Like Mark Cavendish before him, Marcel Kittel has discovered that when a sprinter reaches a certain, rarefied level, his defeats become more newsworthy than his victories. After winning 26 races during an all-conquering two-year stint at Quick-Step Floors, Kittel must have known that every setback in his maiden season at Katusha-Alpecin would be parsed to the umpteenth degree.
The nadir of a difficult debut season came at last month’s Tour de France, where Kittel failed to win a stage and was eliminated after finishing outside the time limit at La Rosière on the second day in the Alps. By then, a throwaway line from directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev in an interview with L’Équipe – “We pay him a lot of money, but he is only interested in himself” – had already generated its share of headlines. Come the third week of the Tour, it was being reported that Kittel was looking to extricate himself from his contract with Katusha for 2019 – a rumour he has robustly denied.
“It’s bullshit.I don’t understand it. I never said that, and I’ve also never considered it. I guess that’s just something that happens during the Tour de France when all the media is looking for stories, but it’s just not true,” Kittel told Cyclingnews at the BinckBank Tour on Thursday. “For me, this whole topic is now closed. I’m moving on, I’m over it, and I hope the journalists are also over it. I’m concentrating on the last weeks of my season now.”
Kittel finds himself at the BinckBank Tour looking to put a different complexion on a season that has, at various points, promised much, but so far delivered just two victories. In 2015, Kittel’s final season with Giant-Shimano was all but wiped out by a long-running illness, but, this time out, there has been no single explanation for his relative dearth of victories. Instead, the German has seemed beset at every turn by a maddening accumulation of minor problems.
In the early weeks of the campaign, he seemed out of synch with his new lead-out train, but the problem appeared to be remedied by the time he delivered a brace of stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico in March. In April, Kittel looked on course for a sixth Scheldeprijs only for his race to be undone by a late puncture – his third of the afternoon.
After a low-key build-up to the Tour de France, Kittel was in the mix on the opening day in the Vendée, placing third behind Fernando Gaviria and Peter Sagan in the bunch sprint, but his race petered out thereafter. He made little impact as the week progressed and only had a clear run at one more sprint finale – he placed fifth in Sarzeau on stage 4 – before his elimination.
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