The big-name sprinters gathered for the traditional pre-race Dubai Tour press conference on Monday afternoon. Yet while boxing weigh-ins before a prize fight are often tense, with the odd punch flying, Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, John Degenkolb and Elia Viviani were far more passive than aggressive, seemingly uninterested in whipping up a rivalry on the first sprint showdown of the 2017 season.
Earlier the four sprinters posed for photos overlooking the Palm Jumeirah and in front of a chess set. Hopefully Tuesday’s first sprint finish on the edge of the Palm Jumeirah will spark more action.
Cavendish has been in the in the UAE for a week and his sunburnt cheeks highlighted his slim face. Nobody can accuse the Manxman of being out of shape this year. Cavendish has had just two and half weeks off during the winter after racing deep into November. As a consequence, he claimed he does not know how he will perform in the sprints.
“I’ve been here a week, I love it out here in UAE. There are more and more spectators now and with the start in the Marina, it’s a race riders want to comeback to. I know I do,” he said genuinely enthusiastic about his season debut.
“This year we’ll see how it goes. I didn’t finish the season until the end of November, I’m usually in training for the new season by then, so we need to see where I am. We’ve got a good Dimension Data team here and we’ll try to do as well as we can.”
Team Sky target the sprints and overall success
Elia Viviani looked fresh but had flown in from Argentina via Italy after making his season debut in the Vuelta a San Juan as part of an Italian national squad. He quit the race on Friday due to stomach problems after collecting three second places in sprints. He is hoping to step up here and use his form from Argentina to surprise his rivals who are making their season debut in Dubai.
“I think I had a really good winter and I’m really happy with my condition. I tested it last week in Argentina and we’re ready for Dubai,” he said, for once seeming more bullish than Cavendish.
“I want to win. I got three second places in San Juan and I hope to take my first win here. It’s a good way to start season with Team Sky, there’s one day more of racing, the stages are longer and the weather is good. I’m sure well have a good week.”
Viviani revealed that Team Sky also have plans for overall victory in the five day race.
“We're here for the sprints, and for the GC we’ve got Gianni Moscon. The hardest stage to Hatta Dam is not a real sprinter’s finish but he could do well. We’ll be focused on the leadouts and the GC.”
Degenkolb back to his best
John Degenkolb won on Hatta Dam in 2015 with a huge effort on the short but steep climb to the finish line. He missed last year’s race after he and his teammates were hit by a car while training in Spain. He made a gradual but successful comeback during the 2016 season but is looking to get back to his best and build for the spring Classics this week after moving to Trek-Segafredo during the winter. He joked with fellow German Marcel Kittel before the press conference got underway but his intentions are serious.
“I’m super happy to be back after missing last year’s race. I had a great to start to the season here in 2015, it was one of my most successful seasons of my career, so I’m coming back with great memories,” he said, recalling how he went on to win Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015.
“I want to start things off good with my new team and do some good sprints. Doing well on Hatta Dam again would be very special too.
“However we’ll take things day by day and try to be as good as possible in preparing the sprints as a new team. You can train a lot but races are different and you need to get that feeling as a team. We want to start racing now.”
Kittel dominated the Dubai Tour in 2016, winning two stages and the overall classification. Twelve months ago he was making his debut with Etixx-QuickStep after a messy divorce from Giant-Alpecin. Now he’s more relaxed but keen to get sprinting again after ending his 2016 season with a DNF at the world championships in Qatar.
“The Dubai Tour has always been a good race for me. It was fantastic last year, coming here with new team and being able to have a good race and even winning overall, that doesn’t happen often to me as a sprinter,” he said.
“I can definitely say that I’ve done some good training, with Belgian guys in your team, you always train hard. Now it’s the moment to find how good I am and where I stand against the other guys."
The Dubai Tour kicks off on Tuesday with an 181km stage around the city skyscrapers and via a loop into the desert. The finish is on the edge of Palm Jumeirah, with the sea breeze raising the tension as the rider look to win their first sprint of the season.