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He’s been the dominant sprinter in cycling for the past two seasons but, as Marcel Kittel heads towards his first races of the 2015 season, he’s taking nothing for granted. The Giant-Alpecin rider talks green jerseys, rainbow bands, younger rivals and what it will take to defeat Sagan in the Tour’s points competition.
If 2013 was the breakthrough and 2014 the confirmation, the upcoming season could well be the year when Marcel Kittel makes further strides in terms of his superiority in the sport’s top sprints.
Now 26 years of age, the German is moving into what should be his peak period as a competitor. Stronger, more experienced and more confident than before, his momentum should carry him up a notch in 2015.
Still, despite quadruple stage victories in the past two Tours, Kittel has admitted to CyclingTips that he isn’t feeling confident about landing his first green jersey next July.
Although Tour organisers ASO have reworked the points structure and now increasingly favour those who win stages versus those who gather points through consistency – think of Kittel and Peter Sagan as the prime example of each – he still believes he needs more time to take the Maillot Vert.
“I would say in general the 2015 Tour is pretty hard,” he tells CyclingTips during a long interview. “There are a lot of difficult stages in it, even if there are still some opportunities for sprinters like me.
“We need to sit down as a team and talk about different scenarios, about the possibility of the green jersey. If there is a chance for me to go there [to target that], it must be a plan that John [Degenkolb] and me agree on.
“We will not start the race with both of us having the interest to go for that one green jersey. I think we are stronger if we divide our chances, as we did in the last two years, going more for stages than just thinking of winning the green jersey.”
Shared opportunities aside, Kittel said that he believes the 2015 Tour is ‘too difficult’ for him to seriously chase green. He’s a heavy rider who relies on immense power to win; that works well on flat stages, but makes things considerably more difficult for him when the road is undulating and gravity a factor.
“I always felt that we need a Tour that more suits my type, one that it is not too difficult,” he acknowledges. “One with more time trials and with less chances for Sagan to score points on difficult stages.”
Kittel plays down suggestions that the reworked points system could make a big difference and thus see him overtake Sagan. The Slovakian dominated the green jersey competition in 2013 and 2014, beating the runner up in each year by 97 and 149 points respectively.
Sagan clocked up over 400 points in each edition; in contrast, Kittel’s four stage wins and other placings earned him 222 points in both 2013 and 2014, and put him fourth in the ranking each time.
He said that he understood that somebody applied the new points system to the 2014 Tour results, seeking to determine if the final outcome would have been different had the new ASO rules already been in effect last July.
The result? No major changes, with Sagan still winning.
That said, he acknowledges that things are not necessarily that simple. “I think in the next Tour teams will really try to use the advantage of the new points system,” he explained. “I think that will also change in the end the ranking for the green jersey.
“Right now I don’t know how much it is an advantage for me. I have to take a look at it and see how it goes.”
“I will take as many opportunities as possible”
Even if the tough parcours of this year’s Tour make it difficult for him to land green, he still has plenty of opportunity to notch up big successes in 2015. He is clear that winning as often as possible in the sprints is a major focus for him; if he does, he will improve on his 15 victories in 2013 and 14 in 2014.
He’ll also hope that his tally will include another clutch of Grand Tour stage victories.
“The main objective for 2015 will be the sprints,” he said. “I will of course try to do races on the highest level and to take as many opportunities as possible to go for the victory there.
“That means the Tour, and also in the stage races that come along the way to that race and also those afterwards.”
The other races he is targeting will likely include the Vattenfalls Cyclassics event, Scheldeprijs – which he has won three times – and other one day events. He is also interested in Gent-Wevelgem, saying it is a race he will consider trying again in 2015.
He’s taking nothing for granted, though. Kittel states that he expects Mark Cavendish to return to his best in 2015, believing that the Briton can get back on track after a bad injury in last year’s Tour.
