Two-time defending champion Marcel Kittel has every reason to approach the Dubai Tour with the utmost confidence, having had so much success in the emirate in the past.
But the German is keeping his expectations in check as he gets set to make his debut for his new team, Katusha Alpecin, having parted ways with Quick-Step Floors at the end of last season.
The team swap carousel in the world of cycling never stops spinning and Kittel is not the only one to have found a new home base in 2018.
Sat just two seats down from the powerful German sprinter at the Dubai Tour pre-event press conference on Monday at the Westin hotel was Italian rider Elia Viviani, who has taken Kittel’s spot at Quick-Step after terminating his contract with Team Sky, three years into his partnership with the British team.
The lead-out riders who helped Kittel clinch a second consecutive trophy in Dubai last year will now be serving Viviani in his new quest for sprinting excellence.
Kittel, a 14-time stage winner at the Tour de France, is ready to embark on a quest of his own, as he kicks off his season in the UAE on Tuesday looking to build on his previous strong results here, but with a different outfit.
“It would be nice to get already a victory here,” Kittel told reporters on Monday. “But under the circumstances now, changing teams, being for the first time together here in the race, that’s something where I say ‘okay, let’s just see what happens, concentrate, be focused, we are well-prepared, we trained good and we are motivated and we want to try our best and see what it is worth at the end’.”
Kittel, who has claimed a combined eight stage wins in Dubai in 2014, 2016 and 2017, says things have been going “very good” so far with his new team-mates. The 29-year-old has particularly enjoyed the fact that Katusha Alpecin include several German-speaking riders and joked that new British recruit Alex Dowsett has already picked up some words from the language.
“It’s a little bit sad sometimes when you leave a team but it’s also a nice thing if you come into a new group of people. You’re also challenged again, you have maybe slightly different goals but you’re just going into the year with a different motivation,” explains Kittel.
“And that’s what happened to me and I’m sure it happened to other riders that changed teams this year. We’ve had a very good winter, a very short one actually – at least it felt that way for me – and now we’re here in Dubai, we’re motivated to see where we stand as a group in the lead-out, on the sprint, and that’s the first test for us.”
Is he tempted to think about pulling off a hat-trick in Dubai, Kittel says: “I’m not thinking about that. I like to take it step by step, day by day, stage by stage, for the Dubai Tour. Tomorrow is the start and I think we start with the most technical finish in the whole race. It’s a stress test for the team already.”
Today’s opening Nakheel stage of the Dubai Tour is a 167km ride that culminates at the Atlantis hotel on Palm Jumeirah.
Four of the five stages of the race favour the sprinters and Kittel will face stiff competition from the likes of Team Dimension Data’s Mark Cavendish – the 2015 Dubai Tour champion – Viviani, UAE Team Emirates’ Alexander Kristoff and Trek-Segafredo’s John Degenkolb.
Viviani won the Nakheel stage twice, in 2015 and 2016, and admits it’s a tricky finish.
“I think it’s a really nice finish tomorrow, I won it two times, and lost last year to Marcel and finished in the top-10. It’s not an easy sprint because when you come out of the tunnel you need to be already in a good position,” said Viviani, an Olympic gold medallist on the track in Rio 2016, and a Giro d’Italia stage winner.
“And then when you go on the last straight it depends on where the wind is coming from – last year it came from the sea – and when you have the crosswind in the sprint you have to analyse which side is better for sure but also to be already in position. The wind can make the difference.”
The Dubai Tour starts on Tuesday and concludes on Saturday, February 10 with the Stage 5 sprint finish at City Walk.
It’s almost time for the @dubaitour! 🚴♂️
— Sport360° (@Sport360) February 5, 2018
UAE Team Emirates didn’t have to wait long to get their first podium finish of the new UCI World Tour season with Filippo Ganna taking the green jersey in his third place finish at Vuelta a San Juan.
