flat stages more difficult?
MK: Guys like me who are pure sprinters have a harder time. I don’t want to complain, because the Tour still has a few flat stages for the sprinters, but when you look at the Vuelta a España, it’s gotten so hard that it almost doesn’t make any sense to go there. Even Milano-Sanremo — the race is so fast and hard, it’s guys like Peter Sagan who have chances to win there.
Q: What are your views on the improvements to German cycling?
MK: Well, we have the Grand Départ of the 2017 Tour now, so that is very positive. Many people in Germany ride bikes and follow the sport, but the media doesn’t pay much attention to us. The other German riders and I are happy that German TV is back, and that was an important step. But all is not perfect, because Bayern Rundfarht, our last big professional stage race, will not be held in 2016 because there are not sponsors. And now they say the Deutschland Tour is coming back — that is good, but I wouldn’t say that everything is great in German cycling. We still miss a big German sponsor.