Marcel Kittel makes his 2018 racing debut with Katusha-Alpecin at the Dubai Tour on Tuesday, confident of his form and his new lead out but cautious about raising expectations as he begins a new, important chapter in his professional career.
Kittel turned professional a decade ago with Thuringer Energie and has since ridden for just two other WorldTour teams: Giant and Quick-Step Floors. His move to Katusha-Alpecin seems an excellent fit, with German brands Alpecin and bike sponsor Canyon happy to have him promote their products with victories in the sprints.
On Monday during the pre-race press conference, the big-name sprinters accepted that Quick-Step Floors has produced the best leadouts in recent years, with Mark Cavendish, then Kittel and now Elia Viviani able to benefit from their skills and high speed in the finale.
Kittel opted to leave Quick-Step Floors, to avoid any internal rivalry with Fernando Gaviria and be the absolute sprint leader at Katusha-Alpecin. He is already sure he has made the right choice.
“It’s sometimes a sad thing when you leave a team, but it’s a good thing when you join a group of new people. You are challenged again and you have slightly different goals, you go into the year with different motivation. That’s what happened to me,” Kittel explained.
Kittel’s five Tour de France stage victories in 2017 make the 29-year-old German arguably the ‘best’ sprinter in the peloton. He is clearly suited to the fast sprints on wide roads at the Dubai Tour, having won eight stages and the overall classification in both 2016 and 2017. But a new season, a new team and a new lead-out train means Kittel starts 2018 with zero wins on his palmares and his feet firmly on the ground.
“It would be nice to get a victory here, but with the circumstances of changing teams, of being together here for the first time, that’s something that means you have to say, 'Lets wait and see what happens,'” Kittel said as the hours counted down to his season debut with new teammates Alex Dowsett, Marco Haller, Viacheslav Kuznetsov, Marco Mathis, Nils Politt and Rik Zabel.
“We have to concentrate, be focused. We’re well prepared, we’ve trained hard and we’re motivated. We want to do our best and see what it is worth here.”
Kittel and his designated lead-out riders have worked hard in training, spending hours in the saddle together and simulating sprint finishes.
In the expected four high-speed sprints in Dubai, Kittel will go up against Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia) and the Trek-Segafredo duo of John Degenkolb and Giacomo Nizzolo. He knows that Tuesday’s first sprint on the edge of the Palm Jumeirah will be tense and highly fought.
“I think we start with the most technical finish of the whole race. It’s a stress test for the team already,” he acknowledged, keeping Katusha-Alpecin’s tactics for the sprints firmly under wraps.
“I suspect all the sprinters will be up there, challenging me. We’ll concentrate on ourselves and our goals. We try to do our thing in the finale,” he said.
“Of course we want to take the initiative and also be in the right position in the finale whatever that means. We’re not planning to have a lead out train for the last three kilometres and try to drop everyone, that’s not how it works. We want to be there when the sprint starts in the last 200 metres, that’s the goal as a team. How we get there I can’t say, you’ll see in the sprint…”