Former sprinter Marcel Kittel – who retired from the sport midway through last season – says that his past victories “don’t define who I am” and that he’s discovered a life outside cycling at least as rewarding as his professional career.
Talking to Dutch newspaper the Algemeen Dagblad on Sunday, Kittel said that he’s now “where I want to be in my life” and has no regrets about leaving life as a professional sportsman.
In the last two seasons of his career, Kittel had been unable to recreate the form that had seen him win five stages at the 2017 Tour de France, and after winning just three more times since then – two stages at the 2018 Tirreno-Adriatico and the one-day Trofeo Palma in early 2019 – he took the decision to retire in August last year, having “lost all motivation to keep torturing myself on a bike”.
Since then, the 32-year-old German has started an economics degree at the University of Konstanz and became a father late last year.
A year ago, he admitted, he wasn’t seriously considering that he would actually quit the sport, in which he’d turned pro with Skil-Shimano in 2011.
“It wasn’t a happy period of my life, which is why I probably didn’t think about it. I was in a situation where I was thinking about everything in my life,” Kittel said. “I was in talks with the [Katusha] team to have my contract terminated, but I didn’t know which way it was going to go at that point.
“I wasn’t thinking about quitting – that decision came later – but that process started then,” he said. “All big decisions in life, including these, start with a gut feeling. I took a lot of time to clarify what would be good – to make sure I wouldn’t regret it later. Now I know that a lot can change in one year. It turned out great. I am now where I want to be in my life.”
Kittel and his girlfriend live with their son in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, just south of the German border on the shores of Lake Constance, where their house, he told AD.nl on the phone, is not full of jerseys or trophies from his time as a rider.
“There are a few, but a lot are in the basement or with my parents in Germany,” he explained.
Kittel was also asked about his former teammate and Tom Dumoulin – they were both at Giant-Alpecin together for four seasons – who has also talked about the pressures of the sport, and changed teams to Jumbo-Visma ahead of the 2020 season, despite the Dutchman still being under contract with Sunweb – the later guise of Giant-Alpecin.
“I don’t like comparing myself to someone else,” Kittel said. “Also, winning a Grand Tour like Tom did [the 2017 Giro d’Italia] is a different level than what I have achieved. But when I see how he has developed, what he has achieved and what has happened to him, it is perfectly normal from a human perspective that an athlete becomes emotionally exhausted. Everyone suffers in a certain way and must find a way to deal with it.
“Cycling is such a hard sport in every possible way – physically and emotionally,” he added. “The average fatigue experienced by riders is unprecedentedly high. Then the outside pressure is also incredibly heavy. How you deal with that depends on your own environment, your home situation and your team. What I do know is that Tom is now on the right team; this is the best place for him.”
Jumbo-Visma had also considered signing Kittel after he severed ties with his Katusha squad, and ahead of his decision to retire.
“It was clear to me last year that that team was the only option if I wanted to continue,” Kittel said. “I had the best option on the table. And that makes it even more understandable how important it was for me to find out what I really wanted. In the end, I made the decision to quit not because I had to, but because I wanted to.”
Kittel added that he quickly realised that cycling had been just one chapter of his life, and that there was more to come beyond his career as a professional sportsman.
“I am incredibly proud of what I achieved and experienced in 20 years as a rider, but now it’s time for something else,” he said.
“The birth of my son, Lex, is one of the main reasons I’m glad I made the decision. He’s five months old, and growing very fast. I’m now part of his upbringing and can see up close that so many things happen in the early months of a child’s life.”
Kittel added that he still follows bike racing, but doesn’t particularly miss it.
“Lex’s birth has touched me more emotionally than any success,” he said. “That feeling lasts much longer than a Tour stage win or a day in the yellow jersey. Experiencing those things is also beautiful and unique, but a child and the responsibility that comes with it determine the rest of your life. All I want is for him to be healthy and happy.
“If I had to hand back all of my wins for that, then I wouldn’t have to think about it for a split second. My victories don’t define who I am,” Kittel said. “Victories gave me confidence as a sprinter – nothing more. A child puts everything in perspective and shows that there is more to life.”