Marcel Kittel had a plane to catch, but while another rider might have used the fact to recuse himself from media duties after a disappointing afternoon, the German was of little mind to reach for excuses following Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne.
On exiting the Katusha-Alpecin bus to leave for the airport, Kittel paused to offer a frank assessment of his performance and his current state of form. He had appeared well-piloted by Marco Haller ahead of the bunch finish on De Panne's Zeelaan only to sit up before the sprint truly began, ultimately placing 30th in a race won by Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma).
Kittel was among the many riders compelled to chase back on when crashes briefly split the peloton on the finishing circuit around De Panne, but he refused to offer that up as justification for his travails in the closing kilometre. Groenewegen, after all, had found himself in precisely the same situation.
"Halfway through the last lap we were really far in the back after the crashes, and I had to put a lot of energy into coming back but that's no excuse: Dylan Groenewegen was on our wheel there as well, so it was still possible to win, as you see," Kittel said.
"In the final we tried to stay together. Marco [Haller] did his best. It was very hectic. I don't know what's going on and I don't want to find excuses or something, or keep saying that everything is fine. I'm not happy with today, I'm not happy with what happened in the final. I need to think about it again and try to do something better. But it's a difficult time, for sure."
Kittel endured a trying debut season with Katusha-Alpecin in 2018, when a brace of stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico were his only victories of the year. He ended his campaign prematurely in September, citing fatigue, but struck an optimistic note about his prospects of regaining his best form in 2019.
The 29-year-old has previous in that regard; a disastrous 2015 season was followed by a transfer from Giant-Alpecin to QuickStep and two years of plenty on Patrick Lefevere’s team. Victory at the Trofeo Palma this February initially suggested that a similar comeback might be in the offing, but that triumph was an illusory one. Thus far, Kittel's season has followed a similar, frustrating pattern to 2018.
"I think it's just a very difficult period, that’s how it feels," Kittel said. "I don't know if it's a mental or a physical thing, it's probably the combination of it. It's tough to deal with it at the moment, if I'm honest. I'm trying to give my best, trying to train as well as possible, watching my nutrition and everything. I have to keep doing this and keep fighting. I mean, I cannot give up here. I don't want to give up here. I'm concentrating on my next race."
Kittel made a late decision to add Paris-Nice to his programme in place of Tirreno-Adriatico, but he abandoned a wind-blasted edition of the Race to the Sun on stage 4 without having had the opportunity to contest a bunch finish. He declined to blame the missing race days for his struggles in De Panne.
"I've always also been good in races coming out of training. If this was Gent-Wevelgem or Flanders, it would be difficult if you’d missed Paris-Nice, but for here, I think I was physically fine," Kittel said.
Two weeks separate Kittel from his next outing at Scheldeprijs, a race he has won a record five times. Twelve months ago, the spate of punctures that took him out of the running there felt like a metaphor for a season where he never quite built up a head of steam. He will hope for a different kind of an omen in Schoten on April 10.
"I know it’s coming up and I'm concentrated on it," Kittel said of Scheldeprijs. "I'll go home and do a nice training plan with my trainer and then go into the race and do again my best. And then we will see what comes out of it."
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