Alexander Kristoff grimaced and groaned as he fought his way through chaotic crosswinds to secure a top-10 finish on Stage 2 of the Abu Dhabi Tour on Thursday.
Italy’s Elia Viviani replaced the Norwegian UAE Team Emirates rider in the red jersey following victory on Yas Island. But even though European champion Kristoff remains locked at the top of the leaderboard with the Quick-Step Floors man and is targeting a second stage win on Friday, he insists he will now ride for either teammate Rui Costa or Fabio Aru as the team target overall General Classification glory.
“We hope to win the red jersey, but not with me,” said Kristoff, who fought back in windy conditions to claim seventh place on Yas Beach, following his triumph on Stage 1 in Madinat Zayed on Wednesday.
“So now I will try to grab a win tomorrow, it’s a good sprint day, then after that it’s for the other guys. For sure I will be riding for either Fabio or Rui.”
And whereas he powered to victory on day one – two days after claiming his first victory for his new team on the Tour of Oman’s final stage – Kristoff said he lacked the legs on Stage 2.
“I did not feel so good today and I was not in the first group. We came back and I tried to do a good sprint, but I did not have the same power as yesterday,” said the 30-year-old.
“Viviani was too fast and there were a bunch of guys also passing me in the end. There was no illness. Just some days legs feels stronger than other days. I did not feel as strong as yesterday.
“I prefer to fight for the position today because I was at one stage far back. The team put me back in good position and in the mix but I just did not have the same power.”
Alessandro Tonelli (Bardiani CSF), Joey Rosskopf (BMC), Jaco Venter (Dimension Data), Alexander Porsev (Gazprom Rusvelo) and Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk) formed the first breakaway group of the day.
Their gap topped out at four minutes as the peloton was unwilling to let them get too far away. The advantage started decreasing after the halfway point and the sprinters’ teams piled on the pressure as they all charged into the feed zone, with the gap dropping dramatically.
With 47km left, Katusha-Alpecin led the thundering herd past the break group.
But then the crosswinds came into play as the leading teams continued to push the pace as much as possible. Echelons developed and the tactic worked, as the field was quickly strung out and riders were rapidly dropped.
Kristoff, Viviani and GC favourite Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) were left behind in the second group as Aru, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Marcel Kittel (Katusha) and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) pushed the pace in the first group, keeping the rest at arm’s length at 30 seconds back.
The second and third groups then came together and rode furiously and, with just under 23km to go the pace dropped up front and the Kristoff-Dumoulin group came within sight of the leaders.
They hooked on again with around 18km remaining and as the sprint trains formed going into the final kilometre, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Pascal Ackermann was the first to jump, but both Viviani and Danny van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) powered past him.
And Viviani, claiming his fifth win of an impressive start to 2018, praised the work of his Quick-Step colleagues.
“I need to break the ice on the first day of a stage race. Usually, I don’t win the first sprint. It’s been the case again but I was very confident today,” said the 2016 Olympic track champion.
“Also in the echelons, I felt strong and I was willing to pull. We had Julian Alaphilippe and Enric Mas in the front group. It was good for our GC but we also wanted to win the stage, so I asked the guys to wait for me and close the gap.
“When we regrouped with 20km to go, I said we put all our efforts into the last corner. Young Alvaro Hodeg is unbelievable in his preparation for my sprint.
“Michael Morkov is always in the right place and I trust Fabio Sabatini 100 per cent for the lead out. With such a team, it was easy for me to finish it off.”
Viviani was rewarded with the race leader’s red jersey, as well as the points leader’s green jersey.
Elia Viviani insists he and Fernando Gaviria can co-exist at Quick-Step Floors despite the fact the young Colombian’s rapid rise could set the two sprinters on a collision course with one another.
Marcel Kittel is one of the finest sprinters in modern-day cycling, yet felt the need to move on from Quick-Step to Katusha-Alpecin during the off-season due to the remarkable rise of the precocious South American talent Gaviria.
Kittel has made no attempt to hide the fact the rise of Gaviria was the principal reason for his departure. The giant German hinted last summer that a lack of guarantees about his place in the Quick-Step team for this year’s Tour de France squad following four stage wins for Gaviria at last year’s Giro d’Italia – on his Grand Tour debut – was one of the reasons behind his departure.
