When Marcel Kittel announced on social media at the weekend that his cycling career was over, many were shocked, but few can have been surprised.
The groundwork had been laid by the news, back in May, that he and Katusha-Alpecin were parting company. Something, or several things, had not seemed right since he’d transferred to the team 15 months earlier. It had felt easier for many to blame the squad. Kittel might not have won much but it’s not like any other star had gone to the Swiss-Russian outfit and thrived.
In between those two Instagram posts, and less widely circulated than either, was another, altogether happier announcement: Kittel’s partner, the former professional volleyball player Tess von Piekartz, was pregnant with their first child. We don’t know for sure, but as he had said before that he did not want to be an absent dad, it is hard to imagine the decision to call it quits completely was not connected.
And although I say happier, that is not to suggest for a moment that the German’s decision to draw his career to a close should be seen as a sad one. For cycling fans, who took so much pleasure from watching him sprint, sure. But his performances cost us nothing whereas the toll on him was evidently enormous. There can be no doubt as to his relief that he no longer has to put himself through it.
“Can I and do I want to continue to make the sacrifices needed to be a world-class athlete?” he wrote on Instagram. “My answer is: No, I do not want that any more… That is why I [am] very happy and proud that at this point in my life I can make the decision to follow my heart in a new direction.”
My in-person encounters with Kittel over the years have been few, limited in their scope, but still memorable. I never formally interviewed him but we spoke on a couple of occasions.
The first time was at the 2017 Tour de France in Eymet, the start of stage 11. It was one he was expected to win and subsequently the German emerged from the Quick Step bus in a top-to-toe outfit of goblin green, looking like a cross between Dolph Lundgren and the Incredible Hulk. Superhero comparisons are too easy to make but he loomed so large, and as he stooped to sign a bunch of autographs and pose for selfies, he really did seem like an otherworldly figure from a Marvel film.
He was also profoundly human.
Five months after Eymet, I attended the off-season Katusha Alpecin training camp in Mallorca. The historically Russian outfit was being relaunched as modern and international, with a host of new signings from America, Britain, Australia – and of course Germany – all being unveiled for the first time. At the post-presentation dinner the riders were supposed to be eating separately from the press and other invited guests. As is my want, I got it completely backwards. Shortly after sitting down, a familiar figure with immaculately caffeinated hair placed a pasta-loaded plate down on the table and pulled up a chair next to me.
He introduced himself with a polite, breezy, “Hi, I’m Marcel.” We shook hands and that was pretty much that. There was no “who the …. are you?” or “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” He just got on with it. We chatted a little but I avoided interrogating him or mining for material. Maybe a better journalist would have. He was clearly aware that he was the biggest name the team had ever had on its books yet all he seemed to want was to be one of the guys.
Which ultimately proved impossible. Because the fortunes of everyone else rested far more on his shoulders than those of any other rider, and that can have been neither enjoyable nor easy. As he told our executive editor Ian, “it is not just the bike riding: everything is a challenge. That makes it so hard – all the attention, the expectation.”
Perhaps he’d have survived at a team where other riders were also in the habit of winning races – a Jumbo-Visma maybe, but even a lesser light like a CCC or Lotto Soudal would do – but perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference. It would not have altered the sheer magnitude and nature of the physical work that must be put in to enable a sprinter to compete at that level.
We are always examining the lives of these people from afar. Even when we deign to zoom in for a close-up we cannot know what it feels like to be them. Marcel Kittel has given us an indication that it’s not nearly as wonderful as we might imagine. We have the utmost respect for his decision and can only wish him well, wherever life takes him next.