There’s very little to say about Marcel Kittel’s 2015 season, which in itself speaks volumes as to why he might have had the most disappointing year in cycling. To give it some context, though, let’s reconsider his 2014 season. Kittel took an astounding twelve stage wins last year, with some impressive details surrounding those wins. Three of them were in the sprinter’s favourite, the Tour of Dubai, which earned him the overall points jersey for that. He took two stage wins in the Giro d’Italia before abandoning with illness before stage 4 — not to overstate that point, but, with stage one of the Giro a team time trial, that means Kittel won 100% of the stage races for which he signed on. He was back in fighting trim for the Tour de France, seizing an early three stages and then resting up in time to take the most prestigious sprint in cycling, the drag race on the Champs-Élysées (much to Mark Cavendish’s chagrin). Kittel also had a little something for two late-season wins in the Tour of Britain, and by that point he was securing his name as the brightest of the bright-burning young sprint stars. Subsequent contracts for shampoo adverts were well-deserved.
Fast-forward to 2015, and the storm clouds had begun to gather around Kittel’s sunlit perfection. Kittel only signed on to two early-season races this year — the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Qatar (both featuring plenty of sprint opportunities). But, due to a viral infection, Kittel would only manage a 32nd place maximum, on his first stage race of the year (he did win the People’s Choice Classic crit race run before the Tour Down Under, but it was not counted as an official UCI stage race). It looked like he was going to have to recover and come back hard in the grand tours.
Kittel returned to racing in the Tour of Yorkshire in May, but was still visibly suffering; he lasted only 100km of the first rain-spattered stage before sorrowfully hauling himself into the team car. The brilliant sunshine Tour of California brought him no better luck, once again pulling out in the early days and citing continued illness. And thus it came as no surprise — but yet a major disappointment — to cycling fans the world over when he was not announced as part of Giant-Alpecin’s Tour de France squad.
By the tail end of the year, his name on the results sheets was increasingly followed by DNF, or else placings in the high eighties and nineties — he was not competing for any stage wins, but was struggling just to stay in the pack on most occasions. His season came to a close with only a single stage win to his name, which came during an under-contested Tour of Poland. It was a pitiable season for the suffering superstar, mired with bad health and bad luck.
Last month it was announced that Giant-Alpecin bosses have released Kittel from his contract with that team, one year earlier than he’d signed for. He’s set to join Etixx-Quickstep for two years at the start of the next season. Etixx, of course, are out to replace their own fading star, Mark Cavendish, who is off to Team Dimension Data (the new appellation of MTN-Qubeka). Kittel will be a fine replacement for Cavendish, and will be embedded in a strong and experienced sprint train that, at its best, rivals the Giant-Alpecin lineup (though Etixx are also losing Mark Renshaw). But Kittel will have to shake off the stress and pressure of an entirely substandard season. When we say that Kittel has had, in our eyes, the most disappointing season of 2015, let there be no mistake — we are sharing his own disappointment. We look forward to seeing that hair again in 2016.
Honourable Mention: Fabian Cancellara
Let us make this clear, Fabian Cancellara is no loser. His inclusion here, as with Kittel, is instead an attempt to try to share a modicum of his own dismay, frustration and sorrow at what turned out to be a season of injury, illness and simple bad luck.
Coming off the back of a slightly disappointing 2014 — it speaks volumes that a season containing a Tour of Flanders victory can seem ‘disappointing’ within the career of Cancellara — and wary of the new, young threats to his dominance in the spring monuments, Cancellara was keen to keep the memories of 2013 strong in his mind as he started his preparation for the year ahead.
A victory in the time trial of Stage 7 of Tirreno-Adriatico showed he still retained his power against the clock and served as a reminder to his peers to never let him escape from the bunch, and a very strong seventh place in Milano-Sanremo highlighted his form for the upcoming Belgian classics — his veritable stomping ground.
From here his season was called to an undignified halt. Getting caught up in a huge crash within the first hour of a frenetic E3 Harelbeke, Cancellara suffered two fractures in his lower back and was forced to miss two months of racing, including his beloveds, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“His back!”, we groaned.
After a lengthy battle to regain form and fitness for the Tour de France, he got his body on the start line in Utrecht and finished a strong third place in the opening prologue. Stage 2 saw the peloton battle crosswinds in the Netherlands and Fabian flew to third place yet again, out sprinting a certain Manx-missile, and ending the day in yellow.
“He’s back!”, we moaned.
Much has been written of the Stage 3 of the Tour de France. Pictures aired around the world of fragile riders thrown upon the unforgiving road surface, one after another. Bones were broken. Riders abandoned. Our brave leader, resplendent in yellow, fell fast and fell heavy, a blur of bright colour flying through the air. He rose, he winced, he grimaced, and yet he rode on.
“…His back”, we wailed.
With two fractured vertebrae it must have been the power of the leader’s jersey that got him over the Mur de Huy at the end of that torturous stage and, after finishing in 188th place, Cancellara was forced to abandon and reset his season’s goals once again.
Running out of races within which to claw something back from the season, Cancellara remained in the wings for a month and a half before re-emerging onto the centre stage for the final grand tour of the year, the Vuelta a España. What did we expect? What did he expect? Finishing second to last in Stage 2 it was over before Stage 3 could end, this time a stomach illness forcing him off his bike and out of the race, finally bringing the curtain down for good on his troubled 2015.
With his recently announced retirement set for the end of the 2016 season, Fabian and the cycling world are hoping that his final year of racing is world’s apart from the season just gone, and that the man can once again rise up and say “I AM SPARTACUS!”.
“He’s back!” (we hope).