An interview with Marcel Kittel: Getting back to his best, Cavendish rivalry, and the Tour de France
Marcel Kittel sits down, stretches out and smiles. “This is great,” he says.
‘This’ is the sunlight in Girona, warming rays which see the mercury hit 25 degrees. Compared to much of Europe, that’s impressive for mid-March.
The light is pointed right at the German sprinter, but both his shades and the shadows cast by tall roadside trees offer a little respite for his eyes. He orders a coffee from the café waitress, takes the first sips, and relaxes.
Kittel began spending time in the Catalan town over a year ago, and loved it. He has since moved into an apartment, although doesn’t live here the whole season. Still, passing the early months helps build a fitness level that makes a tough sport a small bit easier.
That move was, he says, one of the decisions he took after a tough year in 2015. He’d had a superb 2014, winning a clutch of races, but took on too much over the winter months, got run down, became sick, and didn’t get the rest he needed.
As a result of that, he ended up missing selection for the Tour twelve months after winning four sprint stages.
That in turn led to a departure from his Giant-Alpecin squad, ending a five-year relationship with the team.
Last season brought a new start for Kittel. He moved to Etixx-QuickStep and returned to winning ways. Over the course of the season he notched up a dozen victories, including two stages in the Giro d’Italia and one in the Tour de France.
It wasn’t quite his tally of 2014, but that’s fine. Thus far this year he’s taken five wins, including three stages plus the overall in the Dubai Tour, and has better sensations than he did twelve months ago. He’s happy, he’s encouraged and he’s keen to keep building.
As he discusses in this sit-down interview with CyclingTips, he’s got logical reason to believe he will be at a higher level in 2017. If so, that could see him return to being the dominant sprinter in the Tour de France.
Read on to see his reasoning, get his thoughts on Mark Cavendish’s resurgence, his assessment of how the Manxman profited from QuickStep’s tactics, his thoughts about his young teammate Fernando Gaviria, and his future aspirations in terms of the Spring Classics.
Kittel also discusses the Tour de France start in Germany, something he is hugely motivated about, and the reputation of the sport there,
CyclingTips: First off, Marcel, how do you feel the season is going so far for you?
Marcel Kittel: Ah, I’m very happy with my start to the season. Dubai was a great beginning and also Abu Dhabi was good.
Now Paris-Nice is done. I can say that I really had good legs there. I was hoping for a stage win which didn’t work for me this year. But when I just look at the whole start of the season, I think I can be I can be really happy with it.
I was looking at the results and Paris-Nice was a little quieter than the first races. Is that a natural lull, given that you were going pretty hard in the Middle East races early on?
I would say that I was definitely, form-wise, on another level this year in Paris-Nice. I was much better than last year. So that’s something that made it maybe a little bit extra-disappointing. Well, it is hard to say it like this but I was ready to go for victory. In the end it didn’t work.
It is always up and down and, like you said, last year it was also a good start and then in Paris-Nice there was a little more quiet moment. That is just part of it.
Was it just the way the echelon split in Paris-Nice that you missed out, or what do you put it down to?
No, in the crosswind stages I was always there. We had I think three bunch sprint opportunities and I guess in the first one, on stage two, my hands were so frozen that I shifted down on the small ring and couldn’t get it back on within the last kilometres.
That’s just something that happens. For the next stage when Sam Bennett won, I think we were too early in the front. On the next sprint stage…to be honest, I didn’t expect Greipel to be able to go through the bunch in his position where he did it, and he won in the end. I thought I have to go around, but then I was boxed in.
Sometimes it just goes like this in a sprint. I don’t want to complain or feel bad about it. It’s just those decisions that you make and they were not perfect in the end to go for victory.
But it is very early yet, and you have already had the nice start to the year…
When you have the start like you had in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, do you feel ahead of schedule, on schedule, or how do you assess your form compared to other years?
I feel actually quite happy with the results. And also that everything is going according to plan. So I think that’s always a very important feeling that you should get in the beginning of the year. That you know where you are and where you stand compared to your opponents. That gave me confidence, also.
So what is next for you?
My next race is the Three Days of De Panne.
You have won Schleldeprijs multiple times. And obviously that is one the buildups to Roubaix. Do you see Roubaix as a race that could suit you?
