The excellent 2014 documentary Clean Spirit, detailing the trials and tribulations of Argos-Shimano’s three weeks at the previous year’s Tour, stars a young Marcel Kittel making an indelible impression on the race and announcing his arrival on the world stage with a bang.
The opening maillot jaune and four stage wins – including denying Mark Cavendish his fifth consecutive Champs-Élysées victory – surpassed what both the team and the filmmakers can only have dreamed of at the Grand Départ in Corsica.
Alongside showing the sheer mundanity of life on the Tour, plus the physical and mental deterioration of the riders as they limp through the final days to Paris, there are two standout moments during Clean Spirit that merit a mention.
Firstly, the team states during the film that they feel winning a Grand Tour clean is an impossibility. They would be stage-hunting only, and very successful they were, too. Given that what is now Team Sunweb has won the Giro d’Italia, courtesy of Tom Dumoulin, presumably they have changed their minds on that approach…
Secondly, the team doctor handing out palms full of vitamin pills to his flagging charges on a daily basis rings alarm bells. Innocent as the whole sequence undoubtedly was, it’s an uncomfortable image.
Kittel, interestingly, declines the offer pointedly, saying he does not feel the need for them. It is an instructive moment: an indication of a confident young man willing to question the status quo. While many in the pro peloton are sick of commenting on the sins of their forebears, this son of a former East German national squad sprinter thinks otherwise. It’s good to talk, he believes.
“I think maybe the problem in many sports, but especially cycling, was that nobody questioned decisions,” Kittel says. “In the early 2000s, nobody did that. Even now, hearing stories from that time is good – an education for young cyclists about all the crazy shit they did. They thought it was normal, but if you hear it now, it’s like horror stories.
“It’s a choice that you have to make. There is nothing wrong with having vitamin pills: it is not forbidden, it is not doping. But if you see those bags of pills in this movie, it does not look good.
“Maybe to get away from the stigma, it is good to talk about it. Of course, supplements are fine, but it is also the rider’s personal decision to have their own opinion about it. Do I want to take it? Can I replace those vitamins with good nutrition? Every now and then, of course I take a vitamin pill, but if you can avoid it, do it.
“I am self-confident now,” he adds, not that he appeared to be lacking in that department when cleaning up at the 2013 Tour, his second start in the race. His debut the previous year had been an inauspicious affair, retiring on stage 5 following a stomach bug. He more than made up for it in 2014 with what was then Giant-Shimano – a team with a solid, but hardly stellar, roster. Were they punching above their weight?
“Yes, and no. Everyone at that time was saying we were a small team, but the idea and where they wanted to go in the future was a good one, how they developed into Sunweb. They had people on board, especially our coach, Merijn Zeeman, who is now with LottoNL-Jumbo, who did great work with young riders. And that made us a team very quickly. For me, I was very lucky to join a team like this.”
Very lucky indeed. When Marcel asked his parents for a bike at the age of 13, athletics took a back seat and the teenage track sprinter turned his talented hand to bike racing.
“I never had the intention of becoming a professional or anything like that. I just enjoyed it. It was always fun, the whole thing: training, racing. The next spring I went to training camp with a regional selection. After that, I noticed a group of riders my age from my hometown and I had a training group. When we raced together, we were already very organised. It was clear I was the fastest of the group, and we started to win.
“Our trainer sacrificed so much time – it was like a family thing. Two of the riders made it to under-23 level, but they did not get professional contracts. I’m sure they would have been better than some guys who are professional now, but it is just the luck of the draw.”
Skil-Shimano were the only team putting an offer on the 22-year-old Kittel’s table before 2011. “I thought, okay, this is it now. It is now or never. My friends stopped the year before, because they had no contracts. If it’s shit, then I am gone after two years, and if it’s good, great. It turned out well.”
Following a sensational 2014 Tour, it seemed the new kid on the block would be cleaning up in the sprints for the foreseeable future, knocking Mark Cavendish and fellow German André Greipel into a cocked hat. It didn’t quite work out that way, illness a constant thorn in Kittel’s side. There were flashes of brilliance, alongside swathes of inconsistency.
Then, in 2017, his final year of a two-season deal with Quick Step, everything clicked. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, De Panne, Scheldeprijs, California – practically every race entered in the run-up to that year’s Tour produced wins.
