Sign up for our newsletter


Marcel Kittel interview

Marcel Kittel interview
James Witts
27 Apr 2015

Ah the benefit of hindsight. We asked Marcel Kittel about his plans ahead of the 2014 Tour de France. If only we'd placed a bet...

It’s mid-April in Antwerp and the sun is shining over this historic city, casting a large shadow in front of Marcel Kittel. It’s the only thing that’s been ahead of the German sprinter since his arrival in Belgium for the semi-classic known as the Scheldeprijs. A day earlier he’d regained the title for the third year in succession, sending his 6ft 2in, 86kg chassis clear of Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar and Trek Factory Racing’s Danny van Poppel. Today is a day off from racing, and 26-year-old Kittel is in relaxed mode. ‘I love coffee,’ he says. ‘No, I really love coffee,’ he adds for emphasis.

Ah, perhaps this will be the chink in his armour when he visits tea-focused Yorkshire in July [2014] to do battle with Mark Cavendish for the yellow jersey on offer at the end of stage one. Certainly Cav will be looking for any advantage he can get because the German is fast laying claim to be the fastest sprinter in the peloton. 

Yorkshire recce

The Twitterati reached a crescendo of excitement (as much as you can do in 140 characters or less) in late April when Kittel and his Dutch team, Giant-Shimano, were in the UK, checking out part of the route of stages one and two of this year’s Tour, including zig-zagging up the toughest gradient they’ll face in Yorkshire, the 30% ascent of Sheffield’s Jenkin Road. ‘After riding that first stage, I think we can be confident of achieving one of our main goals, which is to take the yellow jersey on day one,’ Kittel says, before revealing cryptically: ‘We now have two options for the sprint. What happens afterwards, I’ve no idea. Of course, there are stages you can target but you must see how that first stage goes. What I can say is that stage two is more like a hilly classic than a stage of the Tour. We rode the second half and completed more than 1,500m climbing. Double that and it’s going to be very difficult.’

Marcel Kittel giant

Unlike the Orica-Greenedge bus driver, Kittel will look for a repeat of last year’s opening stage when the then Argos-Shimano rider, in his second Tour, cruised past Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff to propel himself onto the world stage. By the time dusk descended on the Champs-Élysées, Kittel had pocketed four stage victories compared to Mark Cavendish’s two. While the British public questioned who the hell this two-wheeled Dolph Lundgren lookalike was, it came as no surprise to the peloton. Corsica was Kittel’s 12th victory of the year. Come the end of 2013, that total had risen to 16.

Could the young German be ein strohfeuer (a flash in the pan)? Five wins already in 2014 [June] suggests not. His year began with victory at the Down Under Classic (the warm-up to the Tour Down Under), followed by three wins in a row at February’s Tour of Dubai. At the time of this interview he is gearing up for the Tour of Romandie ‘It’s not a race for sprinters so for the most part I’ll be helping my team. But, of course, if I get a chance I’ll go for it and test my shape for the Giro.’

If all goes to plan, Kittel could pull off the unique feat of winning two UK stages in two separate Grand Tour events in the same year, having taken back-to-back victories in stages 2 and 3 of the Giro. Recent years have seen world-class sprinters withdrawing from the Giro once the mountain stages come into view, preferring to save their legs for the Tour. And perhaps it wasn’t the biggest shock when Kittel pulled out after the third stage with a fever. Cavendish was an exception in 2013, riding all the way to Milan en route to the points classification title. A great victory but one that took a physical toll come July.

Whatever shape Cav’s in this year, things have changed – Kittel will head to the Tour as the man to beat. Over the three weeks of the race, there are nine stages that’ll be on his radar. He’s a year older, stronger, more tactically astute and, perhaps most importantly in the psychological war that is sprinting, has seared his daunting anatomy into the minds of his rivals. So can he eclipse Cav’s six stage victories back in 2009? ‘I’d never say I want to win the same or more,’ he says. ‘That would apply pressure that neither the team nor myself needs. Of course, other teams are looking for us to control the race and that’s a new challenge. But by creating that situation, the pressure is only as big as you make it.’

The signs are that Kittel will cope effortlessly with moving from being the hunter to the hunted. He’s a charming and intelligent rider whose mantra is perspective. ‘At the end of the day, it’s just a bike race – it’s not war,’ he says. Of course, his relaxed attitude hides a more fiery temper when things go wrong. Just over 2km from stage two’s finish at March’s Tirreno-Adriatico, Kittel crashed, sprang to his feet and showed his disgust by slamming his bike to the ground. ‘I’m very sorry for throwing my beloved Giant Propel,’ he tweeted later. ‘We’re just having an intense relationship.’

In perspective

Marcel Kittel haïr

A temporary melting of his ice-cool demeanour offered a glimpse of the fires that burn beneath his tanned, muscular exterior. Which shouldn’t surprise. The dedication to become a professional cyclist, let alone one whose every move is scrutinised, analysed and interpreted (correctly or not), requires a mix of pragmatism and passion. He’s regularly achieved the perfect balance since gravitating to the bike from track and field at the age of 13 and joining his local club RSV Adler Arnstadt (the Arnstadt Eagles).

