In the highly competitive world of sprinting, standing still is the same as going backwards, and Marcel Kittel appears well aware that this winter must be used appropriately if he is to carry on down the path to reclaiming his throne as the fastest man in the world.
The 2016 season was one of success for the German sprinter with a stage in the Tour de France, two wins at the Giro d'Italia, a record-breaking fourth Scheldeprijs title, and numerous other accolades along the way. After a hugely disappointing 2015 Kittel is once again among the best sprinters in the world.
"This has been a good year, really, and I’m very happy with my first year at Etixx," he told Cyclingnews in a recent interview at the Saitama Criterium.
"I had a great start with the team with a win at the Dubai Tour and immediately felt harmony with my new teammates. At all the targeted races we had this year we won and that was important for me after a difficult 2015."
The previous winter saw Kittel leave Giant-Alpecin after the relationship between the two parties soured. His contract was torn up – mutually – and Patrick Lefevere, on the lookout for a new sprinter, jumped at the chance to kick-start a career that could have descended into free-fall.
Luckily, Lefevere already had a leadout train in place after Mark Cavendish's tenure but Kittel and his new teammates needed time to gel. Fabio Sabatini was dispatched into the role of Kittel's final man, while Tony Martin would often start the leadout's engine in his usual diesel-like style. The season started brightly but the natural niggles that only racing can unearth took time to resolve. It meant that Kittel missed out on improving his win tally, a feature he is keen to resolve.
"Next year I just need to keep working. I don't think I've learnt anything majorly new but I've just kept on improving. So areas like the leadout, and that was maybe one of the lessons we learned from the Tour de France, you can still improve. For myself I just need to keep my condition high.
"We constantly worked on the leadout this year. I was new on the team and had to get to know all of my teammates. That happened and there were good moments and difficult moments but we always tried to make the best out of it. If you see how strong this team is in general, there's no reason to complain."
'You can't replace a four-time world champion'
One area of concern for 2017 surrounds the loss of Martin to Katusha. The German provided Etixx with a number of skills, not least his calmness under pressure, and his shoes will be difficult to fill given that he could win races in his own right – whether road races or time trials – and could supply ammo to both sprinters and GC men.
"We have a few strong new riders in the team for next year and we always look at new formations and new positions with the teammates we have. That's always worked well. We have a really experienced leadout and obviously for me Sabatini is my last man. That's not even a discussion but let's say he's out or he's ill, we've still got other guys who can replace him for that moment," Kittel tells Cyclingnews.
"Losing Tony, though, is big blow both for the leadout and the team. He was the biggest engine in the team and for team time trial he is a loss. You can't replace a four-time world champion and that's something that the team has to consider for next year.
"We have guys like Jack Bauer and the young German rider Max Schachmann. He's showed what he can do at the U23 Worlds. I'm confident that we can find a solution."
However Etixx replace Martin's role, one almost-certainty is that Kittel will not fall victim to the same scenario that plagued his 2015 campaign. That year saw little success but it taught him a lot from an emotional point of view – far more than, say, losses and victories on the road.
"I was hungry, really hungry. I wanted to prove myself against my main opponents because it was a lost year in terms of success. It was a missed year in terms of the goals I set and that was disappointing, for sure," he says.
"I got sick, and then it just took time to recover. When I came back it was already May and if you think about how early the season starts, if you don't have a good enough level from the beginning then it's very hard to play catch up. It didn't work out for the Tour de France but I went again and won a stage at the Tour of Poland. After that I just tried to finish the year in a good way and in a way I was already working on 2016 in my head."
As for 2017, Kittel has yet to finalise his plans and calendar. One race that attracts his attention is Milan-San Remo – a race he has never started but is well equipped to contest if he can lug himself over the final brace of climbs.
"There are a couple of races I'd like to do. Milan-San Remo could be one of those but I'll sit down with my team, make a plan and then see how it goes.
"In general it's a race that I'd like to try and that's an experience that I'd like to have. For now if I'm in a top shape then I can be competitive there. I hope… we don't know yet."
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