Ganna who joined UAE Team Emirates at the beginning of 2017, impressed throughout the event and although he finished outside the top 10, his performances in the seven-stage race was enough to seal third overall.
The 21-year-old, who was the overnight leader at one point, completed the race 1:11 behind overall winner Gonzalo Najar. But that was enough to get his hands on the green jersey after finishing top of the youth rankings.
Ganna was thrilled with his achievement and believes it will help him in good stead for the rest of the season.
“I can’t help but be proud of how my team took on the Vuelta a San Juan. We fought so hard, we defended the leader’s jersey as far as we could and we tried to retake it, too,” said the Italian.
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) January 29, 2018
“It was an honour to compete in this race. I have to be particularly satisfied with the improvement I have made over the past year and I hope that this is a good omen for the rest of the season.”
UAE Team Emirates’ riders will be back in action next week when they compete in the Dubai Tour from February 6 to 10.
The Abu Dhabi Tour returns next month — from February 21-25 — with a new and improved route that will guarantee excitement until the dying moments, with a time trial added the day before the grand finale atop Jebel Hafeet.
The fourth edition of the capital showpiece — the only WorldTour event taking place in the Middle East — will have an extra day, with a time trial introduced to make the Abu Dhabi Tour a five-stage race for the first time.
The time trial will take place on day four of the event on Al Maryah Island, with the mountain stage that takes the riders to Al Ain and up Jebel Hafeet now placed at the end of the race to make sure the climbers and puncheurs can fight for the General Classification jersey at the culmination of the five-day cycling extravaganza.
A stellar line-up has been confirmed for this fourth edition, with Abu Dhabi Tour ambassador Mark Cavendish joined by the likes of current Giro d’Italia champion Dutchman Tom Dumoulin from Team Sunweb, Vuelta a Espana winner Italian Fabio Aru and 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour winner Rui Costa both from UAE Team Emirates.
A total of 17 of the 18 WorldTour teams are set to start, with cyclists representing over 50 different nationalities.
“Last season was horrible for me. I had a lot of health problems, but the one win I got was here in Abu Dhabi – a very special place for me and in certain terms, a second home for me and for my family too,” said Cavendish, who attended the unveiling of the new route in the UAE capital on Tuesday.
“Last year, I was very proud to wear the Red Jersey as leader at the end of stage one and two, and win the final Green Jersey for the second year consecutively. I hope to repeat that success in 2018 and to be on the final podium again.”
The Abu Dhabi Tour is organised by Abu Dhabi Sports Council in collaboration with RCS Sport.
“We’re working to make the race more appealing to fans and riders, and this upgrade represents a unique opportunity to make the challenge for the overall standings stronger and not only related to the mountain stage,” said Aref Al Awani, Abu Dhabi Sports Council secretary general.
Here’s a look at the Abu Dhabi Tour’s five stages…
STAGE 1 – Wednesday February 21 – Al Dhafra stage (189km)
The opening stage follows its traditional route, starting and finishing in Madinat Zayed, and running entirely through the Abu Dhabi desert.
STAGE 2 – Thursday February 22 – Yas Island stage (154km)
The stage will start at Yas Mall before taking the riders through Al Bahia and the Khalifa Port.
STAGE 3 – Friday February 23 – Nation Towers stage (133km)
A tour of the capital, featuring as many landmarks as possible and the probable bunch sprint will take place on Al Marina, close to the Big Flag.
STAGE 4 – Saturday February 24- Al Maryah Island stage (11.8km)
Taking place on Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi’s business and lifestyle destination, stage four is the very first time trial to ever be included on the Abu Dhabi Tour agenda. It’s a simple route, with just two bends and a single U-turn, setting up an extremely fast and spectacular stage.
STAGE 5 – Sunday February 25 – Al Ain Stage (199km)
The grand finale delivers the mountain stage ending atop Jebel Hafeet. The climbers and puncheurs will fight for the general classification jersey with an uphill finish at an altitude of 1,025m.