Few bike riders in the history of the sport have been as fast as Marcel Kittel. But after racking up 14 Tour de France stages and 89 professional wins, his early retirement in August last year, aged just 31, left many fans in a state of confused disappointment. Why was one of the greatest sprinters ever hanging up his racing wheels while still in his prime? Now, one year on, Kittel has opened up to CW about his decision – with important insights for us all, racers and armchair critics alike.
“Most people, 99 per cent of those who’ve not been a pro, cannot understand the sport and everything it involves. It is such an extreme sport and what it does to you physically and mentally,” Kittel tells me over the phone. “Pro cycling is the only sport that takes fatigue to such extremes. That’s the whole concept of the sport, but it makes it extremely difficult to handle.”
The German reminds us that the attritional nature of cycling is also its core principle.
“It defines the whole sport. You train to get tired to become better for the next race in which the idea is that you will become tired later than the rest. And at the end of the race, the strongest one will be the one who is the least tired. There is no other sport like it… and it has consequences.”
The ramifications for Kittel were obvious: he wasn’t happy.
“In 2018 I counted 250 nights away from my own bed. I hadn’t had time with my family.” It was having an impact on his motivation. “It got to the point in 2019 where I realised everything was just repeating… [Nothing was] really new to me or challenging or what I wanted to do. I couldn’t reinvent experiences for myself.”
The passion and excitement of the sport had been worn away by repetitive hard grind, leaving only the sense of being a hamster on a treadmill.
“When you realise that the hobby you turned into your profession is becoming more than a job, you see the sport in a different way. I felt I was in the wrong place.”
Kittel’s Instagram bio states: “My recipe for happiness is bicycles, family and a big portion of curiosity.” He speaks perfect English and chooses his words with the precision of a philosopher – you get the impression he would be just as at-home reading Wittgenstein as smashing out 1,000 watts down a finishing straight.
“It’s important to reflect on how hard the sport is, and what it demands from you. Understanding what the balance should be is difficult: you can have a hard training period, but then how do you recover?”
The key for Kittel was his training environment.
“I needed a good group and the right atmosphere around me, and when I had that, I felt unbeatable. But I know from experience that other characters and teams have a different mindset.” He is alluding here to the troubled latter part of his career at Katusha-Alpecin, which neither he nor the team wishes to speak about further.
The sport is evolving, but it requires further improvements.
“We shouldn’t perceive talking about feelings as a weakness. Talking about it plays a big role in success. When you’re extremely tired, you’re vulnerable. It’s easy to suddenly not feel happy in the sport.”
It’s the job of support staff, in Kittel’s view, to spot when riders are struggling, and step in.
“The teams have to make the riders human, the centre of attention, and create an environment that really helps them to deal with the extremes they face, such as extreme fatigue. It’s happening already but it needs to be enforced.”
He is reluctant to proffer advice to other riders. “Everyone needs to find out for himself what he needs, how to get it and where they can find it. Maybe you need a big change in your personal life to find it.”
That is what Kittel needed: he wanted to move to the next stage of his life. Thirty-two, the age he is now, might be a few years shy of veteran status in the sport, but in real-life terms, it’s young – most people in their early-30s are still building their careers.
The negative associations surrounding early retirement from sport need to be de-stigmatised, believes Kittel.
“I didn’t have a mid-life crisis; I came to the point in my life where I wanted something else in my life. We need to look at [early retirement] in a positive way as the moment when you realise you want a change. You make the best out of it, try to find what you want, and that’s what happened to me.”
With his partner Tess, Kittel is still adapting to parenthood – their son Lex was born last December. He is also studying economics, and still rides his bike most days, just for general health.
“I am really happy and am enjoying my time with my family. It’s a big, new experience for me to make the transition from a pro cyclist’s life to a normal life, but it was the right time to finish my career.” You get the sense from Kittel that he genuinely has no regrets. “I am proud and happy with everything I achieved, but I was ready for something new. I knew I was becoming a dad, and it was the right moment for a fresh start.”
Team-mate’s view – ‘We’ve learnt the need to decompress’
One of Kittel’s most trusted team-mates for five years, 40-year-old Dutchman Roy Curvers, shares his thoughts.
“As a cyclist, you cannot have a period of complete rest, of switching off your mind off completely, and Marcel missed that. But the sport is heading in a direction of knowing that having periods of decompression is more healthy.
“Ten years ago, riders did 100 race days, sometimes 110, and now the average is between 70 and 80, so that’s a month’s less racing. We’re starting to think better and realise that a rider should only have three or four highlights a year, and also have time to decompress, to spend time with your family, do nice things, go on holidays. Both are important.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.