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Sprint kings digging for crowns in Dubai sand

DUBAI (VN) — The sand dunes and skyscrapers of the United Arab Emirates hold a chance for two speed kings to unearth their lost crowns, as Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel seek to leave disappointing seasons behind and set a victorious tone ahead of an anticipated season-long sprint duel.

The four-stage Dubai Tour sets off Wednesday with a relatively flat stage that should be the first clash between the two sprinters in over a year. All but the third stage, which features a short, difficult finish climb to Hatta Dam, are tuned for the fast men.

Cavendish returns to Dubai as the reigning champion with track speed in his legs, reunited with leadout men Mark Renshaw and Bernard Eisel on Dimension Data.

“It’s a great way to start the season,” Cavendish said. “I normally have a week of racing under my belt before this race, so I’m not so sure of the form. But I’m sprinting good.”

Dubai will be Kittel’s first race of the year, and his first behind his new Etixx – Quick-Step leadout train.

“I’m really happy with the time I’ve spent already with the guys, in training camp and prep for the new year,” Kittel said. “Now it’s time to show my motivation, to show all the work that we put together as a team, the preparation hopefully pays off. We’re very motivated.”

The two will see stiff competition from a quartet of Italians: Sky’s Elia Viviani, winner of the race’s second stage last year, Lampre – Merida’s Sacha Modolo, Astana’s Andrea Guardini, and Trek – Segafredo’s Giacomo Nizzolo, who will be motivated after a string of near misses at the Santos Tour Down Under.

“This year I came from Tour de San Luis with maybe better condition [than last year], and we hope to start to win again here in Dubai,” Viviani said. “I win in Dubai, I win in Abu Dhabi; maybe it’s a lucky part of the world for me.”

Australian Matthew Goss, winner of Milano-Sanremo in 2011, arrives with his new One Pro Cycling team, and Movistar’s Juan José Lobato is well suited to the difficult finish on Hatta Dam.

While Etixx, Dimension Data, Sky, and Trek hone their sprint trains, the stars of March and April will use the mostly flat, windy course to begin preparations for the upcoming classics season. Trek riders Fabian Cancellara and Stijn Devolder, Astana’s Lars Boom, and BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert are all here to build early-season fitness, as is Bradley Wiggins, racing for Team Wiggins as he sets his sights on track events at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

The opening stage will force sprinters to hang on over a single climb, which peaks with 39 kilometers remaining. Expect to see a breakaway scoop up the mid-stage time bonuses before a bunch sprint caps two laps of a 6.6km circuit in Fujairah.

Stage 2 courses through the desert outside Dubai, passing the Al Qudra cycling track before returning to the coast for a finish along the man-made palm-shaped Palm Jumeirah. It’s flat as a board and will see a second sprint finish. Viviani won an identical stage, over Cavendish, in 2015.

Stage 3 finishes atop Hatta Dam, a 300-meter, 20 percent kicker with a tight, difficult lead-in. It’s a fascinating finish that saw both sprinters and GC men ride into the top 10 last year. John Degenkolb of Giant – Alpecin was the victor, followed by Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde.

Stage 4 will be the final sprint showdown, looping around Dubai before finishing at the Burj Khalifa, formerly the world’s tallest building.