Towards the end of the Dubai Tour – as I made yet another ‘Where’s Wally?’ joke – I began to wonder precisely how much I liked Marcel Kittel. I’m a big Mark Cavendish fan and the fan club rules say I’m not allowed to like Kittel. Riding for Giant, Kittel arrived on the frontline and kicked the Manxman off his throne with a succession of easy sprint wins. Cavendish fought a losing battle in his time with Quick-Step but the rivalry kept him hungry. Moving to Dimension Data, Cav responded by taking four brilliant stages of the 2016 Tour de France. They were great rivals and I needed to pick a side; it was always going to be Cavendish.
Secretly, however, I did like Marcel Kittel. I made my debut in a fantasy cycling game for the 2013 Tour and was in a league with a group of friends who all picked the likes of Froome, Cavendish and Greipel (one maverick chose Ryder Hesjedal after reading he had won the Giro). I took a punt on Marcel ‘the next big thing’ Kittel and watched with pleasant surprise as he blitzed four stages and steered my fantasy team to the easiest of victories.
Nevertheless, it was Stage 10 of that year’s Tour where it first became apparent I couldn’t support both Kittel and Cavendish. The German had raced off the front of the peloton to take a third stage win and behind Cavendish made contact with Argos-Shimano leadout man Tom Veelers. Their clash of arms was taken out of proportion but it highlighted a very real feud between the new kids on the block and cycling’s star sprinter. Veelers called it a body check. A rattled Cavendish snatched a reporter’s tape recorder in an animated defence.
Kittel quickly rose to the top of the sport but the 2015 season introduced a whole new side to his character; an apparent mental fragility. By all accounts, Kittel picked up a virus after riding in Australia at the start of the season but the saga dragged on for longer than anybody expected. He was a non-factor for most of the spring and a failure to overcome a lack of fitness led to him being cut from Giant’s Tour de France squad.
Kittel was gutted and perhaps more sour towards management than others would have been. He was their star performer and needed to be loved. Teammate John Degenkolb had taken out two fantastic Monuments and, in doing so, prevented the team from suffering an immense Kittel-sized hole.
2016 was Kittel’s most peculiar year. Crowned King of Dubai, Kittel took two superb stages at the Giro before running into a resurgent Cavendish at the Tour. He looked good all season but with less sheen than in his electric early years.
Any doubts about his happiness at new team Quick-Step were put on hold at the 2017 Tour when he stomped his way to five stages dispatching rivals like wrestlers thrown out of the ring.
Sport’s dominant characters are easy to cheer against because everybody loves an upset. However, despite his five wins, Kittel quickly returned to a figure of sadness when falling badly ill on Stage 17 when wearing the green jersey. I found no enjoyment in his abandoning of the race and a tasty green jersey battle with a Michael Matthews came to an abrupt end.
For some reason Kittel just can’t quite become the all-conquering sprinter that he so often threatens to be. I’m ready to oppose him – and happy to make jokes at his expense – but every time he goes through his own personal hell I find myself cheering the inevitable return to form. The most recent example came at the Abu Dhabi Tour where – after two days of playing a private game of hide and seek – Kittel made a dramatic late surge to take a remarkable second.
Whether it’s plodding round Australia barely resembling a pro cyclist, fighting his way up the Hatta Dam, getting dropped on the Poggio, or hopping into a team car at the Tour de France, Kittel continues to give me reasons to get behind him. The worst points of his career are probably the reasons why I like him so much.
I doubt he needs my sympathy though. The German has taken 10+ victories in all but one season since 2011. When he’s on the podium – with that perfectly constructed hair – I still find myself grumbling that his leadout train bullied my new favourite sprinter out of contention. But that’s the Kittel paradox; simultaneously the best and worst of all the elite sprinters.