Send a German and two Dutch pro cyclists to California for the first time in their lives and what jumps out? “It reminds me a little bit of Australia,” says Marcel Kittel.
Kittel, the 23-year-old German winner of stage seven of the 2011 Vuelta a España and four stages of the Tour of Poland, also took the bronze metal in the 2010 under-23 world championship time trial in Australia. “All the palm trees and the coast” along San Diego’s Pacific edge remind him of his weeks down under.
We caught up with Kittel and his two Dutch teammates, Tom Veelers and Tom Stamsnijder, during two weeks of San Diego training and wind tunnel testing with their 2012 team, Project 1T4i. Part of the team is in San Diego while the rest of the squad — a continuation of 2011’s Skil-Shimano pro continental team — trains in Alicante, Spain.
“The whole country is so totally different than Europe,” Kittel notes of the United States. “Every thing is a little bit bigger and wider.”
Sitting in the control room of the San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel, Kittel says he has been refining his time trial position since he was a junior. Something worked, because he won the junior world championship time trial championship in both 2005 and 2006. Nonetheless, he has been anticipating his first wind tunnel opportunity to test his position “in a very professional way.”
“I think my position is OK,” the friendly German observes, but then adds, laughing and with disarming directness, “but maybe they will find that it is just shit!”
Kittel says that he is not the type to dwell on the technical aspects of his bikes. “A Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara, they are really interested in having a perfect position for time trialing because that’s their speciality.”
But with his focus on sprinting, obsessive attention to his time trial position is not as personally important to Kittel. Dialing in his bike fit “is of course nice, because I can save maybe energy if I have a better position,” but he admits that working on his position on the road bike is more critical for his career.
Thinking back to his August 26 Tour of Spain stage win in Talavera de la Reina over Peter Sagan and Oscar Freire, Kittel says, “it was a big goal to win a stage there. You never know in the end what happens. It was a good day for us, but it wasn’t easy.” Winning the first three stages of the Tour of Poland, and then taking a stage seven victory for good measure, “Was also not easy. But of course if you have good legs, then cycling, it feels a little bit easier.” Kittel admits that for him, much of the suffering he experiences takes place in his head. “The pain in your legs, it’s only half of the pain,” he explains.
To address the space between his ears, Kittel has been working with the Skil-Shimano coach Merjin Zeeman on psychology. “He’s really good with the mental part of training,” Kittel observes. “I know I have to learn a lot.” During stage races the coach and rider talk about Kittel’s perspective on himself and his position relative to other riders. “A lot of times I have the feeling that my world, the world of Marcel, is really dark. And then he said to me, ‘OK, maybe you should have a look; is it really that dark like you think, or is it maybe more bright?”
Only one pro rider crossed the line first more often than Kittel in 2011, Philippe Gilbert. Yet, the fact that Kittel still gets discouraged illustrates what a powerful role mental outlook plays in a cyclist’s training program. “It’s always a progress,” Kittel says of the psychological tier of his training regime.
“In the beginning when I started to work with Merjin, I thought, ‘Ahh, I don’t get it what he means.’” But with time, Kittel began to grok the thrust of Zeeman’s lesson that by taking a wider-angle view of his position in life, the rider could harness powers locked in a closet in his brain. “He saw things that I hadn’t seen before.”