Alex Dowsett is convinced Marcel Kittel’s class will shine through despite a below par start to life at Katusha-Alpecin.
Kittel left Quick-Step for the Swiss-backed former Russian team in the off-season after two glorious years with the Belgian team.
Despite earning five stage wins at the Tour de France in 2017, the rise of Fernando Gaviria at Quick-Step jeopardised Kittel’s place in the team for Le Tour this year, with both men competing for the star sprinter’s role.
Germany’s Kittel won 14 individual races last year – a joint record in men’s cycling for 2017 – although rising Colombian star Gaviria also notched 14 victories, including an impressive four stage wins on his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia.
Kittel wasn’t content to play second fiddle to or battle Gaviria for top spot, so left. And after 26 total victories in two years with Quick-Step, Kittel switched to Katusha, although it’s been a slow start at his new team.
He could only finish 82nd on Stage 2 of the Abu Dhabi Tour on Thursday, but fellow new arrival Dowsett says there is no doubting Kittel’s quality.
“We’re working well together as a team. It’s not about getting the end result because we know the caliber of Marcel,” said the 29-year-old Englishman, who severed a five-year tie with Movistar to join Katusha this season.
“He had bad legs today. It’s about going through the motions of getting the lead out train sorted. Because if he’s got good legs he will win so it’s just a case of gelling and getting our s**t together.
“I think we are, we’re there or there abouts. Hopefully we’ll get there tomorrow and we’ll keep trying.”
A chaotic Stage 2 made for excellent racing and drama from Yas Mall to Yas Beach, with crosswinds playing havoc as three groups tore the peloton to pieces.
Katusha were the instigators as the original five-man breakaway was swallowed up with just under 50km to go, with eventual stage winner Elia Viviani and Stage 1 winner Alexander Kristoff cut adrift.
They both recovered as the second and third groups worked together to close in on the leading pack, of which Kittel was a part.
And Dowsett revealed Kittel’s chances of victory were perhaps closed off by his own attempt to make a move too early in the closing stages.
“At 80km the winds split the group to pieces, that was our fault,” said Dowsett.
“It was really good though, in the final we wanted to hit the corner with 5km to go up the front and we hit it on the front, we wanted to be on the right and we were, but it was a long 5km.
“I went a little bit early and I think the boys behind then had to improvise a little and took it to 2km. The pace ramped up and I couldn’t quite keep with it. I just had to get out of the way of my boys and everyone else.”
Overnight white jersey occupant Caleb Ewan, meanwhile, was part of the leading group who made a move just after halfway, and he added fifth place to his third from Stage 1, although he was replaced at the top of the Young Rider standings by Danny van Poppel of LottoNL-Jumbo, who finished second.
And with Saturday’s time trial and Sunday’s ascent on Jebel Hafeet to come, the young Australian doesn’t think he’ll get the white jersey back.
“I was in the front group which was good. Then in the finish I was trapped in on the left and couldn’t get out. Once I started my sprint it was too late,” said the 23-year-old Mitchelton-Scott rider.
“I’ve already lost it (white jersey) but once we get to the time trial and the hill it’s going to be too tough for me to get it back.
“It was close to the finish so it could have gone either way. Sometimes they’ll stay away, sometimes they won’t but I decided to keep on the safe side and go with that first group. The others were wasting a bit more energy.”
Despite his disappointment, he was again pleased with his aggressive stance in helping form the lead group in the wind and how he pushed the world’s best sprinters, including Kittel.
He added: “I think that’s the way to go. I’m still young and making my way up. I need to prove myself, those big guys have done that, I just need to keep chipping away and try and get some more wins.”
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.”