We spent a day with Marcel Kittel in his home on the Swiss border late last year, covering an awful lot of ground.
Fame, glory and 14 Tour stage wins don’t mean a thing when pro cycling stops making you happy. The German reflected on his “black hole” of depression, what made him a sprint legend and the reasons he walked away from pro cycling last summer.
Not everything we discussed could make it into the lead feature of the latest edition of Rouleur, on sale now. But among the many topics on which Kittel was open and expansive, it was refreshing to discuss anti-doping in the sport.
Our conversation is shared here, condensed and edited for clarity.
Rouleur: You mentioned your outlook on clean sport. There are grey areas in the sport: during your career alone, we had tramadol existing and was banned, things like finish bottles, taking painkillers around races. What was your outlook on that in your career?
MK: I think the base line of when you take medicine is if it’s medically required, there should not even be a discussion about it, it should be okay for an athlete to do that. I think during my career, there was a lot of change in that area. Not necessarily via the regulations we had but also from the UCI and the teams, that they were also putting maybe pressure on themselves for clean sport and stricter regulation than was the case from the outside.
There’s a film called Clean Spirit, shot during the 2013 Tour de France, that shows you turning down medication that you didn’t need. Did you always have this stance?
I think that’s how I grew up, but I don’t consider it as normal. That’s the thing: where I was always lucky to have the people around me that sort of guided me in that process, that made me aware of it.
But maybe it’s because also when I turned professional – and that’s also part of being lucky – I did so in a team [Skil-Shimano] that wanted to be different in terms of anti-doping. They wanted to prove we can do it in a different way and the movie, in the end, was just a result of that development.
You’ve done your last anti-doping test: no more peeing in front of strange men. Or women, I guess?
Only men; women can do your blood control. I’m not in that testing system anymore. ADAMs, testing, all that stuff is gone. For sure, I’m not sad about it and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass but training or travel or the right nutrition sometimes could be a pain in the ass too. It’s just part of it.
I don’t think that sport in general is ready for the next step. ADAMS is not [working]… if you see what happened with Erfurt, [Operation Aderlass] the doping network, the blood bags, it’s obviously possible to cheat still with it.
There has to be a next step and I think that it’s not a new ADAMS system which is, by the way, horrible. It’s not a modern system to use in the first place. It’s really, really terrible but okay, it somehow works. But I think it’s not making a difference anymore like it used to do.
If there is one lesson to learn from Erfurt, from Mark Schmidt, it’s that you need police. Then it’s not in the hands of the sport and the governing bodies anymore.
So, criminalise it, make it an offence.
Make a law in all the important countries – and you can do that quite easily with the IOC, I think, they will have the power because they obviously have great connections to all the governments, but they also need to be willing to do it. I think if you asked for that step, it would also automatically clean up some things within the sport, the federations and the governing bodies.
In Germany it happened, that was the reason they caught this guy. I think it’s a really good thing and I’m actually also happy that me, John Degenkolb and Tony Martin were part of the group of athletes there with the Justizminister [Heiko Maas] in Berlin in 2014 when they introduced this law. And I think that’s the only way you can solve it. You have to make it a real crime with real fines, ending up in jail.
It sets an example, that’s the point, it should make people think ‘I can’t do this again.’ At least in Germany. The problem is there’s other countries where it’s more relaxed.
MK: 100 per cent year, that’s why I think it’s also an illusion to say sport in general will be clean at all because there’s so many different mentalities. What’s normal in Germany is maybe different in… the south of Europe. I don’t want to insult anyone, but mentalities are different and also life situations are different.
When I think about Georg Preidler, I knew him. He was with me in the same team from 2013 to 2015. And I still don’t understand it. There’s always a mix of maybe a certain criminal energy but also of people’s lives and how that develops, if they end up in a situation where they don’t know how to help themselves, then that maybe ends up in a choice for illegal things. I think it’s just sad.
So as someone in the inner circle, you believe that it’s possible you cannot check if your roommate is doping?
100 per cent. I was rooming with George in apartments in Altea during winter training camp one time; every night another room had to cook for the rest, it was really nice. At that time, I have no reason to believe that he was considering doping. But this is only two weeks.
You never got the feeling?
No, but when he apparently did it then, that’s at least what the investigation shows now, that was already two years further ahead, maybe 17 and ’18.
I don’t know what the reason is. And honestly, I don’t even want to judge him. When I look at Jan Ullrich, he’s for me a perfect example for that. He’s just a broken person who would probably do anything that you tell him. I think that’s what I mean, people are so different that it’s so hard to keep all these little factors out of the sport to make sure it’s clean.
It’s an illusion that it can be clean, it’s not possible. I think the only thing you can do is really make sure it’s a crime, that you support young riders in general with coaching and make clear what the ethical standards are for being an athlete. And then you need to hope for the best.