Marcel Kittel cut a relaxed figure ahead of the first stage of the Tour de Pologne on Sunday, but only after he had crossed the finish line in first place did it become apparent just how much pressure had built up over the course of this torrid season.
The German struggled with illness in the early months and such was his lack of form, he was left out of Giant-Alpecin’s squad for the Tour de France, where he had won eight stages in the previous two editions. He had notched up a total of just 22 race days, which yielded a win at the People's Choice Down Under Classic in January and a sixth-place finish at the Rund um Köln - hardly what was expected from the man that had supposedly emerged as an indomitable force in sprinting.
Yet on the streets of Warsaw, nearly seven months on from the last time he tasted victory, Kittel was once again able to raise his arms aloft.
“I’m very relieved, really. This morning I woke up and I thought I could cut the pressure that was in myself with a knife, because it was so tense,” he told reporters after pulling on the race leader’s yellow jersey.
“I was super relieved to win, because it’s a long time since I last won – it has proved to myself that I can come through difficult situations.”
If Kittel had been in need of jump leads to get himself going again, it was perhaps appropriate that he found them in the place where his career had first sparked into life. The 2011 Tour de Pologne was where, in his first season with Giant-Alpecin (then Skil-Shimano), he secured his first victory at WorldTour level. Not just one victory, but four. It was a first resounding statement of intent on his rise to prominence.
“I’m really, really happy to be back at the Tour of Poland,” said the 27-year-old. “I celebrated my first WorldTour victories here, it was a breakthrough for me in my career, so to be back in this country at this race is special for me. Also because it was a very difficult time, I was really looking forward to the races here for the wins.”
This was Kittel back to winning ways but the final wasn’t the straightforward flat drag to the line that best suits his skillset. After 12 laps of a city centre circuit in Warsaw, a cobbled spiraling climb preceded the flamme rouge and the final kilometre was technical, with a 90-degree right-hander just 80 metres from the line.
Kittel dealt with the incline and after a hairy entrance into the final corner side by side with Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge), he was able to get back on the pedals quicker and kick on for the win.
“For a sprinter it was good race, it was a tricky final, that made it special. You can say the last corner is not a normal sprint, it was quite dangerous because you have only 70 metres to the finish line after the corner, so you have to do all the hard work before the corner, and go with high speed into it,” Kittel said.
“You saw today with Caleb Ewan it was pretty close, and it felt a bit like Moto GP coming into that last corner, fighting for the win, nobody knows if he can make it first to the finish line, so it was exciting.
“A lot of teams wanted to do a sprint, then it was difficult to stay at the front so I have to say thank you to my teammates – they did a great job by keeping me in a good position, staying calm, and that was our advantage today.”
Back to racing after a quiet July
Despite the complicated nature of the sprint, Kittel was encouraged by the sensations in his legs. Given his absence from France, he didn’t race at all in July but worked hard nonetheless at home in Germany. His form has been pretty much an unknown throughout the year but he felt that the training he had done at home had been effective, which was ultimately borne out today.
“My legs were good,” he said. “I felt really confident already when I travelled here to Poland. I did a lot of motor pacing. I tried to do everything as good as possible and I was really focused. I’m glad that it worked now already on the first stage and I will see what’s coming up in the next days."
In between those training rides, Kittel admitted to having braved the pain of picking up the remote control to tune into the Tour de France. If it was hard to watch his rivals battling it out for glory, and in particular André Greipel winning four stages, the feeling was assuaged by the fact that Greipel is a fellow German and that the nation enjoyed a particularly memorable Tour.
Germany, where the Tour was back on state television for the first time since 2011, had six stage wins, double that of any other nation, while Tony Martin enjoyed a spell in the yellow jersey.
“For Greipel it was a great success. In general for all the Germans, we had great success, we wrote the most emotional stories I think in the Tour, with Tony Martin’s fight for the yellow and Simon Geschke’s amazing win in the Alps. For us Germans it was very successful and I enjoyed watching it. It definitely made me keener to be back there next year,” Kittel told Cyclingnews.
“Frustration is normal because you want to be there, but in the end I put that race away, I enjoyed watching it, and I’m now concentrating on my next goals.”
Those goals include the one-day Vattenfall Cyclassics and GP Ouest France-Plouay, but there are still opportunities on offer in Poland. Before the parcours become increasingly hilly, stages 2 and 3 are flat and also feature technical city-centre finish circuits. If he can take another victory, it will be pretty fair to declare that Marcel Kittel is back.