I think not in this team at the moment [smiles], because it would be the most important race for our team, next to Flanders.
When I did it in 2011 I actually liked that. For sure, that’s something to keep in mind also for the future, that I would like to do and see also how I hope I can do as a rider. How I can perform there.
How do you find cobbles normally?
I think just my physique as a rider, it suits well.
And I presume it’s a race that you would like to do well in, because it’s one of the biggest?
Yeah, I think to get the chance to be able to line up there, to get to race there as a team, I think that would be a really nice thing also for me to do. And, honestly, if the team would call me this year and say we need another rider, I would be really happy to do it.
But I think, like I said before, with QuickStep being completely under pressure there as a team, I don’t want to try to force myself in there. Because in this team it means a lot, this race. And you want to have a team that is able to perform there as good as possible, and also with experience.
I’m not sure if the team is up for experiments there.
Fernando Gaviria is obviously another guy on the team who is very quick. How is your relationship with him?
Oh, I cannot say that I have a good or bad relationship with Fernando, to be honest. I think I saw him in my life for two weeks total, in training camps. We are not having the same race plan, which makes sense.
We see each other only one time per season in training camp. I can’t tell you a lot about Fernando, honestly [smiles].
Do you think it’s possible that he could do the Tour this year?
[Note: QuickStep Floors has since confirmed to CyclingTips that Gaviria will do the Giro this season, Kittel the Tour.]
Of course it’s obvious that we also need our separate race programs. That means for me, if he starts in the Giro, that I have a clear decision for the Tour. I think I will have my shot at the Tour this year.
I don’t know what will happen in the future but, for this year, I think it’s pretty clear that with San Remo and also the Giro [for him], [it will be] for me the Tour. That there is a clear and separate plan.
In the past you have done the start of the Giro. You did it in 2014, for example, in Ireland, and last year also. Is it the case that you just won’t start this year, or will you do it but not go for the sprints yourself?
I will not be at the Giro this year. That’s pretty clear.
So is that a problem, to try to replicate the same buildup?
No, no. I think for me personally the build-up to the Tour…. I will say it differently. I don’t need that many races to get into shape. For me, it is important to have a good training period also, and then some races before my highlights. Then I am normally always good.
So that is what I will do this year. Not having the Giro, but a training period at altitude. Then going to the Tour.
The evolution of a pro rider:
Kittel may be one of the strongest sprinters in the peloton, but made more of a name for himself in the under 23 ranks as a time triallist. He was European champion against the clock in 2009, and also notched up third and fourth in the Espoir world TT championships.
However after his graduation to the pro ranks in 2011, everything changed. His first year as a professional brought 16 wins, including stage success in the Vuelta a España. Topping the podium in that first Grand Tour was a signal for the 14 successes he has had in three-week events, including nine stages in the Tour.
He talks about that development, his difficult year in 2015, his confidence that 2017 should see him back to his best and more.
How do you feel your body has changed over the years? Do you feel that it now responds differently to training, or racing?
Honestly, I don’t think the body is changing a lot during a professional career.
I mean, it is changing when you when you turn professional, when you come up as a neo pro. Of course with all the racing that you do, you will also lose a bit more body fat and you build up more muscles.
You also find your niche, your speciality, where you are good in.
For me, I think it is more about how you can deal with all that mentally, how you improve there. That is where I think you, as a professional, maybe take the most important steps after you do the physical adaptations.
So more or less, your body is the same each season to get into shape?
Well, it is also important to keep challenging yourself, with different buildups towards the season during winter. Maybe change location, training. A little bit the training plan. But in the end it is still cycling, it is mainly done on the bike.
I was in Langkawi in 2011 ago when you won the sprint there [on stage three]. At the time you said that as a young rider you were more a time trialist. So was it then when you realised that sprinting is perhaps the one you can be really good at, or at what point did you make that transition?
I think…I was always I was always good in sprinting. I won actually a lot of races in the youth in sprinting. There was no time trials at all.
When I came into the junior category, it was where I really got good also in time trialling. And, like I said before, once you turn professional, when you become a neo-pro, that is where you also find your speciality.
For me that was something where I realised, okay, to be a top trialist, maybe that is not really my thing. But to be a top sprinter is maybe where I am able to do it.
