Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) has been the poster boy of German cycling's recent recovery. His victories helped to renew the interest of public broadcasters and his easy-going manner managed to restore the affection of the public. His carefully coiffured hair even played a part in attracting a major sponsor – Alpecin shampoo – into the sport three years ago.
And yet, as the Tour de France starts from Germany for the first time in 30 years, some reminders of a problematic past still linger. This July marks the 20th anniversary of Jan Ullrich's Tour victory, the first and still only time a German has won the race, but it is also the 11th anniversary of Ullrich's implication in the Operacion Puerto blood doping inquiry and the abrupt end to his career.
Earlier this week, it emerged that Ullrich had not been formally invited to attend the Grand Départ in Düsseldorf and would instead participate in a charity race in Bocholt to mark his 1997 Tour victory. On Saturday afternoon, as the 198 starters hurtle around the streets of Düsseldorf, the episode will hardy warrant a second thought, but in the days leading up to the race, Ullrich's absence has been generating headlines in Germany and beyond.
When asked for his take on the Ullrich situation in Düsseldorf on Thursday afternoon, Kittel gently insisted on responding in his native German, lest his words be misunderstood. Although Ullrich belatedly confessed to doping in 2013, he has never spoken in any depth about the specifics, and therein, Kittel said, lies the obstacle.
"He has to deal with his past, this is what the German public expects. He has to say clearly what happened, and that's the big problem," Kittel said. "If he did that, then I think that he would be back on the cycling circuit, and he would be welcome to the Tour de France like the others. But it's the decision of Jan.
"The Ullrich case was investigated by others, but he himself did not do much to explain to the public what happened and deal with his past. But everybody deserves a second chance."
Kittel's words are in keeping with the opinion he offered on taking the maillot jaune at the 2013 Tour, when he called on Ullrich to make a full confession because it would be "the best way to make peace with himself." And also, it seems, to make peace with German cycling.
Kittel has twice claimed the yellow jersey on the opening day of the Tour, in 2013 and 2014, but knows that he will not make it a hat-trick at the German Grand Départ. The opening 14-kilometre time trial appears to have been designed with his fellow countryman Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) in mind, and Kittel will not even have the opportunity to contest a sprint in Germany, as the race crosses into Belgium for the finish of stage 2 in Liège.
"You can ask for a lot but I think it's already a success that the Grand Départ is here," Kittel smiled. "Of course, a sprint finish would have been nice as well. But I don't want to complain because I'm very happy to have a Grand Départ in Germany."
Given his own time trialling pedigree, Kittel might yet perform strongly enough in Saturday's opening test to put himself within striking distance of the maillot jaune in the days that immediately follow, though he was coy about the prospect during Quick-Step's pre-race media event on Thursday.
"I won't put myself into that place because then the disappointment is maybe big. I'll just do my best," Kittel said. "I'm here for sprinting not for time trialling, everything else is extra."
A scan of the parcours suggests that Kittel and the sprinters could have as many as nine opportunities to contest stage victory on this Tour, a welcome development for the German after he picked up a single stage on the more limited pickings of a year ago. Kittel has won nine stages at the Tour since opening his account in 2013, and will expect to add to the tally this time around, with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) present but still recovering from the effects of glandular fever.
"I think the first half as far as the rest day is full of opportunities for sprinters, so it's nice to see a Grand Tour that offers everything: something for the sprinters, something for the all-rounders in the medium mountain stages, and of course the mountain stages," Kittel said. "That's how it has to be, and that's what makes the race interesting."
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