The Abu Dhabi Tour held its pre-race press conference on Wednesday and such is the depth of talent in the field for the new WorldTour race, two banks of tables were needed to accommodate those considered the 14 'top riders'. As Mark Cavendish, sat dead central, put it: "You don’t even see this in Grand Tours anymore."
General classification favourites for this year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France are hardly in short supply, but Cavendish is part of an equally stellar sprint cast that includes Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani.
“This is probably the best sprinting field I’ve raced in since turning pro,” said Ewan, now in his third season as a professional. Greipel added: “It’s never easy to win sprints, and when you have the sprinters that we have here it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Three of the four stages at the Abu Dhabi Tour are dedicated to the fast men. Thursday's opening stage takes place in the desert and is followed by a similarly flat course in the city the next day. The final stage will once again take place under the floodlights on the Formula 1 circuit, where Cavendish won last year and Viviani the year before.
And it’s those two riders who are perhaps most in need of a victory this week, as the sprint field is divided between those who are yet to win this season and those who’ve already got the ball rolling.
“I’ve already got four second places and I hope that doesn’t continue,” said a less-than-relaxed Viviani, who has come up against a Quick-Step shaped wall so far this season, losing out to Fernando Gaviria twice and Boonen once in San Juan before being beaten by Kittel at the Dubai Tour.
Like a striker in football, the importance of getting a win under the belt early on can’t be understated; no one wants to head into March with nothing on the board. That said, Kittel, who racked up three stage wins and the overall title in Dubai – where Cavendish and Viviani were also present – insists he’s treating Abu Dhabi as if he were starting from zero.
“It’s a pretty big difference,” he said of his win count when later talking to reporters, “but I guess the most important thing now is to really keep the focus, and not say ‘Okay I’ve already got some wins it’s not so important here’.”
While Kittel is well off the mark and Cavendish and Viviani lag behind, Greipel is once again showing the consistency that has landed him Grand Tour stage wins in nine successive seasons, with two wins already to his name – one from Challenge Mallorca and the other the Volta ao Algarve.
The most prolific sprinter of the lot so far is the youngest of them all. 22-year-old Ewan was utterly dominant at the Tour Down Under, winning all four flat stages. The young Australian has won a stage at the Vuelta a Espana but is yet to land a victory against one of the top pure sprinters.
“I’ve raced all these guys before but not all together so I think this is the first time I’ll come up against them all together in the same race,” Ewan told Cyclingnews.
“If I had to pick someone [who I fear the most] I reckon Kittel is probably going the best. After watching him in Dubai he was sprinting super good. It’s hard to tell when all these guys come together, if you do something really small wrong it can cost you the race, because these guys are on such a high level.”
As for his own form, “to be honest I don’t think it’s as good as it was in Down Under, because after that I had a week off and I’ve now come straight from altitude camp, so it’s a bit iffy whether my form will be great or not.”
Other names to watch out for include Bardiani-CSF’s Niccola Ruffoni and UAE Team Emirates’ Andrea Guardini, who has forgone his customary Tour de Langkawi haul to be here.
Kittel is used to having the support of what is probably the strongest lead-out set-up in the sport, but he’ll be forced to fend more for himself in Abu Dhabi. That’s because the race’s newly acquired WorldTour status means all-important WorldTour points are on offer and, with considerable reward stretching right down the general classification.
“We don’t have a usual lead-out team here because the focus is more on GC – you can grab a lot of WorldTour points when you have lots of GC guys at the front,” explained Greipel.
It’s the same for Cavendish, though the Dimension Data rider still has his trusted lieutenants Mark Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel
“We don’t have a big lead-out train. As it’s WorldTour there are big points on offer for GC, so we have lots of climbers but we’ll give it our best shot,” he said.
For Kittel, it’s “very likely” that we’ll see messy sprints as a result, with disorganised final kilometres and plenty of scrapping for position.
“Not everyone has a big lead-out train because the GC riders also are here in all the teams,” said the German. “It’s always difficult to find position a bunch sprint, but that’s also the challenge. It’s something we’ve seen in the last few years, it’s a development in that direction – you don’t need huge lead-out train anymore, so it’s probably a good thing to have a smaller group.”
The leading sprint stars sat in a circle together as they waited for the press conference to commence, all smiles and bonhomie. It will certainly be a different story from Thursday; sprinters are a competitive bunch and there’ll be no room for courtesy with so much on the line this week.