Imagine hurtling down a road in excess of 60km/h with a blinkered view of a guy’s back, whose instincts you barely know.
There’s no review mirror, no side mirrors, just his back, fast twitch turns, vitriol, the roar of fans somewhere in the background and your make or literally brake decision whether to trust him.
The mechanisations of forming a lead-out around the German heavyweight have been more complex than putting ducks in a row, and reliant mostly on what science can’t teach – faith.
“It’s everything,” says Kittel. “I’m more or less blind sitting in the wheel and just following my team-mates. Then you need to really be able to trust.”
It’s not an overnight process, as Kittel knows from prior experience and racing with still relatively unfamiliar team-mates at the Tour of California this week.
The 30-year-old headlines a blockbuster sprint field that has so far had one of a total three opportunities to flex its muscle.
Kittel in the opening stage at Long Beach finished fourth in the bunch sprint behind winner Fernando Gaviria, the Colombian who succeeded him at Quick-Step Floors this season.
“[Stage one] is a pretty good example. [It] was the third final that I ever did with Rick Zabel in front of me. We’ve had of course also races in the Middle East but that was always a different order. It’s something that needs some races to get used to,” Kittel continues.
“When I didn’t follow Rick immediately, I felt really shit about it afterwards because he did a perfect job. But that’s simply the trust you need to build up for everyone and each other.”
Kittel marked a slow start to the season in the Middle East as he and Katusha-Alpecin commenced the 'try until you get it right' equation.
The squad recruited heavily through the transfer period as well, meaning the process hasn’t been as simple as putting Kittel at the end of an already drilled formation.
His pedigree and the constant expectation to perform can also compound things.
“I have my own opinion about which line I want to follow in a race. Then sometimes suddenly you have two or three opinions because your lead-out guys in front of you, they have a different view on how things are happening just by sitting four metres in front of you. That can make a difference sometimes, but that’s what I mean, you need to have trust for each other,” he says.
Kittel missed the mark on stage one of this tour but isn’t alarmed now, or looking forward to the Tour de France, which he was forced to abandon wearing the green jersey last season.
“It’s always about your general condition and I think I improved that last year a lot, I was in really good shape and this is my goal for this year. With that comes every rider’s natural speed, then you can show it,” he says.
The five-time Scheldeprijs champion rebounded from a slow start to claim two stage victories at Tirreno-Adriatico in March. A puncture scuppered a Scheldeprijs title defence in April, while DNFs at a career second appearance at Paris-Roubaix, and at the following Eschborn-Frankfurt, here seem of no consequence.
“I was actually quite happy with my race [on stage one] because after having a break after Roubaix, and being sick with antibiotics a few days again, I was only doing light training before Frankfurt, and then the altitude training,” Kittel says.
“I think I was right up there in the sprint. I can’t complain about it. I did a mistake, I admit that, but the legs and the speed were there. That’s promising for the next days.”
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Sophie Smith is an Australian journalist, television reporter and presenter, who has provided coverage for Cycling Weekly from races across the world. She has covered eight Tours de France, as well as reporting for national and international newspapers as well as other magazines.
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