Kittel plays down Milan-San Remo ambitions after first win with Katusha-Alpecin
'The most important thing was to keep the faith'
Marcel Kittel savoured his first-ever victory in Italy at Tirreno-Adriatico but quickly played down expectations that his first success with Katusha-Alpecin and his first-ever success in the Bel Paese means he is automatically a contender for Milan-San Remo.
Kittel now has 87 race wins and has been a professional for seven seasons. He won two stages at the 2014 Giro d'Italia and two more at the 2016 Corsa Rosa, but they were in Belfast, Dublin, Nijmegen and Arnhem, after two Grand Partenza in Northern Ireland and the Netherlands.
His first win in Italy, and his first in Katusha-Alpecin red and celeste blue, came after a series of placings and sprint frustration at the Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour. This time his lead out on the Follonica seafront was excellent, despite a hectic sprint, and he used his power to lead out the sprint and finish off the job.
Kittel had not won since taking his five victories at the 2017 Tour de France some eight months ago. For any sprinter that is close to a lifetime and far too long.
"Eight months? Really? That was the last victory? That's a long time ago," Kittel asked and admitted in the post-race press conference.
"I didn't honestly think about that. Now it just feels especially good to start in 2018 with the team was actually as we expected it. We knew that not everything would go perfectly straight away, that there'd be bad luck. We had to deal with defeats, but that's part of the development, to create our own group and our own way of working in the sprints.
"I'm very happy it happened today, for me and the boys. It gives us a big boost and brings back a lot of confidence.
"The best part of today is that we really believed in it and gave everything to win. The boys brought me in the right position. Rick Zabel did a pull of 500 metres. I was really strong, so I could choose when to start my sprint. I felt good and very hungry, so I gave everything to make it happen today."
Kittel had always shrugged off any suggestion of pressure and expectation to win, even when the new Katusha-Alpecin lead-out train derailed in sprints. When his teammates occasionally exchanged heated words, he stayed cool and collected, confident the first win would eventually come.
"The most important thing was to keep the faith, to never stop believing in myself and as a team and in our capabilities," he explained with maturity.
"That's what I tried to do. Of course, when you're that close as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, it's easy to give up but I never considered that. I knew I was in good shape and done everything possible in my training. The team is in good shape too, so we just tried to be concentrated and to keep the spirit up. Chapeau to everyone in the team. We stayed positive in the way we think. That helps to endure a period like this when you don't win.
"Five years ago when I turned pro, I'd have really struggled in a moment like this. When you have your goals and only experiencing set back it's not as, but I learnt how to deal with it after 2015. I'm more grown up now and that definitely helped me. It also reflects on the team in some sort of way."
Milan-San Remo ambitions
Kittel's victory ahead of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) sparked a series of questions about if he will line up for a shot for a possible sprint in the Via Roma.
Surprisingly, Kittel has never ridden 'La Primavera'. He has always avoided testing himself on the long route and late Capi climbs that characterise Milan-San Remo, perhaps afraid of revealing his limit on the climbs.
He again held off any pressure to finally ride Milan-San Remo just as well as he handled the recent pressure on him to win his sprint with Katusha-Alpecin.
"The plan is to decide things after Tirreno-Adriatico. If I go to Milan-San Remo, then for me it'll be in a free role. There are no expectations on me, the team will have other leaders," he said.
"I've never done it and I'd really like to do it. Now is a good moment but depends on my condition. If I go, I go to get to know this race, to gain some experience and to see what it's like.
"I want to get a decision within myself if I'm a type of rider for the race. Other riders have made it to the finish, I believe I can have a chance but I know I need some experience. I think a sprinter should be at the start once in his life, I think it's a nice dream for me."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has been Head of News at Cyclingnews since 2022, before which he held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and CyclingWeekly, among other publications.