While Marcel Kittel was completing his domination of the Dubai Tour on Saturday afternoon, 400 kilometres further west in Doha, his fellow countryman André Greipel was putting the finishing touches to his preparations for the next race in the Gulf, the Tour of Qatar.
Neither Kittel nor defending champion Mark Cavendish will be on hand in Qatar this year, making Greipel the marquee sprint attraction and a favourite to secure multiple stage victories, particularly given his brace of wins at the Tour Down Under last month.
As the German champion set out on a short training ride with his Lotto-Belisol teammates on the eve of the race, however, he told Cyclingnews that he would not be a contender for the overall title, mindful, perhaps, of the short individual time trial on stage 3.
"I won't push myself in any risk here. For sure we're going to try and win a stage but I don't think we're aiming for GC or something like that. At least, I'm not," Greipel said.
Remarkably, Greipel is making his first appearance at the Tour of Qatar in almost a decade. Indeed, his 2005 appearance with Team Wiesenhof marked his professional debut, and in a sprint peloton that still featured Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen, 8th place on the final stage to Doha's Corniche was his best result.
A variety of factors have kept Greipel away from Qatar ever since – at Highroad, he and Mark Cavendish raced separate programmes, while Lotto have not always been invited to the race in his time at the team. "Two years ago, I should have been here alright, but I was sick," he explained. "So I skipped Qatar and just did Oman. But I'm here this year, and it's just a case of trying something different."
Another difference this year in Greipel's plans - and in those of many other fast men - is the absence of Milan-San Remo from his agenda. The addition of the climb of the Pompeiana in the finale is set to alter irrevocably the complexion of the race, and Greipel, Cavendish et al have already made it be clear that they will not be lining up outside Milan's Castello Sforzesco on March 23.
"In the end, it's not bad to miss out on San Remo because it means I can do Dwars door Vlaanderen in Belgium [the following Wednesday - ed], which is an important race for the team and could also suit me," Greipel said.
The sheer quantity of Greipel's victories in 2013 - thirteen in total – may have been the headline story of his season, but the quality of his performances in the cobbled classics should not be overlooked. At the Tour of Flanders, in particular, he performed impressively, bounding clear on the Molenberg in a bid to lay the groundwork for his leader Jurgen Roelandts.
"I'm part of the team there and while these are not the races for me, I'm always trying to help the team," said Greipel, who admitted that the April races do not carry quite the same level of personal pressure as the high-octane sprints of the Tour de France. "Of course, you can kind of enjoy yourself in these races with all the crowds, but the cobbled classics are always hard - it's hard work."
Greipel will race the Tour of Oman, Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Tirreno-Adriatico in the build-up the classics. With Jurgen Roelandts, third in the Tour of Flanders in 2013, and new signing Tony Gallopin in their ranks, Lotto-Belisol will have a strong collective on the cobbles, but Greipel agreed that the team will need to be inventive in order land a
"I think to try to get a result, you need to try something out. In Flanders last year we did that, and Roelandts finished third, behind Cancellara and Sagan. That was nearly a victory, I would say," Greipel said. "I think there's always a margin to do better and improve in those races, and of course we're going to try and do something like that again. We can't wait for Cancellara and Sagan - we have to do our own race."
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