German sprinter building form for Paris-Nice
After showing its faith in Marcel Kittel off the bike in recent weeks, Project 1t4i put its trust in him on the road on Thursday, and the young sprinter responded by galloping to victory in front of a top-class field on stage 3 at the Tour of Oman.
When a report on the ARD television station linked Kittel to a blood doping investigation in Germany in late January, the response from his Project 1t4i team was to declare its outright support for their rider. The team confirmed that Kittel did receive UV treatment from Dr. Andreas Franke at the Olympic Support Point in Erfurt in 2008, but insisted that it was to treat an illness.
Iwan Spekenbrink's team also pointed out that Kittel was not under investigation as a suspect and that the method in question was not prohibited at the time. In spite of that vote of confidence from a team noted for its commitment to credible cycling, Kittel admitted that he had been affected by the furor surrounding the television report.
"When I saw my name on German television, it was really a shock and it was definitely one of the hardest days of my life," Kittel said after his win in Oman. "The whole week and still here again, I think a lot about that, but I also tried to explain myself as well as possible.
"I spoke with a lot of newspapers to make clear what happened there because I have nothing to hide, and I got 120 percent support from my team. I hope that's clear now for everyone."
Kittel opened his season at Étoile de Bessèges the week after the report aired, and while he took a morale-boosting stage victory there, a sterner test awaited him in Oman, where Mark Cavendish (Sky) headlines a star-studded roster of sprinters.
After Sky had controlled affairs on the long, steady descent from the stage start in the foothills of the Al Hajar mountains on Thursday, Project 1t4i added some impetus to the pursuit of the day's early break when it hit the front of the pack as it began the flat run-in to Muscat. Aiding the world champion's team in its endeavour to ensure a bunch finish was a very visible demonstration of the belief Project 1t4i in its young sprinter's athletic abilities.
While Kittel was forced to pick his own way through the tumult of the final kilometre, he stressed that his team had protected him throughout a technical finale in which the peloton tackled a number of sharp corners and roundabouts.
"It was very hectic in the last five kilometres and really important to stay in the front," he said. "My teammates did a really good job to bring me to the front with three kilometres to go. Albert Timmer and Koen De Kort came to me and brought me to the front. From there it was difficult to stick together, so I had to fight for myself in the last kilometre, but it wasn't a big problem. They did a great job today."
Kittel will have at least one additional opportunity to add to his bounty before the Tour of Oman is out, but the main goal of his early-season is Paris-Nice. The German must surely be hopeful that some big performances on French roads will rubber stamp his team's passage to the Tour de France in July.
"I hope we can go to the Tour de France and if that's the case, then that is the highlight of my year," Kittel said, smiling.
Before he left the podium area for a waiting team car, Kittel was asked to name the biggest influence on his career. Given the backdrop to his win, it was no surprise that he grabbed the opportunity to thank his team once again. "I think the biggest influence on me is my team. They supported me 100 percent during the race. For me as a sprinter, that's the most important thing."