Chaos reigns in Dubai Tour as sprint trains remain a work in progress

'This is a race to test things but also to fail sometimes,' says Kittel

Huge construction sites can be seen along the roadside of every stage of the Dubai Tour and the two sprint finishes contested so far have confirmed that there is similar amount of work in progress in amongst the sprinters and their lead-out trains.

Seven of the world's best sprinters are here to fight for early-season glory but, more importantly, they are here to practice, adjust and polish their lead-out strategy in the sun before bigger sprint goals in Europe, where the stakes and pressure to win will be higher.

Sprints are rarely perfect, even for the winner. There is always a reason for defeat: on stage 2, Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) had a gear problem with 1.5km to go, lost his lead-out train and was late in making it to the front: too late to get past Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) lost his lead-out man but used his experience to get on Viviani's wheel and tried to out-jump him. Viviani is on superb form at the moment and so was able to kick again in sight of the line and hold off Cavendish, with Groenewegen and Riccardo Minali (Astana) coming up late to take second and third.

Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia) is perhaps punching above his weight in this Dubai Tour but was not afraid to start his aero-tucked sprint early. He could see the finish line but faded, was passed and finished 15th. Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) looked well-placed in the final kilometre, but was left out in front too early and also faded to 7th.

They were perhaps the lucky ones: at least they were able to contest the sprint. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) could not get through to open his sprint, while Kittel again finished in 17th place. Not exactly what he and Katusha-Alpecin had hoped for on their season debut together.

Kittel benefitted from the prowess and experience of the Quick-Step Floors blue train in both 2016 and 2017, winning five stages and back-to-back overall classifications. This time around, however, he is still working on integrating his speed to Katusha-Alpecin's red train.

Viviani is now the one benefitting from the Quick-Step Floors train. He has contested seven sprints so far this season, finishing in the top five on five occasions. He won a stage at the Tour Down Under, finished second at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and won in Ras al Khaimah on Wednesday at the Dubai Tour.

The sprinters all recognised Quick-Step Floors' collective ability in the pre-race press conference on Monday, and while they have not been able to dominate the sprints all the way to the line thus far at the Dubai Tour, the Belgian squad are clearly better drilled and have more power than their rivals.

Cavendish noticed Quick-Step Floors' strength in depth during Tuesday's first sprint and again on stage 2.

"Quick-Step are strong at this race and it shows," he Cavendish said. "Marcel [Kittel] won here for the last two years but I think it's Quick-Step that made the difference. I won here with Quick-Step too [in 2015 – ed.] and they've shown it again. They've been the strongest here so far."

Viviani was understandably happy to end his contract with Team Sky a year early and pull on the Quick-Step blue colours.

"When I signed with Quick-Step Floors I knew it could be the best four years of my career," Viviani said after his victory on Wednesday.

"I'm 29 from today and so I think it's the best age to get results. I'm not a phenomenon. I work a lot to reach my goals, which is to win the biggest races and beat the best sprinters in the world.

"This year there's no excuse. I have a really strong team. Nine times out of ten they bring me in a good position with the open road ahead of me. In the last eight years, I've come from the back or followed others. That's a big difference. We can lose some races in the first few months but after that, it won't be an excuse anymore."

Kittel and Katusha-Alpecin fail to dominate as chaos reigns

Both sprints at the Dubai Tour have been hectic, with no one team able to lead out the sprint and deliver their leader perfectly to the final 200 metres. The days of Mario Cipollini or Alessandro Petacchi dominating the sprints thanks to their all-powerful lead-outs is history. Sprinting has evolved massively in recent years and continues to do so.

Katusha-Alpecin have tried to dominate the lead-out at the Dubai Tour but have come up short on each occasion. Kittel lost his chain in the final metres of stage 1 and then lost his lead-out train on stage 2.

With no team buses at the Dubai Tour, Kittel and his Katusha-Alpecin teammates sat in a circle as they changed and washed down after stage 2, discussing what went wrong and what they could do to make it go right. Kittel lamented about the other teams not helping to chase the early break but stayed cool and classy, even in defeat.

"In the finale we just made some mistakes, we're too nervous maybe, and didn't have the coolness. That can happen. I said beforehand that this is a race to test things but also to fail sometimes. Yesterday we were close and today we were perhaps far away. But that's the process we are going through now. Our motivation is still high," he said calmly.

"We wanted to move up in one go on the left side. That was a little bit difficult and communication wasn't perfect. That's is okay if it happens now. We're sitting here after the race and we're disappointed but I think that's a good sign. We really going for it and so disappointed if it doesn't work out.

Does he perhaps learn more in defeat that in victory?

"Always," Kittel said. "What else can you do? We tried our best but it wasn't enough. Tomorrow is our next chance, and there's another chance on the last day. We want to go for it and I'm sure that if we continue like this, our first victory is not far away."

Thursday's stage 3 to Fujairah is the third act of the 2018 crash course in sprinting prowess. It will surely reveal even more about who is going to be the king of the sprints in 2018.  

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