His annus horribilis is a fast-fading memory at this point in time. Marcel Kittel had already taken six wins this season prior to starting Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, but hitting the line first in Scholten 207.8 kilometres later was the biggest confirmation yet: he’s back.
“This is definitely the biggest this year, if you look at the sprinters who here here at the start,” the German smiled, speaking to a small cluster of reporters in the post-race press conference.
“We only missed a few of the other sprinters. I think the podium is great and, to be on top there, I am really, really happy. I am also really happy to get a win for the team, as it is an important week…especially for this team.”
Etixx-QuickStep traditionally targets the northern Classics but things haven’t worked out as planned thus far. While he’s not part of the usual squad for those races, a win in Scheldeprijs is the perfect confidence boost heading into Paris-Roubaix.
It’s something which could give Tom Boonen an added incentive to take a record fifth win on Sunday.
But for Kittel too, this win is very important. He’d an awful season in 2015, losing the position of the top sprinter in cycling he previously earned via eight Tour de France stage wins in two years.
His sole victories were the People’s Choice Classic in Australia in January and stage one of the Tour of Poland. Indeed, so modest were his results that he was left off the Giant-Alpecin team for the Tour de France.
This exclusion contributed to the decision to leave the team and to move to Etixx-QuickStep.
Thus far things have gone perfectly to plan with the Belgian squad.
“I think it is always good to get a win, especially winning Scheldeprijs with a new team, with a new leadout, in a year after 2015 which was difficult for me,” said Kittel.
“It gives me confidence again. I knew already in De Panne that my legs were good. After the second stage where I missed out on the win, I tried the next day to go again for the victory.
“That would also have been my mentality for Scheldeprijs if I was not the winner today. So I am really happy that it worked. I can go with confidence to the next races.”
“Important to never give up”
The old saying explains things well: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Going from the top of cycling to the difficulties of last season was sobering for Kittel, but it also makes his triumphs this season all the more satisfying.
So what did he learn during that time, and did the 2015 frustrations change him in any way?
“I think the most important lesson for me was to learn to never give up,” he said. “To try to do some changes. In the end it all worked very well for me.”
Pushed as to what those changes were, he referenced his move to Etixx-QuickStep. But there was more. “Also for myself, to try a couple of new things,” he explained.
“I was over the winter in Girona in Spain, to really invest more time also in training in the sun. That was definitely also a reason why my shape was really good from the beginning of the year. I worked really hard for it. I guess that is one part of the success.”
Kittel is reluctant to talk about the differences between Giant-Alpecin and Etixx-QuickStep. He said that he wouldn’t be drawn in to comparisons between the two, feeling that it would be unfair.
However he does give some subtle feedback.
“They are definitely different in terms of riders, in terms of their way of working,” he stated. “I think that is normal – not every office has the same way of working. And that is the same for my team.
“At the moment I am really, really happy to have a team around me that works very professionally, supports me 100 percent. That is what I want. That is also what I am looking for, in the end to get the best out of my talent and out of the talent of the other guys that we have in the team. And to get the victories.”
Another new signing is Dan Martin, a climber who moved across from Cannondale. In a recent interview with CyclingTips he told that there is a big success rate on the squad and that the winning mentality tends to rub off on other riders, helping them to achieve too.
CyclingTips asked Kittel if he felt less individual pressure as so many of the Etixx-QuickStep riders are strong enough to chase victories in races.
“I think when the moment is there, then the pressure is the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you still have a Tom Boonen in the team, because he won’t have the pressure in the Tour or other races. He has it now.
“But, just in general when we are in training camps, you can share the work that you have with sponsors, with media [with other riders]. Of course that also applies to the other guys now.”
Explaining his motivation to win
Prior to the start Kittel was asked about his three previous victories in the race plus the fact that if he won, he would be netting a record fourth win.
He stated before rolling out of Antwerp that he wasn’t interested in chasing a statistic. He reiterated that when asked about it at the finish.
“I think if you race for history, that is not what cycling is about for me,” he said. “I don’t race for history. I race of course for the wins, because I like it, because I like to sprint. I like to win but also because I just like riding my bike.
“If you concentrate on that, I think you make sure that you are also successful. And I think with the successes, maybe history comes. But maybe also not. So it is better you don’t put that [particular] pressure on yourself.”
Instead, Kittel said that he took satisfaction out of beating some important rivals.
One of those is Mark Cavendish, who was closing in inside the final 100 metres but who ran out of time to hit the line first.
“In the finish I could wait until almost 200 metres, I think,” said Kittel. “Then I started my sprint. I did a little mistake with sprinting on a gear that was first too big, so I had to shift one up. Then when I started to accelerate, I knew that I was on a good way.”
However he got a scare: “I saw Cavendish coming and I tried to shift down again. That didn’t work, so suddenly my legs got really, really soft. I just tried to hold it as well as possible to the finish line. Then we finished very close.
“When I passed the finish line I also didn’t know instantly if I won or not. So it was great to hear that it was enough.”
Click on the player below to listen to the full press conference.