Kittel: New direction, but same burning ambition for Tour sprint king

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Winner of five stages in last year’s Tour de France, Marcel Kittel is currently the top sprinter in world cycling. “I won the five stages in 11 days – I think that’s a great statistic,” he says, grinning. Now with Katusha-Alpecin and about to begin his season at the Dubai Tour, he remains as ambitious as ever.

Marcel Kittel lies back, his head in a hairdresser’s sink, his hair in suds. It’s the Team Katusha-Alpecin media day at the training camp in Mallorca, and the newcomer is posing for various video and photography shoots.

Alpecin is a caffeine-based hair shampoo marketed to treat baldness, and Kittel – with his immaculately-coiffed blonde locks – is the perfect poster boy. Thus the photos and videos, which will either be used for advertising during the year, or as colour images by media reporting on the rider.

As the cameras roll and the shutters click, the hairdresser soaks his hair with water, then works the shampoo up to a lather. The time needed for the shoot means that she continues to work the suds for a good 15 or 20 minutes, but Kittel doesn’t mind.

‘It’s a nice head massage,’ he smiles afterwards.

In truth, though, he didn’t need anything like that to be relaxed. He’s settled in extremely quickly, slotting in perfectly into his new team. General manager José Azevedo is impressed.

“Marcel is a leader. You can see his behaviour in the group,” he tells CyclingTips several hours later. “He arrived on this team one week ago. He is six days with us, and you can see his presence, the behaviour, the attitude. He is a leader.

“The important point is that in six days, the relation that he creates with all the group is strong. When you see the table of the riders, it looks like Marcel has been in the team for years. They have a very good ambience with him. Everybody is happy to have Marcel on the team, and everybody accepts him very well. Everyone is super-motivated to have him.”

Azevedo, a former pro who often smiles as he speaks, puts that rapid integration down to leadership qualities. Another on the team labels it as emotional intelligence. Whatever it is, Kittel has clicked in perfectly and seems at home.

“I feel very comfortable already,” he smiles, chatting to CyclingTips in the bar area of the Club Robinson resort. The sea is a stone’s throw from where we are sitting and while the warmth of the summer is still some time away, the setting is idyllic. That adds to his contentment.

“I just try to bring my own character into the team and to connect with everyone as quickly as possible. In the end it will help me, and it will help the team to come together. That is the main goal for me, to create the group and to also be already very close during the races in the beginning of the year.”

Asked to explain what excites him about the team, he refers to the high number of German speakers. He also explains that after six days rooming with the Austrian Marco Haller, it feels like they have been together for years. “That is very cool. It is a good vibe,” he says, pronouncing the latter word with the Germanic ‘wibe.’

And yet his excitement about the move is more than just about the ambience.

“It is also the fact that I am really able to achieve something together with the guys,” he elaborates. “Not only the riders, but also staff, the management. Everyone is really looking forward to make something happen next year. That is something that really gives me a lot of motivation.

“I just want to put myself into this project now, really work for it and have a good time. That was always my mentality, also in the last years, and even more so now.”

At the team camp, there is a real sense that Katusha is on an upward trajectory. That differs with Kittel’s previous team, QuickStep Floors, which has already been one of the top teams for many years. It’s a squad stocked with big guns, and their success in turn generates other success.

Being part of such a setup generates its own momentum, yet being part of a team with – currently – less yearly success, but which is on an upward trajectory is very motivating.

Kittel knows he has a chance to help it build into something much bigger, and that seems to resonate with him.

“It is definitely not comparable,” he says, speaking about the different atmospheres. “And I never expected that. It is something for me now that really challenges me.

“I am really looking forward to it, it is really cool.”

Reaching new heights at the Tour

In March of last year Kittel sat under a leafy tree by a café in Girona, mulling over the season just passed and what lay ahead. He was still on the comeback trail after a tough 2015. A four-time stage winner in the Tour de France in both the 2013 and 2014 races, he was ill and then fatigued the following year and wasn’t even selected for the race.

Sipping a coffee, he reflected on a comparatively quieter 2016 campaign in France. Lining out after a pair of stage wins in the Giro d’Italia, he took stage four of the Tour but was unable to win again before the end of the race. It was still a successful Tour, of course – after all, very few riders can win stages in that event – but, compared to his previous best, it was some way off.

On that March afternoon, Kittel was feeling relatively confident that he could get back to where he had been. “I think I was in a very good shape in 2016,” he explained. “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.”

Kittel said that he believed he was tired after riding the 2016 Giro d’Italia, and planned to make changes as a result. Instead of riding the Italian Grand Tour, he would compete in the Amgen Tour of California and the Ster ZLM Toer.

The new approach was about being at his absolute best in July.

“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,” he said. “I want to see myself sprinting on that level. And then I will see what the results will be.”

As things turned out, he was absolutely right. He was fresher at the Tour, and had his best-ever campaign. He clocked up five stages, and also wore the green jersey for over half the race.

“For me, it was a big step ahead after a difficult 2016,” he tells CyclingTips now. “I think it is the end of a process, if you can call it that, to be able to say now that after the Tour in 2017, I am really at the top again.

“I clearly showed my speed. I won more than only one stage, and that is something that really satisfies me. I am really proud of that. It is definitely a big motivation for the coming period, for the new challenges ahead with the new team.”

Playing it up for the cameras at the team launch.

Asked what he learned from the process, he said that there was one main takeaway: he now knows that when he works clearly with focus and a good programme, that he can really perform at the top level.