While Kittel may have rightly been irked by his place at Le Tour coming under threat despite 14 stage wins since 2013 – including five a year ago – Viviani would be more than happy to let Gaviria take the sprinter’s role as he focuses on his home race of the Giro.
Viviani, winner of the Abu Dhabi Tour’s Stage 2 on Thursday, had been considering his options after being snubbed for a place in Team Sky’s squad for last year’s Giro.
Viviani has previously battled fiercely with Gaviria, at the Track Cycling World Championships in the UK in 2016. The Colombian won gold ahead of Roger Kluge and Glenn O’Shea, with Italian Viviani having to settle for fourth despite finishing just two points adrift of the youngster.
But he insists the relationship is now improved.
“We are in the same team. We are not competitors. We only do a few races together, our relationship is really improved now,” Viviani said after claiming the red leader’s jersey at the Yas Beach finish line when asked if he felt the pressure having emerging sprinter Gaviria as a teammate as well as potential rival.
“If you remember in the track worlds we battled for the rainbow jersey and in the Olympics too. I have a lot of respect for Fernando. He’s been one of the most phenomenal riders in the peloton over the last few years.”
Gaviria’s stellar 2017 brought him 14 individual wins, with his four standout victories at the Giro bringing him the points jersey. He ironically shared the roll of honour with departing teammate Kittel and Jakub Mareczko, another rising star with Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia.
It was also a watershed year for Viviani, who won a career best nine races. And the 29-year-old hopes he can break into double figures this year, a feat completely plausible with victory in Abu Dhabi already his fifth of a fledgling 2018.
He added: “I hope we win more than everyone. I’ve never won more than nine races in the season, I’ve never own 10 so this is a good goal, I hope to win more.
“There’s no pressure on either him or me because we don’t compete in many races together. I have my programme and I’m happy with it. I hope he wins the same as me or more than me and that can be really good for the team.”
Upon signing for Belgium-based Quick-Step in August, Viviani described the move as boarding “a train that only passes once”. And he has inherited a particularly potent sprint train at Quick-Step, one that carried Kittel to so many vital victories over his two years with the team – 26 to be precise.
“I feel really lucky. It’s such a different way to do the sprints. You need to believe in your team-mates because even behind or ahead you know the other guys can go as fast as you,” he said.
“In the last few years I’ve always trained sprinting in the last 1km because it’s what I need to do for the last kick. Now I just need to stay focused and on the wheel of Saba (fellow Italian Fabio Sabatini). Also today we lost Morko (Michael Morkov) on the last corner but Saba did the effort and with 500m to go he put me in a good position.
“It’s all about the timing when you go. In all the sprints I do I never finish outside the top five. If you have that chance minimum three or four you win so that’s why we’re taking these really big results in the early part of the season.”
And he poured particular praise on Sabatini, the 33-year-old veteran who has worked well with Kittel in the last two years but opted to stay at Quick-Step and join forces with Viviani.
“Yeah, I think so,” when asked if Sabatini was the best leadout man in cycling.
“But it’s not just what I think, it’s the facts speaking. He did a good job the last few years with Kittel, he works really well for the sprinters. He’s the difference I didn’t have in Liquigas for sure. I think he can make the difference in all my races.
“He is really calm. He has a good feeling with Michael. I think we have the two best because I also believe Mas (Enric Mas) is one of the best. I believe in him. If I lose one or two of them I still have a good chance with Saba. I think he can be the best, if he’s not already the best.”
Echelons made Stage 2 of the Abu Dhabi Tour a very competitive race with the threat of losing it all for some of the big names in contention but Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) continued his winning streak after he successfully raced at the Tour Down Under in Australia and claimed two stages and the overall classification of the Dubai Tour.
Young guns Danny Van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) rounded out the podium while Viviani succeeded to Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) in the Red Jersey.
1 - Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) 148km in 3h15’30”, average speed 45.421km/h
2 - Danny Van Poppel (Team Lotto NL - Jumbo) s.t.