Last Friday the end of one of the most successful recent partnerships was formally announced, as Team Giant-Alpecin and Marcel Kittel announced they would split at the end of this season. For four years both supported and helped each other grow from unknown’s to contenders in all three grand tours. Now this morning it was announced Kittel will instead join the Belgian team Etixx-Quickstep, but what is the legacy being left behind from this split?
Who could have predicted when the young German U23 time trial champion Marcel Kittel joined the small Skil-Shimano in 2011, that within three years they will have won 11 stages in grand tours, including eight in the Tour de France. During his junior career Kittel excelled in the time trial, yet once he moved up to the professional ranks he blossomed into the fastest sprinter in the peloton.
Wins in smaller development races such as the Four Days of Dunkirk showed his talent, however his ultimate potential was not known. That was until Stage 7 of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana. One of cycling’s three major grand tours, it’s a race known for it’s extreme difficulty. Yet Kittel was able to out sprint notable rivals Peter Sagan and Oscar Freire to claim the stage win in his very first grand tour.Now it was clear to the cycling world that Kittel was a man to watch in the coming years.
The upward trend continued into 2012, with a flurry of victories which led up to his and the team’s debut at the 2012 Tour de France. Kittel would spearhead the team as he looked for stage wins and the green points jersey. Sadly, this dream would turn into a nightmare as he failed to win a stage before being forced to abandon the race early in stage five thanks to a viral infection.
Whilst 2012 was a relative disappointment for Kittel and Skil-Shimano, 2013 would be the coming out party for both. With a change of name to Argos-Shimano and a step up to the premier WorldTour of cycling, the pressure was on to prove their worth. Winning stages of warm up races such as Paris-Nice and the Tour of Oman showed that he and the team would be firing on all cylinder’s come July and the Tour de France.
With an expert sprint train comprising team mates John Degenkolb, a very quick sprinter himself, Tom Veelers and Tom Dumoulin to name a few, Kittel was put in the perfect position to win the first stage going into Corsica. A bizarre incident with the Orica-GreenEdge team bus and the finish line banner created confusion, however in the end Kittel out sprinted rival Alexander Kristoff to claim a momentous maiden Tour de France stage win for both Kittel and the Dutch Argos-Shimano team.
The team’s joy is captured brilliantly in the riveting documentary on the team, Clean Spirit, which is well worth a watch. The win also signaled Kittel’s first leaders yellow jersey. This prestigious honor is usually the domain of general classification riders, yet Kittel was able to steal it early on.
Kittel celebrates his yellow jersey at the 2013 Tour de France. Photo credit thanks to Getty Images.
Kittel would go on to completely dominate the sprinting stages of the Tour, effortlessly showing up noted sprint supremo Mark Cavendish to record stage victories on stages 10,12 and 21. His last stage win on the Champs-Elysees was the realizing of a dream come true for the young German, who broke Mark Cavendish’s four year streak of stage wins on the Champs-Elysees.
Victory in the world’s most famous sprint stage completed a fairy tale Tour de France for Marcel Kittel and his Argos-Shimano team. The success in their first year at the world tour level and second Tour de France was staggering, with the joy of their incredible Tour being captured in the film Clean Spirit. The film is well worth a watch for anyone interested in cycling.
With the majority of the team being retained for 2014, and a healthy new sponsor in bike manufacturer Giant, the only question was if Kittel and the team could repeat their feats of a year before? This question would be answered only a few months into the season.
Victories in several early season races were cemented with two stage wins early on in the 2014 Giro D’Italia. The season’s first grand tour saw Kittel dominate the early sprints, before abandoning the race at the end of stage three to fully concentrate on the Tour de France. With a similar team of talented domestiques supporting him, much pre-race attention was focused on the impending battle between the likes of Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan and Kittel for the sprint honors.
Mark Cavendish suffered the worst possible start and was forced out of the Tour before stage one even finished, a crash in the bunch sprint leaving him with a seperated right shoulder and broken dreams of Tour de France success. Kittel went on to win the opening stage and claim the first yellow jersey for the second consecutive year.
Whilst he lost the leaders jersey on the next stage, Kittel could console himself with wins on stages three and four. A long struggle ensured over the next two weeks as Kittel used all the support of his team to haul himself up the iconic French mountains, steeling himself for the final stage and the sprint on the famous Champs-Elysees. Unofficially known as the world championship for sprinter’s, Kittel was intent on repeating his landmark victory from a year before.
Both of Kittel’s victories on the Champs-Elysees were almost identical, both times narrowly defeating Alexander Kristoff at the line. Finishing off the year with two stage victories in the Tour of Britain cemented Kittel’s most successful year yet in cycling. His star was rising, the question what heights could he reach in his career?
Kittel celebrating his Champs-Elysees victory in 2014. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk .
Whilst the past two years were a dream for Marcel Kittel, 2015 was a reminder that real life isn’t a fantasy but sometimes a nightmare. A race win in January indicated this year would be another successful one, however a virus destroyed the rest of his season.
Initially he was set to make several comeback’s in the months leading up to the Tour de France, but when these were postponed his Giant-Alpecin team were forced to admit defeat on the matter. Kittel was not selected for the Tour de France team, instead forced to watch his team mates at home as he still recovered from his virus.
The rest of the year proved difficult for Kittel, although he did manage to win the opening stage of the Tour of Poland. Whilst Kittel slowly returned to the peloton in the later months of the season, a shift amongst his Giant-Alpecin team was brewing.
His team mate, close friend and fellow sprinter John Degenkolb demonstrated his talents early in the year, taking on some of Kittel’s success as he won both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Both make up a group of cycling’s classics, and are highly prestigious races to win.
Following on from this the team also achieved some success at the Tour de France, despite missing Kittel, as German mountain domestique Simon Geschke won stage 17, and Degenkolb challenged for several sprint finishes. The real shift for the team occurred during the Vuelta a Espana. The young Dutchman Tom Dumoulin emerged from the shadows of his domestique support duty to win two stages and seriously challenge for the overall win.
Tom Dumoulin celebrating with the leaders red jersey in this year’s Vuelta a Espana. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk .
This general classification ride from Dumoulin showed his incredible talent and shocked the cycling community, as he stated his claim for the future. The effect of this on the Giant-Alpecin team has been significant, as it now appears the team have switched their mentality from that of a sprinters team to a general classification team.
Tom Dumoulin will likely now lead the team in the GC, whilst John Degenkolb will assume the sprinters duties vacated by Kittel. After some talks with the team, the breakdown of their relationship was established as Kittel was granted a release from his contract a year early.
This has left him free to sign for the Etixx-QuickStep team, where he will hope to return to his top form next year. The Belgian team are primarily a sprinters team, therefore Kittel will receive the maximum support from established riders such as great friend Tony Martin.
Unfortunately, it simply seems that whilst both Marcel Kittel and the Giant-Alpecin team achieved a lot of success, once both were established on the world tour, they were destined to move apart in their future goals. For their fans they will now have the memories of the two year period where both Marcel Kittel and the Giant-Alpecin team rocked the cycling establishment.