“I think it was my best [Tour] performance yet,” he says. “Because I won the five stages in 11 days…so that is a bit more than 50 percent of the whole Tour de France.

“I think for me that is a really great statistic,” he adds, laughing. “I think that is cool. But in the end it is also not really comparable. I see every Tour a little bit as a unique event and as a unique story that you can follow over three weeks.

“Now it is just another great story finished in 2017.”

In fact, Kittel’s Tour campaign might have been even better than it was. He crashed out on stage 17, thus missing out on the possibility of a stage victory in Paris. That fall also robbed him of the chance to win the points classification, although Michael Matthews was inching closer prior to his exit.

Did holding the jersey for so long give him an appetite for the future?

“I could get used to it,” he smiles. “But I also got a taste of how hard it is to fight for the green jersey. How hard it is to defend it, or even to wear it for a couple of days. It is a daily fight, and that is very tough. I have got to say that.

“It is something that I am looking forward to in the next years, but I know now what it means and what it takes, in terms of support of your team, and in terms of fitness, especially for me. I think for me it will always be extra challenging to be able to be a contender in that classification.”

Part of the challenge is Kittel’s nature as a rider: he’s tall, broad-shouldered and over 80 kilos. That heft gives him plenty of oomph in the sprints, but is a penalty once the road starts going uphill. Riders such as Matthews are lighter, and so can remain in contention long after Kittel is dropped.

Marcel Kittel was the Tour’s most successful stage hunter with five successes, and had a lengthy spell in green.

The other factor is Peter Sagan. The Slovakian won the green jersey five times between 2012 and 2016, and may well have taken a sixth had he not been controversially disqualified from the Tour.

Kittel is frank that if Sagan is in the race, winning green is going to be difficult. “The classification for the green jersey is now one that really suits more the all-rounders than the pure sprinter,” he explains. “I think that is very clear after this year. The fact that I have to win five stages at least to only have a chance for the green jersey says a lot, I think. I am not crying about it, but it is simply the reality.

“That is something that I will consider for next year…but I am not giving up on it.”

For his part, team manager Acevedo is rather more optimistic. “If he wins five stages again, for sure green is a big possibility,” he laughs. “When you have a sprinter like Marcel, the green jersey is a goal. And it is going to remain a goal, but for this you need to win a stage. So this is the first goal, to win a stage.

“Then, of course when you win stages, you score points…”

‘A great chance now for me to get experience in Paris-Roubaix’

A couple of hours after the interview, the Katusha-Alpecin team launch is held in a theatre attached to the Club Robinson complex in Mallorca. The stage features a painted wooden mock-up of the team bus, and the first riders walk through the representation of the side door to applause from the crowds.

After a few interviews another group of riders appears from the right side of the stage. The launch presenters are fully embracing the theatrics of the occasion and suggest to the audience that the riders have been out training and are now arriving back for refreshments.

The third wave arrives decked out in Katusha-blue t-shirt and jeans. Kittel is in this casually-attired group and, once again, looks fully at ease. He smiles, waves with both arms to the audience and then chats to the presenters about his move to the squad and plans for the year.

As Azevedo says, it’s hard not to think he’s been part of this setup for far longer.

Chasing his signature was a goal for the team for a number of reasons. Firstly, the-then lead sprinter Alexander Kristoff wasn’t performing as well as he once did. Secondly, Kittel is on the up, is German – like sponsors Canyon and Alpecin – and has the right look to sell the latter product.

And, from Kittel’s point of view, the move also made sense. QuickStep Floors was, and is, a very strong team, but his opportunities were limited away from the sprints. There was also growing internal competition with Fernando Gaviria.

“With him, there was going to be a situation where we would discuss who goes to the Tour de France,” he acknowledges. “The situation last year was like that, that the team made the decision already to work with him in the future, which is understandable, of course. I totally have no problem with that. But it was then my turn to make a decision about my own future.

“I simply wanted to avoid any discussion and wanted to keep my chances safe for the Tour. Okay, here I am not guaranteed – if I am not fit, I am not going to the Tour. But at least there is no competition within my own team for a spot.”

There is another factor too. When he spoke to CyclingTips in Girona last March, Kittel expressed an interest in racing Paris-Roubaix. He acknowledges he needs to build experience there, but also feels that it is a race he could potentially shine at in the future.

However, with so many cobblestone specialists on the Belgian team, gaining selection was far from guaranteed.

With Katusha, that’s likely no longer the case.

“I think it is a great chance now for me to get experience in Paris-Roubaix,” he says. “We are also discussing that option, but until now nothing is decided. If I would be there, it would not be in a leading role [initially], but it would be in a role to support the team and to get that experience. That is very important.”

New team colours. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

Depending on how that goes, the race may become a medium-term goal. Winning the Classic is something that he’d love to have on his palmares, as is a world championship title.

But, in the meantime, he makes clear that he remains hugely motivated to win Tour de France stages, as well as other events. There is zero indication that he is losing focus. “For a sprinter, it is important to get those victories,” he says.

Azevedo is fully committed to making sure that happens, and says the riders are fully committed. The team knows it has got the current best sprinter in the Tour de France, and wants to maximise its investment.

“Everyone is happy,” Azevedo says, thinking about the atmosphere at the camp but also about the year ahead. “Everyone has full confidence in Marcel, and in the group he fits well. He has integrated super-fast. He has the power to bring the group around him, to have the group accept him.

“This is super-important, and I hope we can have the results. It is a good spirit…”

Or, as Kittel might say it in his German accent, ‘a good wibe.’

Either way, whatever the term, the Tour sprint king is determined to make it a great year.

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