Like Mark Cavendish before him, Marcel Kittel has discovered that when a sprinter reaches a certain, rarefied level, his defeats become more newsworthy than his victories. After winning 26 races during an all-conquering two-year stint at Quick-Step Floors, Kittel must have known that every setback in his maiden season at Katusha-Alpecin would be parsed to the umpteenth degree.
The nadir of a difficult debut season came at last month's Tour de France, where Kittel failed to win a stage and was eliminated after finishing outside the time limit at La Rosière on the second day in the Alps. By then, a throwaway line from directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev in an interview with L'Équipe – "We pay him a lot of money, but he is only interested in himself" – had already generated its share of headlines. Come the third week of the Tour, it was being reported that Kittel was looking to extricate himself from his contract with Katusha for 2019 – a rumour he has robustly denied.
"It's bullshit.I don't understand it. I never said that, and I've also never considered it. I guess that's just something that happens during the Tour de France when all the media is looking for stories, but it's just not true," Kittel told Cyclingnews at the BinckBank Tour on Thursday. "For me, this whole topic is now closed. I'm moving on, I'm over it, and I hope the journalists are also over it. I'm concentrating on the last weeks of my season now."
Kittel finds himself at the BinckBank Tour looking to put a different complexion on a season that has, at various points, promised much, but so far delivered just two victories. In 2015, Kittel’s final season with Giant-Shimano was all but wiped out by a long-running illness, but, this time out, there has been no single explanation for his relative dearth of victories. Instead, the German has seemed beset at every turn by a maddening accumulation of minor problems.
In the early weeks of the campaign, he seemed out of synch with his new lead-out train, but the problem appeared to be remedied by the time he delivered a brace of stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico in March. In April, Kittel looked on course for a sixth Scheldeprijs only for his race to be undone by a late puncture – his third of the afternoon.
After a low-key build-up to the Tour de France, Kittel was in the mix on the opening day in the Vendée, placing third behind Fernando Gaviria and Peter Sagan in the bunch sprint, but his race petered out thereafter. He made little impact as the week progressed and only had a clear run at one more sprint finale – he placed fifth in Sarzeau on stage 4 – before his elimination.
"There is not one reason you can point to as to why it hasn't always worked. It's a complicated sport. So many factors play a role that it's hard to find one particular one that was really bad. We are just trying to improve in every aspect," Kittel said.
"Not everything has been perfect, that's for sure. I wanted to win more and that didn't happen. I was struggling also a little bit myself with health issues sometimes, so things haven't been perfect. I’m trying to finish my season well now. We're talking already about getting better for next year. I think that's an important process that we have to take into the new year – with fresh and new energy."
Kittel began the BinckBank Tour on a relatively upbeat note with a second place in Bolsward on stage 1, but he made no impression in the mass finish in Ardooie on Thursday, rolling home in 70th place in the body of the peloton as Trek-Segafredo's Jasper Stuyven took the win. He will hope to have one further opportunity in Lanaken on Friday before his attention turns to home roads and next week's Deutschland Tour, which returns in a new format after a 10-year hiatus.
"I feel well. I feel good. I tried to train as well as possible and be ready for this big block of racing now in front of me. It starts with the BinckBank Tour, and I'm happy with how I started on the first day," Kittel said on Thursday morning.
"My programme after this is the Deutschland Tour and the Tour of Britain, and then probably the Munsterland Giro and Paris-Tours. That's a lot of racing for the end of the year, I think, so I need to be fit and ready."
No matter how it ends, Kittel's season will inevitably be classed as a disappointment given his failure to notch a win in July – a contrast with the five he reeled in on last year's Tour. In cycling, rightly or wrongly, a rider is always measured against his own highest standard, but Kittel might draw some solace from the fact that he has bounced back from a far more calamitous year than this one. His 2015 campaign was punctuated by just two wins, and clouded by ill health and doubt. When the calendar flipped into 2016, the haze quickly lifted.
"I still have that confidence," Kittel said. "I know it's not always easy, especially after 2015. I know that. But I also know how you can come back. I don't really care what other people think about me. I'm just trying to concentrate on myself. I'm very professional, and I'm working hard, and if it doesn't work out perfectly this year, I'm going to try to make it happen next year."
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