De Kort interview: Backing Kittel and Degenkolb in cycling’s biggest races
He’s a fast finisher in his own right, but Dutchman Koen de Kort has built his career around helping others. In recent years he’s dedicated himself to ensuring fellow Giant Shimano riders Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb take as many wins as possible, and has been part of some considerable successes. He talks to CyclingTips about that role, about Kittel’s personality and likely career trajectory, and explains why he believes it might yet be too early to expect the German to take the green jersey in 2015.
Although Marcel Kittel has taken four stage wins in each of the past two Tours de France, marking him out as currently the best sprinter in cycling, team-mate Koen de Kort has said he doesn’t expect him to go for the Maillot Vert next year.
Kittel’s chances of taking the green jersey have been boosted by a change in rules for the Tour, with organisers ASO announcing recently that stage winners would get proportionately more points than they did in recent years. This in turn was interpreted as a move to narrow the gap between three-time Maillot Vert winner Peter Sagan, who has dominated the competition through consistency, and the pure sprinters.
Despite that, de Kort thinks it’s likely that Kittel will wait longer before making the green jersey his big focus. The reason? The team’s structure plus John Degenkolb’s own strength in fast finishes.
“I actually think that with having both John and Marcel on the same team, it is going to be pretty difficult to go for the green jersey together,” he told CyclingTips. “If both of these riders start the Tour again, I think we will not go for the green jersey because that would mean we would probably have John Degenkolb, one of the best sprinters in the world doing the leadout for maybe the best sprinter in the world.
“It is kind of crazy for him to do that all Tour long and not be able to get a result himself, because that is basically what it would come down to.
“As a result, I think we have to try to keep doing it the same way as we did this year, picking some stages for Marcel and picking some stages for John. That said, I guess in the event that either one of them doesn’t really want to go and do the Tour de France or maybe has an injury or something, then maybe that [the green jersey] could become a goal.”
Kittel came up short in his first Tour in 2012, exiting the race very early on due to illness. Both 2013 and 2014 were far better, and thanks to his performances he marked himself out as the fastest man in cycling.
That status was further underlined by his dominant wins on days two and three of this year’s Giro d’Italia, particularly the way he recovered from being badly positioned on the second of those stages. He was a long, long way back with 500 metres to go, but unleashed a very rapid burst to overhaul his rivals and triumph.
For reasons such as those, De Kort is confident that there is a lot more to come. “It is almost unbelievable to think about what he could achieve in the future. He is still young yet he has already won so much.
“You could see his speed a couple of times when he was in incredible shape…like in the Giro, for example. It was unbelievable how strong he was and from how far back he came to still win stages. If he manages to get that form consistently through the season, I think he can win an enormous amount of races. He can still get better and better.”
At this point in time, though, de Kort doesn’t see him following the example of some other sprinters such as Sean Kelly, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen in transitioning to the top Classics. He said that might happen down the line, but in the meantime Scheldeprijs – which Kittel has won the past three years – and Gent-Wevelgem are the likely extent of his one day targets.
Instead, he feels that the Grand Tours will occupy the bulk of his focus.
“I think in his mind he has already decided what he wants to do,” he explained. “He knows what he is good at and he knows how he has to train to get to the right shape. I think he will be very realistic in picking his goals, but at the same time knowing how to get to the perfect shape there.
“I think we can expect quite a few more seasons quite similar to this one and last one.”
“He is a very, very likeable guy”
The nature of sprinters’ personalities, the confidence they need to have in their abilities and the machismo that appears to be part of that wing of cycling can often produce complex characters.
Mark Cavendish can be an entertaining, engaging rider – usually when he’s winning – but also someone who, when in different moods, can have others tiptoeing around him, scared to say the wrong thing. Peter Sagan can be curt and dismissive, while certain others can also be difficult at times to deal with.
Kittel appears to be a little more balanced, something that de Kort says ensures a real team sprit and cohesion when the Giant-Shimano squad are trying to put him in the right position.
“He is a great guy to have on the team. You see him after the finish; he’s always thanking his team-mates and always saying how good his team was. He truly believes that and he truly acts like that to us as well, which makes our job so much easier,” he said.
“It is a pleasure to work for him as you know he is grateful and he will thank you for it. We don’t only get paid to do it, we actually feel that we want to do it. I guess that is the big difference. He is a very, very likeable guy.”
De Kort gives an example of how Kittel recently repaid those who backed him in July. “He brought us to the Nürburgring race circuit. Marcel took the Tour de France team there for two days, racing the cars around.
“That was his present for us working for him in the Tour de France. I guess it kind of says what kind of person he is. Some other riders would maybe buy just an easy present, but he went all in and tried to have a couple of days away with us and make it special and memorable.”
That said, he underlined that it’s not all backslaps and smiles. “When he loses, you can see he is angry,” he clarifies. “But I think he tries to find the problems in himself first before he talks about us and what we could do better.
“He is not yelling after the finish, telling us what we did wrong. He would rather yell out what he did wrong, and then later say something to us.
“Obviously if you are a sprinter you have to be a bit of an explosive type. I think there is no way around it. He definitely has that in him, but we see it almost never. In that regard he is a bit different to most of the other big-name sprinters.”
On Degenkolb: “It would be great if we helped him to win one of the monuments”
De Kort has dedicated himself to helping out the team and is one of the best lead out riders in the business. As a result he gets less personal results than he might otherwise do, but he’s able to gauge his own performances and to take satisfaction from them.
Looking back at 2014, he weights things up and pronounces himself happy with how it went for him. “I think personally I had a pretty high level the whole year around,” he said. “I have got used to and am very happy with the role I have on the team now. Trying to make other riders better, whether that is using my experience to teach the younger riders some things or doing a sprint leadout or that sort of thing.
“I think my personal level was definitely high enough the whole season to do a good job with that. I believe I showed that, especially in the Tour and the Vuelta, where I think I was quite a big part in all the victories we got there with the sprinters.”
He accepts that it’s always possible to point out some races where he had hoped to be better, but in general he says he can be pleased with how the year went.
Asked to name a particular high point, he thinks back to an evening in Paris in July. “Marcel winning again on the Champs Elysees was the highlight,” he said without pause.
“As a sprinter and as a sprinters’ team, winning on the Champs Elysees is the biggest one, and doing that two years in a row was special.
“That also wasn’t the first victory in the Tour. We won quite a lot of stages in the beginning, then it took quite a long time to win a stage again. As a result of that, it felt like a huge relief when it came.”
He’s now travelled to Australia, where he spends the off-season with his Australian girlfriend Kaitlin Bell. De Kort describes it as a great place to train and to hang out, and he can soak up the good weather while building up for 2015.
He’ll then return to his base in Girona and focus on what he hopes will be a strong season ahead. “I think my role is going to be pretty similar to what I have done this year,” he said.
“I hope to be a bit better in the Classics and take up a little bit of a bigger role there, helping John Degenkolb out. It would be great if we helped him to win one of the monuments.
“He has been pretty close in Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders and especially Paris-Roubaix last year. He has won some big races already, but a monument is lacking still.
“I really hope I can be a big part of that next season. And after that, it is on to the Grand Tours for me again, and helping out these two sprinters and trying to get them stage wins again.
“I am not sure whether I am only going to be the Tour, or if it is going to be the Tour and Vuelta combination again. They will decide that later. But my main goal will be the Tour de France again, and trying to help the guys as much as possible.”