Kittel won five stages at this year’s Tour de France and wore the green jersey up to his abandon in the final week, but despite that success, a departure from Quick-Step Floors had been rumoured throughout the summer.
Katusha’s German backers – sub-sponsor Alpecin and bike supplier Canyon – meant that the team was always a likely landing spot for Kittel, who raced in the colours of Giant-Alpecin before joining Quick-Step last year. Alexander Kristoff’s transfer to UAE-Team Emirates for the 2018 also meant that there was a vacancy for a sprinter in the Katusha-Alpecin line-up.
“I'm really looking forward to a new challenge in new colours,” Kittel said in a statement released by Katusha on Wednesday. “For me, this moment is exciting. With this step, I also hope to get new inspiration. I think, I find all the requirements in the team that I need to be strong in the sprint finals. I saw that the sprint train is functioning very well.”
In 2013, Katusha’s doping record was such that it had to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in order to receive a WorldTour licence, but the team has sought to amend its image in recent years. José Azevedo took over as team manager ahead of the 2017 season, and the squad switched its registration from Russia to Switzerland.
The acquisition of Kittel marks a further step in the team’s process of rebranding. The German will be one of a number of new faces at Katusha-Alpecin in 2018, with Nathan Haas and Ian Boswell already confirmed among the team’s signings for next season.
“Team Katusha-Alpecin has undergone a major change in recent years. I've been watching these changes for a long time and I think it's good,” Kittel said. “That is why I am looking forward to being part of the team and share the direction they are headed. Team spirit has always been important to me and for this reason also I've become a pro cyclist.”
Kittel’s arrival was welcomed by Azevedo. Although Katusha boasts a Grand Tour contender in the shape of Ilnur Zakarin, it failed to land a stage victory in either the Giro or the Tour this season. Kittel, winner of 19 Grand Tour stages over the course of his career, offers something of a guarantee in that department.
“We are very happy to have Marcel in the team. We can say that he is at the moment the best sprinter in the world. He showed this quite impressively in the Tour de France where he won five stages,” Azevedo said. “He will be one of our most important riders and can look forward to strong team support. We will try to support him in the best possible way to ensure that he can continue his successful results.”
A professional since 2011, Kittel spent six years in the Skil-Shimano set-up (now Sunweb) before dissolving his contract at the end of 2015 and joining Quick-Step, where his path briefly overlapped with his fellow countryman and old Thüringer Energie teammate Tony Martin. The world time trial champion joined Katusha-Alpecin at the beginning of 2017 and encouraged Kittel to follow him.
“The little icing on the cake is of course to race again in the same team with my good friend Tony Martin,” Kittel said. “He gave me good insight into the team in my decision-making process. His opinion about the team was of course important to me.”
In a statement on his personal website, Kittel likened the thought process behind his move to Katusha to his decision to rescind his contract with Giant-Alpecin after a trying 2015 campaign that had been ruined by illness.
With Fernando Gaviria, winner of four stages of the Giro, emerging as a sprint talent at Quick-Step, Kittel acknowledged that it was time to move to pastures new. Despite Kittel’s five stage wins at this year’s Tour, Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere was unable to guarantee him the role of designated sprinter at next year’s race.
“I am very proud to have been part of the Wolfpack,” Kittel said of his time at Quick-Step. “And yet I have decided to change. The reasons for this are basically my experiences from 2015. After that extremely disappointing year I decided to change many things. I now train in Girona, Spain, in winter, I have found my private happiness with my girlfriend Tess on Lake Constance, avoid as many appointments as possible and sworn to myself that I never again want to make any compromises about my sport and my goals.
“That is why I changed teams then and for the same reasons, I am doing it now. I want to avoid a discussion about my future Tour starts and my role as a sprinter. The team management could not give me a definite answer and I can understand that. After Fernando Gaviria won four stages at the Giro, he will of course also want to be at the start of the Tour. I respect that and am therefore happy that I can look back to a good and happy time and that I leave the team with all good between us.”