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Kittel and Katusha-Alpecin work out the kinks in Dubai

Marcel Kittel is the defending champ at Dubai Tour, but his top priority this February is getting acquainted with his new teammates.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (VN) — Marcel Kittel would love a hat-trick of overall wins at the Dubai Tour, but this year, the priority is settling in with his new team, Katusha-Alpecin.

After two years with Quick-Step Floors, Kittel made the jump to Katusha-Alpecin this offseason. He got his 2018 campaign underway Tuesday at the Dubai Tour, where he is the two-time defending champion. Surrounded by a new supporting cast, Kittel is making the most of a chance to test his sprint train.

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“For me, this is the race where it’s no problem if things go wrong. We are here to see how good we are, where we stand,” he told a small group of journalists in Dubai on Monday.

“Maybe everything works well, we work together, and it feels like we’ve been doing it for years. Or maybe things go really wrong and we really have to talk, but that’s no stress.”

Katusha had a presence at the front in the finale of Tuesday’s opening stage. So did Kittel’s former Quick-Step teammates. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), however, emerged victorious in stage 1. Kittel finished outside the top 10. Perhaps there is still work to be done, but now is the perfect time to do it, before the high-pressure atmosphere of the grand tours.

For Kittel, working to form a successful sprint train begins off the bike. The 29-year-old says it’s all about connecting on a personal level with the riders who must work tirelessly on his behalf.

“It’s not even about cycling. It’s about knowing how the group works. What they think is funny. How they talk with each other. How they act with each other,” he said. “I’ll find my spot in that group first of all, and then continue from there with training, riding your bike, speaking about finishes.

“Everyone knows what he can do on the bike. It’s that time you spend off the bike together which is first of all much more time than what you have on the bike together, and where you need to come along.”

At least when it comes to that critical part of building relationships, Kittel says he is making good headway early on.

“I don’t know if it’s a good thing,” he joked, “but I roomed with Marco Haller for two nights and it felt like we were already together for six years in the team. We had a really good connection with the other guys from the main lead-out that you already have in mind, like Rick [Zabel], or Nils [Politt], or Alex [Dowsett], or Tony [Martin] of course I know already.”

It helps that Kittel’s new teammates know a thing or two about lead-outs. Alexander Kristoff — now with UAE Team Emirates — often enjoyed the luxury of having several Katusha teammates setting the tempo just in front of him at the pointy end of races.

“If you look to the sprint stages from ’17, you will see that it was the Katusha guys that kept the speed high, who did a really good job in the final,” Kittel pointed out. “When it comes down to that, I have really good guys on my side like Marco [Haller]. The Tour team is a good example, but also other guys that can really sprint well, that have an eye for it. ”

Kittel noted that beyond the different personalities and qualities of the individual teammates, much remains the same from one squad to the next. It’s not especially difficult to get comfortable in a new team.

“Every team has a bit of a different structure, how they are organized, how they run things,” he said. “That’s never the same in the team but in general, I have to say, with the riders, of course, there’s new people but we’re still sitting on our bikes. We’re doing training camps in Spain. I’m still complaining about the hilly rides. So it’s all the same.”

Even if he did notice any big changes between squads, Kittel won’t go into details. He prefers to “not compare teams.” Indeed, although several sprinters switched teams this off-season, commenting on the game of musical sprinting chairs isn’t of interest to Kittel.

Last fall he left Quick-Step on good terms, and this week had nothing but nice things to say about both his old teammates and his new ones. Kittel has now ridden for three different teams since 2015, and he won big with each.

“It’s just our business. It’s the way of professional cycling,” he said of his journey from Giant-Alpecin to Quick-Step to Katusha. “You’re going to change teams sometimes. Here at this race, we all come together, and of course, we all want to go for the victory. Your professional career, your life, whatever, it always involves changes. That’s how I see it.”

This week should present several more opportunities to go for those victories and to make improvements to the sprint train. The only noteworthy climb in the five-day race is the low-caliber ascent to Hatta Dam on stage 4, which was canceled in 2017, opening the door for Kittel’s second overall win. Wednesday is another chance to go back to the drawing board. So are Thursday and Saturday.

This summer, Kittel will hope to top last year’s excellent run of five stage wins at the Tour de France. That may seem a long way off now, but time spent working out the early kinks in February could make all the difference come July.

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