Cavendish was the dominant force in world sprinting until Kittel came along and won eight stages at the Tour de France between 2013 and 2014. They have exchanged blows for several years, with Cavendish the top dog at the 2016 Tour with four stage wins and Kittel at the 2017 Tour with five wins.
Both have struggled with their health and form in recent years and on Thursday Kittel made the shock announcement that he was stepping away from the sport. While the 30-year-old voiced his desire to return to the fold at some point in the future, he said he needed to “put my happiness and joy above everything and seek ways to find this also in my future”.
On Friday morning, Cavendish took to social media to pay tribute to Kittel.
“For many years of my career I felt unbeatable, invincible. One rider came that changed that. A mountain of pure muscle and blonde hair. That rider is Marcel Kittel,” Cavendish wrote.
“It seemed like cycling’s version of Rocky IV. He was the first rider I ever had to 'work out' how to try and beat.
“Marcel, I want to say thank you for a rivalry that lifted my game, but above all gave an excitement to cycling fans. As competitors, we all try to have an edge on each other. But as humans, we should only wish for peace and happiness for each other. From my heart, I wish you the all the best for your next chapter.”
In something of a changing of the guard in the sprinting world, Cavendish and Kittel have only won four races between them since the start of 2018. While the Briton has been held back by Epstein Barr virus, the German has struggled since joining Katusha-Alpecin, undergoing blood tests at the end of last year and struggling this year to train or race at the highest level.
After a win in January at Challenge Mallorca his season quickly declined and he pulled out of the Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of California at late notice before deciding to terminate his contract with Katusha with immediate effect.
He hinted at returning to pro racing in the future and his old boss, Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere said he could not believe this was the end of his career given that, although 'fragile', he saw Kittel as the fastest rider in the world.
Caleb Ewan, the 24-year-old Australian sprinter, also spoke about Kittel on the eve of the 2019 Giro d'Italia. “I hope he can be happy again," said the Lotto Soudal rider. "I don’t know details but I’m sure he’s made a decision that is best for him and I wish him all the best."