I kept the time trialing over short distances, but the long ones were not so good for me any more. But I really became good at sprinting.
If we go back to 2014, you won four stages in that Tour. Then you had the difficult year the following season, then last year you went to the Tour, took one stage and a couple of second places. Do you feel your form was more or less then same in 2016 in the Tour, or do you think it was less last year?
I think I was in a very good shape in 2016. But coming out of the year with almost no racing in ‘15 makes a difference. It’s also what I feel now, starting into the new season in ‘17 – having a complete season in ‘16 in my legs just gives you another base.
That is also important for me this year, to be again healthy. To have had a good season in ‘16 and healthy in the winter, to just be on a good level in 2017.
And I can definitely say that I felt different in the two Tours. It was a weird situation anyway to come back to the Tour in 2016. You have all those expectations, but you missed out the year before. So it was kind of difficult to handle everything. But I think personally I can be proud of my Tour in 2016.
I’m also proud of the way the team handled all the pressure. But in the end, it was a good Tour. Of course, the goals were maybe a bit higher, but that is what it is.
Can we believe that with the foundation of last year in the legs, that you think you will be faster in this year’s Tour?
[Blows lips, pauses, laughs]. I think, what I want to do is I want to make sure I start the Tour this year as fresh as I started the Giro last year. I want to see myself sprinting on that level. That’s what I want to do. And then I will see what the results will be.
Obviously last year Cavendish was the surprise as a lot of people felt he was gradually going down, but then he came back. Were you surprised at that turnaround for him?
Ah, honestly, when someone told me that Cav was really, really sick before the Tour, that is where I started to think [smiles] that he was really, really good. I heard also this weekend before Milan-San Remo he is really sick. Someone said that, but I think he will be really good.
It’s not a surprise. I mean, it’s Mark Cavendish. Why would you why would you think that he cannot sprint anymore, suddenly? There is no reason to believe that.
I think being with a new team and then doing those sprints in the Tour was quite impressive. And he was definitely in good shape so yeah… Chapeau for that, you can only admit that he was very, very good.
When everybody is on form, do you have a most feared rival? Would it be him, would it be somebody else, or do you even think in that way?
I am not thinking in that way. There are so many sprinters at the moment that can win races that it’s just wasted energy to think about it. Who could beat you, who has the strongest team or not. You just have to see it how it is in the final of a race.
A lot of sprinting seems to be about confidence and momentum, where you win early on and it gets the ball rolling. Do you think if stage one of last year’s Tour had gone any different – you were second there, Mark was first – could that have changed the course of the Tour?
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
I think afterwards, when you look back at the Tour in ‘16, what became obvious is that Cav really took advantage of our team. We often brought him into the final and then he just had to sprint past me or someone else. And that’s a mistake that I don’t want to repeat, to be honest. I think that is something to keep in mind for ‘17…
2015 didn’t go to plan. Was it a virus or what was the reason for that tough season?
In the end, I think…I said it already a million times. During the winter from ‘14 to ‘15, I never really got the rest that I needed.
There were a lot of appointments. And the training camp was going always with meetings and everything. And also the start of the season with Down Under, a lot of travelling, climate change, and somewhere there I got sick when I came home after Down Under.
I had to go to Qatar and I never really recovered from that. So that’s just where it really took a long time for me to get at least one foot back on the ground, to feel kind of normal again.
And once that happened, I missed so many kilometres, so many races, so much time has passed by that I couldn’t, you know, get back into my normal rhythm. So I just had to start somewhere from zero again.
And it is not an easy sport, even when you are going well. So to be on that back foot must be hard…
Tour in Germany – chasing yellow on home soil:
Kittel may pass most of his time between Switzerland and Girona, but he’s proud to be German. The hosting of the Grand Depart by that country this season is something which excites him, and which will ensure he works hard to be in his best condition come July.
He’s taking a different approach to the race this year due to Gaviria’s own evolution, but believes he can still have the ideal buildup. If so, the thoughts of the Maillot Jaune will provide plenty of motivation.
The Tour begins in Dusseldorf on July 1 with a 13 kilometre time trial. His path to yellow will depend on finishing as close as possible to the winner on that day, then taking time bonuses on the flat stage two to Liège.
