DUBAI (VN) — Marcel Kittel followed a perfect leadout from his brand new Etixx – Quick-Step squad and jumped at 250 meters to go Wednesday, crossing the first finish line of his season with arms in the air in an act of triumph that helped excise the ghosts of a year lost.
Kittel’s 2015 story need not be retold. The illness, the bad form, the Tour de France snub, the critics clambering for the results he’d proven capable of — all are well known by now. The season the German sprinter would rather forget is still bitingly fresh in his memory, so much so that proving his doubters wrong was a primary source of motivation when he outkicked rival Mark Cavendish of Dimension Data to take his first win of the year at the Dubai Tour.
“I’m really happy to win today, because I think it was not everyone’s expectation that I could win like this,” Kittel said, sitting on a small white stool under a blue tent, a dozen microphones pointed at his face. “That was, for me, the challenge. To show all the critics that I got over the last months and year, who [said] I’m maybe not motivated, maybe lazy, to prove that completely wrong.
“The only thing that I found a bit disappointing was that people…” Kittel began, before pausing to re-think his answer. “Maybe there are reasons why they can’t see the whole story. I mean, I was sick, that was the reason, that was the problem for me in 2015. If you cannot start a season in a good way that you lose so many kilometers, then you will miss it at the end of the year. It destroyed my whole season.”
The first stage of the Dubai Tour was a long-awaited matchup between Cavendish and Kittel, a pair of sprint kings on new teams and coming off seasons that were rife with disappointment. It lived up to its billing: Kittel crossed the line first, Cavendish was second. The difference, it appeared, was mostly in the leadout. Kittel’s was close to perfect, Cav’s less so. Cavendish jumped once finally free of traffic and closed some of the German’s gap, but it was too late. That’s sprinting, a high-speed game of talent, team strength, and motivation.
On paper, the two teams are roughly equal. Much of Kittel’s leadout on Wednesday were members of Cavendish’s leadout before he left Etixx last year. Iljo Keisse, Tony Martin, and Matteo Trentin, in particular, are all well trained in the art of sprint finishes. On the other side of the duel, Cavendish’s old HTC-Highroad band is back together at Dimension Data. The team signed Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw, the latter of whom was a crucial half of what was perhaps the most powerful leadout/sprinter duo in the history of the sport.
“For me, it’s not [in] my head that Cav was there before me,” Kittel said of taking Cavendish’s place at the back of the Etixx train. “We are now completely focused on us, on doing good leadouts, on winning races, and Cav is doing the same with his team. There are so many sprint challenges coming up this year, there will be a moment when we lose a sprint against Cav, or someone else. This is part of the sport.”
Kittel seemed somewhat surprised by the day’s success and how smooth the victory was. The team worked on its sprint tactics over the winter, but nothing can replicate a real race scenario.
“It’s hard to work on a leadout, but we worked on sprint training,” Kittel said. “We also talked about how the composition of the team can be the best for the sprints. We brought a really strong team here. In the end you’re never sure what’s going to happen in the first day, especially for me because I had never raced with the boys in this group. It’s a very good level that we can start [from] now.”
The confidence an early win can bring shouldn’t be undervalued. For a smiling Kittel, who now holds the overall lead and the sprinter’s jersey at Dubai, the early success surely took pressure off. He proved that last season was the fluke, not the success that came before it.
“Other people started to say, ‘he’s maybe lazy.’ That was really the challenge,” Kittel said. “This year I really wanted to win. I’m super happy that it happened already this stage.”