German sprints to victory on opening day
André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) continued his impressive start to the season with a resounding sprint victory on stage one of the Tour of Oman at Wadi Al Huwqayn on Tuesday. In spite of his effervescence out on the road, however, he was typically low-key when he spoke to reporters after the stage.
The power of his finishing burst was juxtaposed with a guarded and softly-spoken analysis of the stage as he waited to climb the podium and accept the first red jersey of the race. So hushed were Greipel's tones that at times they scarcely seemed to reach the microphones that encircled him.
The German sprinter had a simple explanation for his fine early-season form, which has carried him to four victories to date, a far cry from his string of near misses this time 12 months ago.
"We just had a better winter than the year before," Greipel said. "In November, December there was almost no rain in Germany, so I think I did good work during the winter and I'm happy with it."
Illness forced Greipel out of the Tour of Qatar last week, but he showed no ill-effects on his return to competitive action and seamlessly picked up where he had left off in Australia. "It was just a precaution," Greipel said. "I could still do my training at home. It was a good choice from the team to keep me out of Qatar."
After a shaky start to life at Omega Pharma-Lotto in 2011, Greipel picked up confidence and momentum as the year progressed, and it's testimony to his standing at the revamped Lotto Belisol outfit that a lead-out train worthy of the name is being built around him this year, with Greg Henderson arriving from Sky as a dedicated lead-out man.
"I'm just happy that I can get the support of the whole team for the lead-out," said Greipel. "Especially we are all friends and I think this is also a big part for a team. If everybody in their free time makes fun with each other, it's just better when you have friends on the team. Everybody is pulling on one rope and it makes it easier."
Sprint rival Mark Cavendish
Even in moments of triumph such as these, however, the spectre of Greipel's uneasy coalition with Mark Cavendish at Highroad continues to loom over proceedings like Banquo's ghost. The paradox of striving to be the best sprinter in the world after being classed as the second-best sprinter in his own team as recently as two years ago.
Did it add anything to Greipel's victory that the world champion was in the field, albeit not a participant in the final sprint?
Greipel's brow creased slightly. "I'm happy when I finish first, it doesn't matter against whom," he said carefully.
For all their problems at Highroad, nothing but sentiments of mutual deference have emanated from the respective camps since Greipel and Cavendish parted ways at the end of 2010, and the Lotto Belisol man is in no hurry to break that détente.
"I always respect him," he said of Cavendish. "He is the world champion. He won a lot of big races, so he's one of the fastest. Maybe he's the fastest in the bunch."
Greipel didn't flicker as he batted away a question on the apparent travails of the Sky lead-out train, Cavendish's two wins in Qatar notwithstanding.
"I just look on our team," he said with quiet insistence. "We know we have a lot of horsepower in the team and we don't look on other teams."
That horsepower means that Greipel must now surely be bracketed among the favourites for victory at Milan-San Remo? Once again, he refused to bite.
"It's in March," Greipel said bluntly, and without ceremony. "Now we're in February."
An exhibition of sprinting followed by a masterful demonstration of the art of downplaying expectations.