The big-name sprinters are ready to go head to head at the fifth edition of Dubai Tour, but 24 hours before the first showdown, as they posed together for photographs under the Dubai Frame, they all carefully hedged their bets, avoiding any promises of victory or any prizefighter braggadocio before the first stage.
Last year's winner Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) joined Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) at the press conference on Monday afternoon. The big six will clash for the next five days, with Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia) also expected to be in the fight.
Kittel won three sprints at the 2017 Dubai Tour to secure the overall victory for the second time. At that time he was protected by the well-established Quick-Step Floors blue train. Now he is at Katusha-Alpecin and his train is a work in progress, while Viviani will ride the Quick-Step Floors train after a game of musical chairs amongst the sprinters.
Kristoff left Katusha-Alpecin for UAE Team Emirates, and like many of the skyscrapers on the Dubai Marina skyline, his lead-out is also still under construction. Only Cavendish can count on his trusted train, but he is rebuilding his form after injury and illness wrecked his 2017 season.
Kittel could secure a hat-trick of overall victories this year, but he insisted one win would be enough to make his week in the warmth of the Middle East a success.
"I've come here like every year, but I've not started my first race of 2018 yet and I've changed teams. We need to get used to each other, but we'll try our best, go for victory and take it day by day. We're not concentrating on a hat-trick but will take it more easily," he said with caution.
"I think we've had a very good start to things. Almost all of the German national team is here with me. We've got a good atmosphere, we're motivated and curious to find out how good we are. This is our first chance of the season."
Viviani was happy to inherit Kittel's hugely successful blue train with his move to Quick-Step Floors. Fabio Sabatini, Yves Lampaert and Niki Terpstra will form the backbone of his lead-out as he chases a third victory on the edge of the Palm Jumeirah on Tuesday.
"When you change teams you have new motivation and new teammates. Now I can enjoy the benefits of a lead-out and it's a big chance for me," the Italian said after his move from Team Sky over the winter.
"I've had a good start to the season, it's never easy to go Australia and win some races, but I had a good winter and I'm starting to enjoy this team. They're really focused on the sprints and that's really good for me.
"I think stage 1 is a really nice finish. I've won it twice. It's not an easy sprint. When you come out of the tunnel, you need a good position and it depends on where the wind is coming from. When there's a crosswind, you need to be in position and understand which is the best side. You can't come too far from behind."
Cavendish's month of racing in the Middle East
Cavendish has often gone close to victory on the opening stage of the Dubai Tour even if the finish on the Palm Jumeirah has left him frustrated. In 2016 he was forced across the road by Poland's Grzegorz Stepniak, with the Manxman responding with a headbutt. This year the Dubai Tour will mark the start of a month of racing in the Gulf for the Manxman, who will also ride the Tour of Oman and the Abu Dhabi Tour.
"The number of sprints makes it appetizing," Cavendish said of the Dubai Tour and his early season programme, looking lean and ready to race.
Nacer Bouhanni was invited to the top table of sprinters, and though there was a clear lack of interaction with the other riders who have dominated the sprints in recent years, Bouhanni spoke in French but his boxer's style meant his intentions were clear.
"Some things have changed at Cofidis but nothing has changed personally for me. The new manager has changed some things and so Cofidis is riding the Dubai Tour for the first time. I'm happy to be here because the world's best sprinters are here. I'm looking forward to racing."
Degenkolb the overall favourite?
Degenkolb will fight for a sprint win, sharing opportunities with teammate Giacomo Nizzolo for the first time, but will also target the overall victory. He is arguably the favourite due to his sprinting and ability to win stage 4 to Hatta Dam.
He knows that the daily 10-, 6- and 4-second time bonuses and the climb up to the edge of Hatta Dam will be decisive. The German Classics rider has already won two races at the Challenge Mallorca, and Trek-Segafredo are on a roll.
"It's nice to race here because it's well organised, with no long transfers and a good combination of sprints," he explained.
"I really like Hatta Dam because I've great memories. Not for the feeling when I crossed the finish but the emotions of winning after. You have to go really, really deep to win that finale. It sounds easy at just 400 metres long but it's incredible. It's so steep and you go so deep.
"The team is going well. We've got a very good balanced team, with just a great atmosphere. The guys in Argentina started superbly with a victory and that atmosphere travelled to Mallorca. We enjoyed our training camp and then I won the first stage. When you start the season like that it goes a little easier. Let's hope it continues here in Dubai but there's no extra pressure on us. We just want to keep on enjoying our racing."
Cyclingnews will have extensive coverage of all the racing at the Dubai Tour with interviews, news and exclusives during the five-day race.