He also points out that young riders such as Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare are gaining speed and, importantly, that the duo are no longer team-mates and thus will both be contesting the sprints in the races they contest.
That adds an extra rival and also another sprint team; two factors which could complicate things.
“I think there are going to be a lot of challenging sprinters and teams,” he predicts. “There are a lot more sprinters now who can go for the win. I think that is going to be a challenging year for everyone.
“I am personally looking forward to it, but I am also curious that maybe someone new is coming. We have to wait and see.”
His wariness of possible breakthrough acts is a wise one; as Cavendish can testify, there are no guarantees that a dominant sprinter will remain at the top of the pile season after season. Kittel was a proven winner in smaller races but really burst onto the scene in 2013 when he clocked up those four Tour stage wins; he knows that someone else could do the same.
Because of that, he resolves to keep working hard and to try to maintain his edge over the others in the bunch.
“Overall, I think I had a very good year”
CyclingTips spoke to Kittel as the embers of 2014 started to fade and the new year rose on the horizon. The December talk represented the cusp of the old and new seasons, and gave the opportunity to both look forward and glance backwards. To anticipate and also to reflect.
Kittel is clear about the high point of 2014: his successful Tour de France campaign. He won the opening stage, wore the yellow jersey and then clocked up three more victories, including a repeat of the Champs Elysees triumph he had notched up one year earlier.
He also points to the Giro d’Italia as a success, although his two wins early on were followed by illness which ruled him out prior to the start of stage four.
He believes that this made things a little more complicated for him in the Tour.
“To be honest, during the Tour I think I was in a good shape, maybe in a very good shape, but not in exceptional shape,” he explains.
“After the Giro I was one and a half weeks off my bike because I was recovering from the virus. That took some condition from me and also it took some time to prepare already for the Tour.”
While he was clearly sprinting very well in the Tour, he suggests that his climbing was affected by the disruption to his schedule. That said, he doesn’t want to focus too much on this after having such a successful race.
“I really don’t want to complain at all. For me, it is all good, all fine, it worked great in the Tour. When I think back I don’t have anything I regret or what should be different, aside from the fact that I don’t want to be sick again in the preparation towards the Tour.”
“Overall, I think that I had a very good year. It is something I can be proud of,” he says.
Favouring rainbow over green
The Giant-Alpecin rider’s season will begin this month with the Santos Tour Down Under. He won the warm-up event, the Down Under Classic, in 2014 and will try to do so again. He’ll also search out opportunities in the stage race, although he doesn’t want to put any pressure on himself.
“If an opportunity comes, I would like to go for a sprint but if not, I will support the team,” he said. “I am there just for some races.
“I am really looking forward to Down Under as I know it is a race where there is absolutely no pressure. That for me is a really nice way to start into the new year, to get some race kilometres. Also, to be in the situation to have already some races when I come to Qatar. That race is really flat and, when it is not too windy, it should really be one for the sprinters.”
Further ahead, he is interested in finding out more about the world road race championships in Richmond in the US. He hasn’t yet seen the route, but is interested in the limited information he has thus far.
“I heard about it in recent weeks, about the profile…that it is not too difficult. That is has cobblestones. I have no real idea how it will be. I still want to see the profile with my own eyes.
“I can imagine making it a goal. However if it is a difficult course with a lot of altitude meters, then I would only see myself as support for John.”
That’s a decision that will be made later in the year, and most likely when he gets a chance to put tyre to tarmac and to do his own reconnaissance of the parcours.
Whether or not the route clicks for him this season, the notion of becoming world champion during his career is something which strongly appeals.
Asked what he would decide if he was told he could take one green jersey or one Maillot Arc en Ciel during his career, he leans towards the latter.
“If I could only win one…okay, that is a choice between equal scenarios,” he said, laughing at the thought of being put on the spot in an interview and having to make such a choice.
“I would go for the rainbow jersey. I hope it can come true in the future. You never know…but that is definitely something that is cool to win.”