If he does that, he could find himself donning the yellow jersey for the third time in his career.
He discusses that goal, the sport’s reputation in Germany and the role he and others played in making the Grand Depart there possible. He also speaks about hobbies and the advice he would give his younger self.
The Tour is obviously starting in Germany this year. So how motivated are you by that?
It is nice. It’s nice to start in my home country and also see German fans there, next to the road. For sure that’s going to be good.
What part did you play in it going there? It was said that riders like yourself, Andre and others like that were instrumental in helping it to come about.
In which way?
In terms of, I guess, speaking to TV stations. It was said at the time that the riders had also played a role in helping the whole thing to happen.
[Pauses] For me I think the most important argument to get the Tour back to Germany is the German victories that we had in the Tour in the last years. I think I can say that I also played a good and big part of a role in that.
But it’s also other people that are involved. It’s not only the cyclists. For example, Bora-hansgrohe – that we have now a big German WorldTour team is very important.
I guess cycling also recovered a little bit from the reputation in Germany. Of course it’s not…it’s not as popular as it was before, but people start to think differently about it. I guess that’s also something that the media realized.
But in the end, if you have no success, it doesn’t which sport or which job it is in life, nobody cares about you. So I guess the victories were one of the main reasons.
And I guess it being there, if it is a successful Tour for German cyclists, that that will help bring it back up a level again.
I think so. I mean, it really shows the German fans what the Tour de France means, in terms of being a big event that creates a nice atmosphere. And also just the whole atmosphere in general at a cycling race…not only as the Tour, but you have lot of races where you find… In the Tour, it is nice to go to the Tour village and just relax and hang out there.
You see that our sport is a very open one. You can actually really have a good chance to talk to your idols or to the athletes they are interested in, which is not the same in other sports.
And I think it will be good advertising for cycling in Germany.
Do you think yellow is possible? Is that on your mind? Or can you not think of things like that as the pressure would be too much?
[Smiles] No, I will… When I start the time trial, I will do it the same way as I did it in the Giro. I just want to do a really, really good ride. And if I give everything and have no space to improve and I end up 25th, then I have to live with it.
But if I have good legs and did no mistake and ended up top five, maybe, then I’m also really happy with it. So for me there’s nothing to lose. I just want to start there without any pressure.
What do you like about it here in Girona?
What I like is first of all the training area. It offers everything. Flat, medium mountains, also high mountains – whatever you need. I also like the Spanish lifestyle a little bit, it’s relaxed.
You have one thing I personally like, but a lot of cyclists probably don’t agree, is the community that you find here. Because that’s really cool.
Those are three very important points for me. So I feel really good here in the city.
Does it help you? Does having this good weather early in the year make a difference for your form?
Yeah… If you are in January and you have to ride five hours and you do that in either three degrees and fog or 12 degrees and sunshine, that makes a big difference, really.
What do you do in your spare time, away from the bike? Do you have time for hobbies?
[Smiles] To be honest, sometimes I have a hard time to… Ah, the other way around. When I am at home I just want to relax. For example, now after Paris-Nice I came home on Sunday evening. Monday I was completely dead. But I also had the chance to see my girlfriend at home. So we just went into the city, had lunch somewhere and relaxed and tried to talk about things that happened in the last week when we didn’t see each other. Just completely normal things.
I try to calm down by reading a book or going somewhere else with friends and… I just try to distract myself a little bit.
Do you have favourite books or authors?
No, not in particular. I am always looking for a good book. I actually have the stupid behaviour that I sometimes start books, I am really fascinated by them, and then….I don’t know…I can’t maybe continue to read for another week and then I just don’t continue at all with the book. So it is really stupid [smiles].
But in general I like to read books that are based on true facts. But also science fiction and also books close to his story. That’s something I like.
Is there anything in particular that you would tell your younger self. If you could talk to Marcel five years ago, ten years ago, what would you say, if anything?
What would I say? [Laughs]. Ten, or five years ago? It makes a difference, for me. Because ten years ago I wasn’t a professional.
Ten years ago I would say, ‘just keep doing what you do.’
I don’t look back thinking I want to do anything differently because I think the way it turned out to be, with my professional career but also with my private life…I’m very happy with it.
I’m very happy with how I can live. And that I can do what I want to do.