‘Even from an early age, if I won I’ve managed to keep a level head,’ he says. ‘My father taught me that, whichever race you do, just do your best but don’t put pressure on yourself to win. In many ways, he taught me how to lose – which is good because that happens a lot in cycling.’ His father imparted more than competing with honour to his son. He was a cyclist himself, a sprinter, and taught young Marcel the minutiae of handling a bike. Kittel’s mother was an elite high jumper. ‘I must thank my parents for good genes,’ Kittel says. ‘You can’t achieve anything in this sport without the right DNA.’

The powerhouse that conquers all wasn’t always muscle and quads. But even as a gangly teen, Kittel racked up the victories. On leaving school in his hometown of Arnstadt – famous for its association with Johann Sebastian Bach – he moved to Erfurt Sport School where he could continue his studies but crank up the training. It paid off handsomely. In 2005, at the age of 17, he won the World Junior Time-Trial Championships in Vienna. A year later he retained the title in Spa. Alongside his physical and sporting development came education and an eye – albeit one half-shut – on a career away from the peloton. He studied computer science while at Erfurt and nearly joined the police force.

But the thrill of the ride had captivated Kittel and, buoyed by those world titles, at 19 he joined the Pro Continental team Thuringer Energie. He raced for them between 2007 and 2010, success interspersed with illness and injury particularly in that final year. ‘Despite that, Iwan Spekenbrink [general manager] of Pro Continental Skil-Shimano gave me my professional opportunity.’ Kittel took it, but only after the team had spotted that his sprinting potential eclipsed his current performance in the time-trial.

Marcel Kittel portrait

In 2011 Kittel won 17 times, second only to Philippe Gilbert, including four stage wins at the Tour of Poland. The neo-pro also raced his first Grand Tour, winning stage seven of the Vuelta a España before withdrawing through fatigue five stages later. 2012 saw him dominate the semi-classic calendar, winning his first Scheldeprijs crown and the Omloop van het Houtland. Those results helped his team, now under the co-sponsorship of oil company Argos, to be granted World Tour status for 2013.

Morphing from time-triallist to sprinter played to the strengths of an athlete who admits that a monastic lifestyle doesn’t come naturally. ‘Strict schedules and nutrition plans cannot help me. It’s not who I am and doesn’t work,’ Kittel says. ‘I can be strict for certain periods like in the build-up and during the Tour but if, for example, I want a slab of meat, I’ll have a slab of meat.’

This trust in intuition over empirical evidence (heart data, watts…) is crucial to a sprinter’s success. Yes, those quads can unleash up to 1,800 watts of power when the finish chute arrives, but key to weaving your way through a fast-moving body of men and machines, when fatigue levels are high, is an innate awareness of where your team-mates, rivals and rivals’ lead-outs are. In this brave new world where teams extol data crunching over pill popping, it’s the sprinter that remains the purist rider in the peloton. ‘It’s hard to practise lead-outs in training because you can never replicate that stressful race atmosphere where teams are bumping into each other and fighting for space. You need races to train in – that’s how we see it.’

No fear

That clear thinking married with Kittel’s magnanimousness in defeat provides the perfect blend for a winner. In sports psychology there’s a motivational model known as ‘NAF NACH’, which aims to find where your motivation comes from to determine how likely you are to succeed. Essentially it’s whether your motivation is driven by a need to avoid failure (NAF) or a need to achieve (NACH). The former may struggle to accept a challenge, dislike 50-50 situations and be pessimistic. People who compete because they need to achieve seek out challenges, aren’t afraid of failure and are optimistic. Kittel is firmly in the NACH camp.

Of course, it’s not just tactics and mental acumen that Kittel has in his armoury. His anatomy is simply daunting. At 6ft 2in and 86kg, he dwarfs Cav’s 5ft 9in 69kg frame. Depending on the camera angle, often it looks like he’s riding a child’s bike, so impressive is his stature. That all-white Argos-Shimano outfit certainly proved the psychologists right when they say white makes you look bigger and faster.

Marcel Kittel riding

In person, when loose slacks conceal his voluminous quads, that physicality is less imposing. Still, you know the power’s there and isn’t simply down to fine genes from his parents. ‘I work heavily on my sprints during endurance rides,’ he says. ‘And in the winter I’m really busy in the gym, doing a lot of squats – around 120kg – and core workouts. The focus then is on high weights and low repetitions to build power output. In the summer, weight sessions are less frequent and the workouts comprise lower weights and more repetitions. This adds sustainability to your sprints.’

