Kittel has been the sprinter to beat at the Tour the past two years however his participation at the 102nd edition is - despite the confidence vote - yet to be decided.
The 27-year-old suffered from a “flu-like virus” earlier this year, which was exacerbated by a period of “over-reaching” that has essentially rendered the eight-time Tour stage winner to just 14 race days and significantly interrupted training.
“I think the worst is now behind him, it’s now a matter of getting fit again and that is going in the right direction at the moment,” team physician Anko Boelens told Cycling Central. “Medically speaking he is he is 100 per cent healthy as far as I’m concerned. As far as his fitness goes that’s not up to me, I am no longer looking at his power files, it really is something for the trainers and coaches.”
The described virus Kittel suffered had similar symptoms to those associated with the Epstein-barr virus, which can cause glandular fever, but Boelens said tests for that as well as influenza, following the February Tour of Qatar, came back clear.
Kittel was said to be training well at a team altitude camp in Sierra Nevada this month, which he started on the back of a secondary race comeback at the World Ports Classic in May. He is set to observe a proven lead-up to the Tour that includes the Rund um Koln (14 June) and sprint-friendly Ster-ZLM (17-21 June), after which a decision on whether to line-up at the 4 July Grand Depart is due to be made, and the German national road championships.
“Our idea is that he will be ready for those races and that his level will be good again there,” said sports director Marc Reef. “On one hand it’s only four weeks to the Tour but they are also four weeks where he can do a lot.
“He missed quite a big part of the season but for sure in the beginning of the Tour he will be ready to compete.”
The first week of the Tour features multiple flat stages for pure sprinters. The race moves to some more undulating terrain in the second week and to the mountains and a flat Champs Elysees final in the third, the latter on which Kittel has won two times consecutively.
Reef dismissed the notion that his team’s heavyweight could abandon the Tour after the first week given the disruptions to both his training and racing this season, as well as the lessening opportunities for sprinters thereafter.
“We didn’t speak about taking him out of the Tour, for sure not,” Reef said. “When we go to start the Tour, it’s also to finish the Tour.
“Of course he missed the first part of the season, but also a lot of riders are sometimes missing a big part of the season, because of injury or a crash, and they are also able to reach their level again in July in the Tour. We strongly believe that Marcel is able to do that.”
Kittel became unwell between the Tour Down Under in January, where he won the prelude criterium, and the Tour of Qatar, after which he was sidelined from competition until May.
“Coming out of the Tour Down Under he had flu-like symptoms, so he was coughing a lot, sneezing, he had a fever for a couple of days and was hit pretty hard. Sometimes you are sick for one or two days, he was sick for six or seven days, so he got it bad,” Boelens explained.
“In that period when his body was still tired he went to Qatar and got even more fatigued. It’s a normal reaction that when you are feeling not good enough in training, you train more.”
Boelens said the combination of the virus, over-reaching and then a mandatory rest period, in which Kittel lost fitness, contributed to his lengthy absence from the peloton.
“He took rest for several weeks; it was easily four or five weeks that he did no training and that really is very bad for your fitness, if you have to take rest for that amount of time,” Boelens said. “But it really was necessary because doing just easy trainings gave him the feeling of being tired, of not being happy, so that’s why we call it a reset. You really have to reset your body so that it is giving off normal signals again.”
Kittel was rebuilding fitness prior to a comeback at the Tour de Yorkshire in May, which he abandoned during the first stage.
“A week before Yorkshire, it was a shit moment, he got fever again for four days so it was again a drop back,” Reef said.
“We hoped that the race would not be full gas from the start to the finish. He could restart there, he’s again with the team, which will be good for him and also for the motivation, and we show everybody that Marcel Kittel is on a good way. It turned out it was a really hard race, harder than expected, and we had to adapt again to the situation.”
Kittel’s major targets this season included the spring classics, Tour and the trade team time trial world championships. He had to miss the classics, in which team-mate John Degenkolb won Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, and the rest remains to be seen.
Sitting on the sideline and watching rivals celebrate multiple victories hasn’t been easy for Kittel.
However, the worst is apparently now behind him and the race is against the clock.
“It was a hard time for him,” Reef said. “He was the last two years one of the big guys who was winning a lot of races, and when you cannot show that then of course it’s disappointing. But it also gives you motivation to really go for it, show yourself and what you’re capable of.
“There really is a lot of motivation to show himself again in the coming races, he’s working really hard for that.