And come July in a race starting in his home country, Kittel wasted no time opening his account, only to carry on in the same rich vein for the first two weeks.
Stage 2 to Liège, a straight-up drag race between the fast men, the first Tour stage won using disc brakes (as if anyone cares – Kittel wasn’t stopping for anyone); Stage 6 to Troyes, starting from a long way back and freestyling Arnaud Démare’s FDJ train before surging clear; Stage 10 in Bergerac, now resplendent in the green jersey, again from the back, this time an early-jumping Dan McLay providing the right wheel to be on; Stage 11 to Pau, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Michael Matthews and Dylan Groenewegen providing no answer to the power of Kittel.
Of course, had Mark Cavendish not crashed on stage 4 and Peter Sagan not been – ridiculously – disqualified and ejected from the Tour, it would have been a very different sprinting landscape. But you can only beat who is in the race. And Kittel had no problems in that respect.
The only problem came, once again, with illness, followed by a crash on stage 17. He abandoned, the green jersey passed to the shoulders of Michael Matthews, and the dream of winning on the Champs-Élysées for the third time was gone.
“I am not sure if I would have won,” Kittel says, when asked about his prospects of retaining that jersey. “It was very close and would have been settled on the Champs-Élysées for sure. But it is what it is. I was struggling with sickness already, and then the crash was the end. My body said this is too much now. I cannot change it and I am not angry about it.”
Now with Katusha-Alpecin, Kittel is settling in and finding his feet in the new surroundings. Alexander Kristoff left for pastures new at UAE-Team Emirates this year, Kittel the big-name sprinter charged with replacing the Norwegian’s consistently excellent results. It’s been a solid, if unspectacular, start in the red jersey with his new team-mates. “Of course, we are still in that transition period. They are changing from one sprinter to another. And it was the same for me when I went to Quick Step.”
And from that opening day of the Grand Départ in the Vendée, will Kittel have his green jersey head on again, or are stage wins the bigger target?
“It is difficult. If you are very honest, for a pure sprinter, winning stages should be the number one priority – especially now, since we have so many talented all-rounders who can sprint and climb very well. Look at Michael Matthews. He can attack in the Basque Country and go with the GC riders at Grand Tours. I cannot do that. I am very limited in my abilities, so winning stages is the priority.”
Hardly limited in ability, but point taken. In the pressure cooker environment of the Tour, success comes in many forms. For many on the start line in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, one stage win in a lifetime would be a result. Kittel is on 14 and counting, yet he is paid to deliver wins. Big wins. How does that affect his stress-ometer?
“From a ten, it’s a 15. It’s really not a race that you can enjoy at all. When you win a stage, there are two hours of being happy and a moment to enjoy it, but even during the press conference, you want to get back to the hotel and relax.
“I don’t want to complain, but the first real moment when you can enjoy the Tour is when you ride into Paris. But for a sprinter, even that is stressful. So when it is over and you can go home is actually the first enjoyable moment.
“You live in a small world for three weeks, four weeks almost. To handle that is really difficult. And sometimes you end up getting sick. You can start great and feel good, but you are struggling to maintain your motivation. It is not just the bike riding: everything is a challenge. That makes it so hard – all the attention, the expectation.”
The strapping German will be 30 come this year’s Tour. Cavendish talks of parenthood changing his perspective on bike racing. Getting home to the family in one piece takes preference over taking unnecessary risks in chaotic sprints.
“I can understand that argument,” Kittel agrees. “I don’t know how I would act. I don’t really think about family now. It would probably distract me. From 365 days, you are home maybe 120. For two-thirds of the year, you do not see your child and how it grows up. I prefer to be a later dad than having a six-year-old child I do not know.
“To say that you take less risks is not really true. But what happens is you develop an eye for what could be a dangerous move and what is not. You brake earlier, but I see that as an advantage.”
We bandy a few names around regarding rivals for the eight flat stages in this year’s race. Injuries and selection notwithstanding, Cavendish, Greipel, Sagan, Matthews, Démare, Boasson Hagen and a rapidly improving Dylan Groenewegen will be in the mix. Not everyone will win. And Kittel will need eyes in the back of his head.
“You almost have to calculate for everyone, and that is an impossible task,” he says, before raising himself from the sofa, shaking hands and heading back to his hotel room, his stress-ometer somewhere between zero and one. Stay cool, Kittel, stay cool.
From issue 18.4, our Tour de France special