Fuelling victory

To complement his training and racing, Kittel eats. A lot. Which is good because he loves food. Those detrimental effects to Kittel’s psyche – and subsequent performance – of living on a diet of ‘little taste and water’ means if the mood takes him he’ll happily tuck into his mum’s lasagna or, another favourite, sauerkraut. Kittel’s menu does remain free of French fries, pizza and sweets, though he admits to upsetting the team’s dietician through a love of chocolate spread. ‘We have a food box in the hotel hallways for the team, and they’ve banned Nutella. I can tell you, there were some big discussions that took place about that. Sometimes a jar will sneak its way in there, though. I don’t know how…’

It might not be up there with Mario Cippolini’s antics, but it hints at Kittel’s impish side. Light relief is a godsend in the intense environment of professional cycling teams. Up to 25 men in the same hotel, night after night for up to 100 race nights a year, could test the mettle of the most saintly rider. And that’s not including training camps. In the recce in Yorkshire, for instance, he was accompanied by team-mates Bert de Backer, Koen de Kort, Albert Timmer, Tom Veelers and fellow sprint star and runner-up at this year’s Paris-Roubaix, John Degenkolb. Kittel used to race Degenkolb as a youngster, and since then they’ve either competed with or against each other. The relationship with Degenkolb remains strong despite his team-mate’s own sprinting prowess. It’s a sacrifice Kittel is grateful for. ‘Sprinting is just the role that I have the privilege of doing. But I’m always looking to give back to the team. It’s not easy because when you’re not going for the win, you’re expected to conserve energy. But I want to show I can help the team as a worker, too.’

It’s a selfless aspiration, though one the management at Giant-Shimano will inevitably weigh up against the potential lost column inches and TV coverage if their man disappears in the slipstream of Greipel and co. What’s more probable is Kittel helping German cycling regain a position of respect in his homeland. Cycling is no longer shown on the main German TV channels after a huge backlash to numerous doping scandals and the fall of their national hero, Jan Ullrich. Instead, coverage is restricted to Eurosport. For a country that won 96 times in 2013, accumulating 8,170 points in the process to finish third in the UCI standings, Kittel is understandably frustrated. ‘Last year was a good year for German cycling. We had six German wins at the Tour de France; Tony Martin became World Time-Trial Champion once again; John [Degenkolb] and I had good seasons. That created a lot of attention but still they want more. Cycling deserves another chance after years of suffering but Germany isn’t that open-minded sometimes. Maybe they need Ullrich to show more contrition for his past misdemeanours but we can’t influence that. It makes me angry.’

Marcel Kittel smile

Although Ullrich admitted doping early in 2013, countless legal issues hang over the 40-year-old. But it’s his lack of remorse that still rankles. ‘I would give Armstrong his tour victories back,’ Ullrich told Sport Bild magazine last year. ‘That was how it was back then.’ If German TV is waiting for Ullrich to repent on their equivalent to Oprah, they’ll be waiting a long time. He now resides in Switzerland, leaving Kittel and his countrymen to race over his debris.

Lie-detector test

Ullrich’s tainted blood is at odds with Kittel’s approach to professional sport. He’s a vociferous proponent of anti-doping and in the past has taken to Twitter to vent his anger. ‘I feel sick when I read that Contador, Sanchez and Indurain still support Armstrong. How does someone want to be credible saying that?’ he tweeted in response to the Spanish trio’s previous pro-Armstrong comments.

Of course, cycling’s past echoes loudly to the choir of hollow protestations. Kittel, though, is doing more than most to back up the rhetoric, going so far as taking a lie-detector test to prove he’s never doped. He took the test at the request of Sport Bild last year in response to him admitting he’d undergone UV light blood treatment ‘a few times’ when training at the Erfurt Sports School. The procedure is used to speed up recovery from injury and was considered not to be doping by the Court of Arbitration late in 2013.

‘The magazine approached us and I had nothing to hide, so they came to my place and we did the test,’ Kittel says, before offering his own ideas on how to clean up the sport. ‘You should have more tests, definitely. But it’s important you educate the riders and make them aware of the dangers of situations when they can be tempted to do something wrong. That’s what we do in our team, coaching young riders to make them responsible and stronger. To make them think about things and create opinion. Education is very important. It’s a powerful tool.’

Marcel Kittel interview

Perhaps Kittel’s lie-detector path is the route to follow. With the spectre of genetic manipulation looming, maybe analysis of the thing you can’t hide – the brain’s reaction to lying – is the only sure-fire way to catch the cheats. MRI brain scans are near 100% accurate in determining if an individual is telling the truth. They’ve been used in the past to verify that players weren’t over-age to play in the under-17 football World Cup, and could complement the current biological blood passport. ‘If it helps clean up the sport, that could be an option,’ says Kittel.

If the serious issue of doping is something that concerns Kittel deeply, it is perhaps only matched by a subject equally close to his heart: hair. ‘Today I’ve used spray and a bit of gel,’ he says, running his hands over his head as if he’d just stepped out of a salon. ‘But normally it’s just gel as it’s easier. To be honest, I usually just wear a hat as I’m too lazy to brush it.’

His dashing looks, Hollywood hair and golden tan are a publicist’s dream and, along with Sagan, Kittel is one of the most marketable cyclists in the peloton. But Kittel’s much more than good looks and speed. His humility is matched by an intelligence and maturity that belies his 26 years. Britain is a nation that often revels in jingoism – just wait for the World Cup to begin – and a lethargic scriptwriter can easily fashion a proud, passionate Brit (Cav) against a meticulous, calculating German. But if Kittel does win that first stage in Harrogate, the only resentment will be that celebrating with a Yorkshire tea just won’t do. ‘I’m sorry, but it’s coffee all the way…’

Read more about: