Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) was seated alongside Elia Viviani at the top table during the pre-race press conference at the Abu Dhabi Tour on Tuesday, but the German resisted the temptation to inquire after his old lead-out train at Quick-Step Floors as they waited for proceedings to begin.
Then again, there was hardly much need. Viviani was expertly delivered by the men in blue to two stage wins and overall victory at the recent Dubai Tour, while, in the same race, Kittel and his Katusha-Alpecin guard were still straightening out some kinks in their chain. Third place on stage 3 was his best showing during a frustrating five days that began with the ill portent of a mechanical problem during the opening sprint.
Kittel has been racing and winning long enough to realise that victories will come in due course, and he has been dealing with the press long enough to understand that this early spot of trial and error will generate its share of headlines. No sprinter likes to dwell on defeats, but Kittel accepts the inevitable questions on the early teething troubles with good grace.
"As a team we showed a really good team spirit in Dubai. We saw where our mistakes were and what we have to do better in the future and that's what we'll work on now, in this race and in the coming weeks," Kittel said. "In the end, it was a good race for us. We were there but we couldn't get that victory so that's also a goal for Abu Dhabi now, to do better and keep developing."
When Kittel wheeled across the line in sixth place on the final stage of the Dubai Tour, mind, he may briefly have considered the prospect of signing up as a late entry to the Tour of Oman. Instead, he had to endure a little over a week of waiting for another chance to open his account as a Katusha-Alpecin rider. Rather than stew on the disappointment, Kittel and Katusha held a post-race debrief in Dubai that evening, before going their separate ways to train for the Abu Dhabi Tour.
"We finished the race, and then we had a meeting to talk about the race and the last week," Kittel said. "I think that's always important because you come out of the event with a good feeling after looking back at what was good, what was bad and what you want to do better. That way, you have a plan and you can go into the next race and just be confident again. And for us that's the most important thing."
Viewed from the outside, sprinting can seem like the ultimate zero sum game. If the stage winner and his lead-out are right, then, by extension, his vanquished opponents must all be wrong. At this early point in the season, however, as riders are still finding form and lead-out trains are still forming understandings, there are lessons and even consolations to be drawn from defeat.
Placing three riders in the top six, as Katusha-Alpecin did on the final stage in Dubai, may seem to suggest a lack of cohesion in the squad's sprint unit, but it also highlighted the firepower at Kittel's disposal on his new team. Amending the order of the carriages ought to be a quicker fix than having to rebuild the locomotive.
"I think the most important point for us was to get a structure into our sprint and how we work together. That red line has to establish and has to be more strong. We have to be aware of what our plan is and what we want to do as a group. That was a very positive development in the end and that's something that also takes time," Kittel said.
"I'm really not in a rush. The team is not in a rush to push anything. If we were more lucky on stage 1 in Dubai and I didn't have a mechanical, then we would be talking totally differently about this race. Like I said before, we took a lot of confidence from that race and we're very motivated coming into this one."
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