Marcel Kittel believes it is obvious that Fernando Gaviria is on his way to the top of the sport but insists that, as his teammate becomes perhaps his biggest rival, he is focused on himself and getting things off the ground at Katusha-Alpecin.
Kittel has made no secret that the rise of Gaviria is the principal reason for his departure from Quick-Step. Under any normal circumstances, five stage wins at the Tour de France would guarantee you a place on the start line next year, but the precocious Colombian won four times at the Giro d’Italia on his Grand Tour debut this year, and he and the team are keen to get the ball rolling in France in 2018.
“It’s logical he wants to go to the Tour, and also logical that there would be a conflict,” Kittel said in Shanghai at the recent ASO criteriums. “It’s really nothing personal. That’s very important to say. I have nothing against Fernando, he’s a great talent, and an amazing, incredible sprinter. That’s it.
“Personally, I never really got a lot of time to spend with him. We’ve always had separate race programmes, so we only saw each other maybe on training camp for a few days, and also because he also travels a lot between Colombia and Europe, so there’s not so much time you can spend with each other, that’s it.
Kittel is in no doubt about the talent and potential of Gaviria, nor is he too proud to declare it publicly.
“He’s a very big talent. When you are able to contest bunch sprint in Milan-San Remo in your first attempt, it’s quite a big achievement already," he said. "Then the direction where he goes…but on the other hand, you don’t have to be a cycling expert to see his talent and where it will go to. I think his way is pretty clear.
Kittel’s teammate now becomes his rival. He sees it as a good thing to have such strong competition, but insists that, despite the way he was usurped in the Quick-Step hierarchy, and despite his intimate knowledge of the set-up at the Belgian team, Gaviria is a rival like any other.
“Sport is about looking at your opponents and making a goal to beat them. Of course that gives you motivation. You should look at your opponents but not too much, if you only concentrate on what they will do, that’s not the way to do it. You have to go your own way and do your thing and have your own plan. That’s something that we will do next year with Katusha.”
Kittel leaves for Katusha after two seasons at Quick-Step in which he has definitively put his career back on track. He joined at a particularly low ebb after that notorious annus horribilis of 2015, which yielded just one victory across 38 race days and marked a frosty end to his five-year spell at the Sunweb team.
“I look back on it as an experience, mostly a personal experience,” he says of 2015. “Already at the end of that season, I was in my head already in 2016.”
Kittel won his first race in the blue of Quick-Step and never looked back, collecting 11 sprint wins over the course of that season, two of which came at the Giro d’Italia and earned him a stint in the pink jersey. This year started in similar fashion and led to a Tour de France haul of the sort he’d managed in the two years pre-2015, with five stage wins that more than masked any disappointment of crashing and being unable to sew up the green jersey.
“I’m very proud of the season. Over the whole year, I was very stable in terms of reaching my goals, being in a good shape, and that makes me proud,” he said. "We are all very proud of what we achieved together in the two years, I’m very thankful the team gave me the opportunity to come back after 2015 with great support and motivation.”
Kittel insists the experience has sharpened his perspective on his career and put him in a better position to overcome any adversity that might come his way again in the future.
“In some sort of way it’s logical, because every time you have some good years in a row, it’s no surprise there’s also a year when it’s not so great. Ok, such a catastrophe like 2015, I don’t want to have that again, but…
“You never know how the season will go, stuff like crashing at the Tour, as happened to me this year can also happen other races then you lose the race, or simply not as strong as year before sometimes, so I always take it as it comes. That’s something that I learned from 2015 - trying to deal with disappointments and setbacks."
The Tour de France, unsurprisingly, will be the fulcrum of Kittel’s 2018 season, and he indicates that he will try to replicate the approach that led to so much joy this year.
Having had successful stints at the Giro in 2014 and 2016 – winning two stages on both occasions before making an early exit – this year Kittel went instead to train at altitude in Colorado in May, combining it with a rather less intense racing load at the Tour of California. It worked so well that it seems unlikely Kittel will return to the Giro, even if the short opening time trial and early flat stages represent another chance to don the maglia rosa.
“It’s always very hard to keep a nice balance in the season. My plan is not finished yet but I know I want to go to the Tour, and by taking that decision I know what it means for other races,” he says.
“We had a really nice plan towards the Tour with the altitude camp in Colorado, that was new to me and that combination to do it at this place, I was very happy with it. For me, I know now that altitude training works very well, so I have to keep doing that if I want to come to the top. That’s very important. If I could do it next year in Colorado in combination with the Tour of California, for example, it could be nice.”
While the maglia rosa is of little concern, the maillot jaune is certainly on the mind. Kittel won the opening stages of the 2013 and 2014 Tours and the next year's route, which was unveiled in Paris last month, once again begins with a flat stage in the Vendée region.
“I’ve looked at the route, and I’ve got a bit of an idea but I didn’t go into detail. In the end what you wrote, that’s what I read. The profiles aren’t out yet. We have to wait until then nobody can really say something about it because you don’t really know the climbs," Kittel said of the route, which was unveiled last month.
“In general it’s a good start for the sprinters. There’s a chance for yellow but not only for me – for a lot of guys. The chance is there. I’ve won it twice, I was once second, so I think I know how defeat and victory feels at that moment, and that’s motivation also.”