“Marcel Kittel is struggling and Marcel Kittel has been dropped,” the race radio crackles. The Côte de Rosedale Abbey is claiming a famous victim.
In truth, this is not a big surprise. His Giant-Alpecin directeur sportif Marc Reef knows about Kittel’s troubles with a virus and has already seen him struggle on the Tour de Yorkshire opener’s first climb over Dalby Forest.
The team’s plan was clear on the morning of the Tour de Yorkshire’s opening stage: while four men tried to make the breakaway, Ramon Sinkeldam would be the designated sprinter and Marcel Kittel would serve as support – if he could. His main goal was simple: finish the stage, his first professional bike race since the Tour of Qatar in mid-February.
“He lost some muscle, his total weight went down,” Reef tells me. “He’s missing some of the rhythm, but it’s his first race. It’s good that he’s a cyclist in a bike race, back with his friends and the other teams. We’re not going for a result, he’s not ready.”
We’re in Yorkshire again, but a million miles away from the success and fitness of ten months ago, when he won the Tour de France’s opener into Harrogate to don the yellow jersey.
Kittel has Chris Latham (Great Britain) for company as he hits the final 500 metres of the climb, the second categorised ascent between Bridlington and Scarborough. The team car moves alongside him when the road widens.
“Just take a bottle and get into your rhythm, you’re not that far behind,” directeur sportif Marc Reef says.
Kittel approaches the summit at Rosedale Abbey as the Giant-Alpecin team car accelerates away
We slip past, over the top of the climb and onto the tail of the next group, looking to rejoin the peloton. There is no mass of cyclists anymore: the race has blown apart. Four separate groups are briefly visible across the dark, exposed North Yorks moorland. “It’s a battlefield,” murmurs the mechanic behind.
A few minutes later, there is a tap on the window from a passing TV motorcycle, who shouts over the wind: “Marcel is behind. He wants you to wait for him.”
Reef asks the Lotto.NL-Jumbo car to cover his other riders in case of a puncture and obliges. We pull over on a deserted patch of road. The final big group of rider passes and soon disappears, along with the buzzing TV helicopter.
Time slows to a crawl. The mechanic goes for a piss. Still no sign of Kittel. It’s becoming clear he has a monumental chase ahead.
Several minutes later, he rounds the corner with Topsport rider Jonas Rickaert. Reef pulls 40 metres down the road, unaware that the mechanic is still finishing his natural break. Once he’s back in the car, everyone laughs.
Pulling alongside Kittel, we start to encounter civilian vehicles coming in the opposite direction: a Nissan, a car towing a caravan, cyclo-tourists. This is getting dangerous, the rolling road closure doesn’t seem to be in place anymore. The questions begin.
Kittel: “Is there a short cut? I can take a short cut and ride home. This is crazy, there’s no security.”
Reef: “There’s not really one, there’s one after the second sprint.”
Kittel rides over the moors with Jonas Rickaert (Topsport Vlaanderen)
Kittel: “Can I make it back?”
Reef: “The next group is one and a half minutes in front. But you can make it.”
Kittel: “But I have nobody with me.”
Reef: “He can stay,” gesturing at the Topsport team car behind, aware that he ought to get back to the head of the race.
Kittel pulls on a jacket as a few raindrops fall. We slalom through another small town; cars coming in the opposite direction pull in for the speeding cyclists. Reef has tried to encourage Kittel to continue but out of the bubble of race security, Kittel must know how far back he truly is.
Then he passes a cyclo-tourist, going at a fourth of his speed. It must be completely demoralising.
Kittel: “I’d like to get in the car.”
Reef: “You don’t want to continue?”
Kittel: “For what? I need endurance, not racing.”
On a patch of moorland on the outskirts of Castleton, 100 kilometres into his first race in ten weeks, Kittel abandons the race and gets into the team car.
There is no volcanic outburst, just some coughing. I pull the passenger seat forward to give his big German legs a bit more space. For fifteen minutes, nobody talks.
We hear news of Kittel’s abandon over race radio. “Is it possible to get a flight back tonight? I don’t want to spend one more day here,” Kittel says, a few minutes later.
Into the final 40 kilometres, his disappointment lightens. Occasionally, he mutters “how many people?”, noticing the sheer size of the Tour de Yorkshire crowds.
“It’s like a rollercoaster here, unbelievable. Why have a race in the United Kingdom? Why can’t it be in Greece where it’s sunny and flat? Or the Netherlands?” he adds a few kilometres later.
“I think it’s pretty hilly there in Greece too,” Reef says, smiling. “And there’s wind in the Netherlands.”
Marcel Kittel happy in yellow in Yorkshire at last year’s Tour de France. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
As the in-car TV finds signal for the finale, Reef suggests that Kittel could have still been on the bike at this point. “It was very honest: the best guys in the first group, the second best in the second group,” he adds, about the day’s route.
“That’s why I’m in the car,” Kittel says, not missing a beat.
When we pull to a stop at the crowded finish area in Scarborough, the German gets into the team campervan.
In the driver’s seat, Marc Reef sighs and smiles. The 29-year-old has been the Giant-Alpecin team manager for Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix victories this year and knows to take the rough with the smooth. This is one of the clearest things: neither the management or Kittel seem particularly agitated about the latest setback.
“We knew this was a possibility; of course, we hoped for more [from Marcel]. But he is a sprinter, not a climber,” Reef says. “Maybe it was harder than we thought it would be; maybe if tomorrow’s stage had been first, it would have been better but it is what it is.”
“Now maybe Ramon [Sinkeldam] can be up there in the sprint tomorrow. If he wins a stage, then everything is good again.”