Marcel Kittel and Katusha-Alpecin have terminated their contract with immediate effect. Kittel signed for the squad at the start of 2018 but has failed to win on a regular basis, with confidence and fitness issues a common theme during his time on the squad.
Kittel was out of contract at the end of this season but pulled out of both the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of California in the last fortnight.
"On my request Team Katusha-Alpecin and I have mutually decided to an early termination of my current contract," Kittel wrote on the team website.
"It was for me a long decision process where I raised a lot of questions about how and where I want to go as a person and athlete and what is really important to me. I love cycling and my passion for this beautiful sport is never gone, but I also know what it requires from me and what I need to do to be successful. I believe that everyone has his strengths and weaknesses and that it is an ongoing process to deal with them within a team to be strong and successful.
"In the last two months I have had the feeling of being exhausted. At this moment, I am not able to train and race at the highest level. For this reason, I have decided to take a break and take time for myself, think about my goals and make a plan for my future."
Kittel has been in this position before. In 2015 he and Giant-Alpecin split before the end of the season after a disastrous year on the road. He subsequently joined Patrick Lefevere’s QuickStep team on a cut-price deal and enjoyed two hugely successful campaigns. However, with the emergence of Fernando Gaviria, who was at the time Lefevere’s next sprint project, Kittel departed for pastures new and landed at Katusha.
At the start of 2018 the move looked ideal for all parties concerned. Kittel had the backing of a team and Katusha still had the core of Alexander Kristoff’s lead-out train. However, Kittel only managed two wins and failed to finish the Tour de France – a race in which he had previously won 14 stages. He called time on his season in August citing health reasons and the situation looked to be on track when he took a win earlier this year. However, that proved to be a false dawn, with the 30-year-old’s form falling off a cliff in recent months.
Today he thanked the team for their support and admitted that he would take a break from cycling while he tried to rebuild his form.
"At this point I'd like to thank the team for the last 1.5 years and their support. Especially I'd like to thank the team staff. From the bottom of my heart I can say that they are the best and hardest working people that I've ever seen. I'm sorry that I couldn't fuel your passion with more wins and results. I'd like to thank the sponsors and partners as well that keep believing in the team with their support and knowledge.
"I've taken this decision based on my experience that changes lead you to new paths and opportunities. Despite all the insecurities, I've got confidence that I ultimately will find new chances and challenges. From now on I will put my happiness and joy above everything and seek ways to find this also in my future. I'm very excited about what is going to come. I would like to ride and race again in the future and I have to work out a plan to be able to reach this goal. This is the biggest challenge of my career and I'm accepting it.”
José Azevedo, the team manager who helped bring Kittel to the team, admitted that he agreed to terminate Kittel’s contract at the German’s request.
"It is with sadness that we have agreed with Marcel’s request to step away from the team and from racing. We understand the situation in which Marcel is and we fully support him in this difficult time. All the team members will continue supporting Marcel in the future and we hope that he will soon get back to racing as the champion he is.
"On behalf of Team Katusha-Alpecin and all its sponsors and partners we wish Marcel all the best for the future.”
Where this leaves both Kittel and the team remains unclear. Katusha have struggled all year and without a lead sprinter it’s hard to envisage their poor results changing anytime soon. As for Kittel, he at least has experience in bouncing back from something of this nature. As there were in 2015, there will be teams willing to take a punt on offering the German a fresh start.