It was announced on Thursday that Kittel is taking a break from cycling and that his contract with Katusha-Alpecin has been terminated with immediate effect and by mutual consent.
"It was for me a long decision process where I raised a lot of questions about how and where I want to go as a person and athlete and what is really important to me," Kittel said. "From now on I will put my happiness and joy above everything and seek ways to find this also in my future."
The 30-year-old hinted at a possible return to competition at some point in the future, and his former boss Lefevere cannot see him not making a comeback at some point.
"I cannot believe he is done," Lefevere told Cyclingnews. "He's not injured, he didn't do stupid things. For me, he is still the fastest rider in the bunch. He needs a good lead-out and everything to go well, but, on a purely athletic basis, he is, in my opinion, the fastest.
"A rider of his age cannot be done. You have to find the reason, and address it."
Lefevere knows Kittel's situation better than most. It was he who signed the German when he was at a low ebb at the end of a disastrous 2015 season with Team Sunweb – then Giant-Alpecin. Over the course of two seasons in QuickStep blue, Kittel won 26 races, including six stages of the Tour de France, and it appeared his career was back on track. However, since transferring to Katusha-Alpecin in 2018 he has won just three races and, prior to terminating his contract, pulled out of the Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of California at late notice.
"I was maybe the lucky guy, because at his former team he didn't perform, then he performed with me, and now he does not perform again," Lefevere said.
"I remember when I signed him, I took a helicopter to Amsterdam, met him and spoke for 30 minutes and agreed things there. At the start of the season we did not speak too much about his previous problems. We knew more or less what happened and it was up to us to get the maximum out of him as a rider, without putting too much pressure on him mentally and physically."
Lefevere says "mental pressure" is a particular problem for Kittel, and has no problem describing his former rider as ‘fragile'.
"He is fragile, otherwise he wouldn't be in the position he's in now," he said.
"When we signed him, we knew he was very fragile so for his first race we took him to the Dubai Tour with zero pressure. We said ‘don't worry, try to sprint and see how it goes – if it doesn't work out then that's ok, no one is dead, we move on'.
"We won the first stage, then the second, and we won the GC. That was it. He had his confidence back, he had the confidence of the team, and we won a lot of races together."
As for the future, if Lefevere has such belief in Kittel's quality, speculation will mount over a possible return to the team. The Belgian manager has operated something of a revolving door when it comes to sprinters in the past few years, signing cheap or young and seemingly getting the best out of the likes of Kittel, Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria, Fabio Jakobsen, and Alvaro Hodeg.
If and when Kittel feels ready to return to racing is a matter that will take time to work out, but if so, he woud no longer command the sort of salary he went to Katusha for, and it is already known that QuickStep is an environment that works for him.
"I've only just read about this news," Lefevere said. "It's far too early to be thinking about that."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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