PARIS (AFP) — Cannondale’s Peter Sagan once again has claimed the green jersey, but a new sprint star has emerged in this year’s Tour de France in the form of Argos-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel.
Tall, tanned and with immaculately coiffed blond hair, Kittel captures the eye immediately when he is not on his bike, and now he is capturing the eye with his performances in the saddle too.
Following in the footsteps of Erik Zabel and André Greipel, he has emerged at a time when the image of cycling in Germany has been in need of a boost.
Like Zabel before him, Kittel was born in Communist East Germany. And like Greipel, he has stiff competition in those fiercely contested bunch sprints in the shape of British ace Mark Cavendish.
But the 100th edition of the Tour will not just be remembered for Chris Froome’s stunning overall triumph. A year after leaving the race through illness, Kittel has made a name for himself on the international stage.
The 25-year-old from the town of Arnstadt in Thuringia became the first rider to wear the yellow jersey in this year’s race after winning the opening stage in Bastia, and went on to win stage 10 in Saint-Malo and the 12th stage in Tours before capping it all with a superb final-day win on the Champs-Élysées.
That last win was an especially significant one for him, as even Zabel never managed more than three stage victories on any one Tour on his way to winning the green jersey in six successive years.
French sports daily L’Equipe had already run with the headline “Cavendish Reigns No More” before Kittel denied the British champion what would have been his fifth straight win on the famed boulevard.
But Cavendish has spoken glowingly of his new rival, describing him as “the next superstar in sprinting.”
Kittel himself is a little more modest, although after withdrawing from his debut Tour last year in the fifth stage due to a viral infection, his only hope for this year’s race was to maybe win one stage.
Achieving that objective on the opening day allowed him to sample wearing the yellow jersey, a feeling he described as “like having gold on my shoulders,” while his subsequent triumphs have made him realize that he can compete with the very best.
“He now has the confidence to take on anyone. He had won other races in the past but the fact that he has won sprints here, at the summit of our sport against all the other riders, has liberated him,” said Argos sporting director Christian Guiberteau.
The son of a cyclist father and an athlete mother, Kittel was perhaps always destined for a career as a sportsman, and he was a world time-trial champion as a junior.
He followed that success by becoming under-23 European champion in the discipline in 2009, but it soon became clear that he had something to offer as a sprinter too.
Winner of a stage on the 2011 Vuelta a España, Kittel has proven that was no one-off thanks to his displays over the last three weeks.
Along with stage wins for countrymen Greipel and Tony Martin, he has helped revive the sport back at home at a time when its popularity has reached something of a low ebb.
A long line of doping scandals involving German riders led television networks in the country to turn their back on cycling’s greatest race. And early last year, Kittel himself was linked to involvement in a blood-doping ring after an investigation was opened into medical practices at an Olympic training center in the city of Erfurt.
However, he has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing, and is now on a mission.
“I have an important responsibility to give our sport a good image in Germany again, and make the public realize that cycling has a future in our country,” he says.