The German sprinter endured a torrid campaign last year, his early season build-up ruined by a virus picked up at the Tour Down Under that he never quite recovered from, with former team Giant-Alpecin ultimately rescinding the final year of his contract at Kittel’s request.
Kittel had been overlooked for both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, having managed to abandon the Tour de Yorkshire on the very first stage, and was omitted from Germany’s World Championships team in September, while his only WorldTour victory of 2015 came on stage 1 of the Tour of Poland, where he also took the points classification.
He also wasn’t helped by a change in ambitions at Giant-Alpecin, with Tom Dumoulin’s impressive Vuelta followed up by the signing of Laurens Ten Dam showing the new outlook at the German team which means they only have room for one recognised sprinter.
But Kittel has been made to feel right at home at Etixx-QuickStep and is looking forward to a return to winning ways in 2016.
“[Settling in] was all very, very easy and I feel really, really well and comfortable in the team, Kittel told Cycling Weekly.
“They welcomed me in a really, really nice way, everyone is really supportive and trying to do his best, not only for me but for everyone. I like that atmosphere.”
Kittel added: “It’s like in every office and in every company, you have different atmosphere and I’m now in a team where the feeling of every rider, and also of everyone from the staff, is very important and everyone also takes time and care that everyone has a good time, doesn’t feel any stress.”
The toughest part of Kittel’s 2015 season was the contrast with the year before. In 2014, Kittel won (in order) three stages and the points jersey at the Dubai Tour, Scheldeprijs, stages two and three of the Giro (before abandoning on stage four), stages one, three, four and 21 at the Tour, with two stages at the Tour of Britain to wrap up the stellar year.
But even with just one win all 2015, the German rider is keen to take the positives from the situation and use it to motivate himself for the year ahead.
“It was like going from 100 to almost zero within a few months actually, but I don’t want to cry about because it’s an experience and, after all is maybe not so bad,” he said. “I don’t want to do it again, to be honest, but you also keep developing as a person, as a professional and you make experience, experiences that you would not have made if you had not been in this situation.”
On top of all the misfortune with illness and injury, Kittel faced accusations of being “lazy” by his directeur sportif, according to his new DS Brian Holm – something Kittel denies.
“I don’t know if they really said or some journalist made it up. I know the truth. If someone from my old team really did say that it would be disappointing for me but I don’t believe that they said it.”
Kittel had a good working relationship with fellow sprinter John Degenkolb at Giant, despite both competing for limited race places. And his new team Etixx-QuickStep aren’t short of a sprinter or two themselves, with Tom Boonen and Fernando Gaviria on the books at the Belgian outfit.
Has the German had much chance to speak to the young Colombian sprinter, who made a name for himself at last year’s Tour de San Luis?
“I’ve seen him in last training camp, he is now in Argentina, preparing for the Tour de San Luis,” said Kittel. “Of course, we did some training rides together.”
He added: “I think that the older you become, the more important it gets to give your experience to someone else. I guess that’s going to be the case for the next two years at least.”
The precision and familiarilty required from all members of the lead out train, not just the sprinter, means it needs a lot of fine tuning and knowing your teammates well is key. (Just look at Mark Cavendish’s dependence on Mark Renshaw.) But Kittel is unfazed by unfamiliar faces (or backs) having gone through the same process when he joined Giant-Alpecin from Argos-Shimano.
“I made it once actually with my old team so I should be able to a second time,” he said. “It’s not an unknown experience for me, but, of course, is it also a very exciting time and it’s also very challenging. You have to focus on making a plan together, on trying to understand, get a feeling for each other and that can take time and you have to stay calm for now to see how it goes.”
With the World Championships road race set to be held in Doha in October – on a pan-flat course likely to be affected by high winds that is already proving tempting to Kittel’s sprint rivals – is the German thinking about donning the rainbow jersey at the end of the year?
“Yes, sure, but it’s such a long season, we are now in January and talking already about the race in the middle of October,” Kittel said. “It’s more than half a year away so it’s not the moment to think about it because also selection is going to be made in summer and until then you have to get the results in spring and, of course, also in summer to make it to the Tour.”