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Kittel returns to Ster ZLM Toer a new man

Last year Marcel Kittel went to the Ster ZLM Toer hoping to prove to his then Giant-Alpecin team that he was in good enough shape for their Tour de France team after struggling for several months with viruses that eroded his form. Yet the German came away from the Dutch stage race having failed to convince Giant’s management that he was ready. As a result, instead of staking their Tour hopes on a sprinter who had won eight stages in the two previous Tours, Giant decided to omit him from their line-up.

Twelve months on, Kittel’s situation could hardly be any more different. Speaking to Cyclingnews on the eve of the Ster ZLM Toer, the German is in new team colours and looks revitalised, a smile never far from his face. Ten wins including two at the Giro d’Italia for Etixx-Quickstep back up that assessment.

“Things have changed massively since I came to this race last year. Back then my form wasn’t good and there were all kinds of questions hanging over me,” Kittel said. “It couldn’t be any more different coming back here this year.

“But it is what it is, and I’m happy that we’re a year on from that time and that the situation is very different and definitely a lot better than last time. It’s good to have my focus back on what I’d like it to be on, which is what is coming up at the Tour and especially in the sprints.”

The Dutch race is his first since he pulled out of the Giro prior to the stage nine Chianti time trial due to fatigue. After a month out of racing, he’s arrived at it with his focus on fine-tuning his form before the Tour, which begins in a fortnight. He insists he’s not thinking about July too much, but is relishing his return to the sport’s biggest race, which begins with a stage to Utah Beach which should end with a bunch sprint that will put the winner in the yellow jersey.

“It doesn’t occupy my thoughts too much at the moment, but I know it’s not far away now and I am thinking about it, but not daily and certainly not every hour or second,” he said. “I do have my objectives for the Tour. I definitely know about the first stage and I want to be good on that day. However, like every previous year, I’ll start the Tour and just see how it goes, take it day by day. Of course, the first stage is very important, but it’s not the end of the Tour de France.”

Despondent at the same stage last year, Kittel’s spirits are at very much the other end of the scale now. He believes the move to Etixx-QuickStep has reinvigorated him. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ve done an incredible job in the races that we’ve done together. We weren’t only strong, but we were smart as well, which is a very important point for me,” he explained. “The successes we’ve had have provided a great base to work from and from which to target even more success.”

Beyond the Tour, Kittel and many other sprinters will set their sights on the Worlds in Qatar, where the course will certainly suit them. But he refuses to be drawn on his hopes for that race or on how the German team might tackle it with André Greipel and John Degenkolb also likely to be strong contenders.

“We’ll have to see about the Worlds. I won’t engage in any discussion about them until the Tour is over,” he insisted. “The Tour’s the race that will show once again who the fastest guy is, especially over three weeks. So far I think I’ve got every reason to be relaxed and looked forward to what is my next goal.”

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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).