A start list boasting some of the world's best sprinters and climbers should provide some early season fireworks at the Abu Dhabi Tour (February 23-26)
Already this season we’ve seen many of the world’s quickest sprinters on great form and accumulating multiple wins: Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) at the Dubai Tour, Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) at the Tour Down Under, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) at the Tour of Oman and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) at the Vuelta a la Provincia de San Juan.
What we haven’t seen is all the top sprinters in one place facing off against each other; with the notable exception of Kittel’s showdown with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) in Dubai, the above-mentioned speed merchants have all picked up their wins in isolation of each other.
Bolstered by its newly-assigned WorldTour status, the Abu Dhabi Tour is highly-anticipated for being the first to bring a sizeable number together. Kittel, Greipel, Ewan and Cavendish will all be present, promising some thrilling contests, and a true gauge of their form.
One reason the race has attracted so many top sprinters are the three uncomplicated looking stages that look all but guaranteed to end in bunch finishes.
The final stage in particular, around the Yas Marina F1 circuit (and won by Cav last season), looks like a sprinter’s dream, with its total lack of hills making attacks all but impossible, and its smooth, wide roads allowing plenty of room for trains to lead-out.
The opening two stages too feature few variables to disrupt the sprinters’ plans, with the first taking place across the calm terrain of the desert, and the second confined mostly to the urban city.
There’s literally only one categorised climb across the entire four-day duration of the Abu Dhabi Tour, but it’s enough of a challenge to have attracted an almighty roster of climbers.
The craggy Jebel Hafeet hosts the end of stage three, and is 11km with an average gradient of over 7 per cent. That’s difficult enough to get it a category one rating at most stage races, and significant gaps were opened up when Tanel Kangert (Astana) won here last year and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) the year before.
Among those set to animate the Jebel Hafeet and compete for overall victory is Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who already has a win to his name this season with overall victory at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and is building form ahead of an ambitious attempt of a Giro-Tour double.
Other riders using this race as part of their preparation towards gunning for the pink jersey in May include Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC).
If that wasn’t enough, last year’s Tour runner-up Romain Bardet (Ag2r) will also be present, seeking to make amends after a crash scuppered his hopes at the Tour of Oman, as well as Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), although he’s stated that he’ll ride in support of teammate Mollema.
Nibali v Aru
The tastiest battle on the Jebel Hafeet will be between Astana’s Fabio Aru and his ex-teammate Vincenzo Nibali, who face each other for the first time since the latter’s move to Bahrain-Merida.
Like many other participants they’re building up towards the Giro, but the animosity between the two that caused such tension during their time together at Astana will lend their showdown an added personal touch.
Aru’s already on good form having finished third overall at the Tour of Oman, while Nibali has an extra incentive to do well given the proximity of his Bahrain-based new team to the UAE.
Team Sky’s wildcards given a chance
One team not to have selected their biggest name is Sky, who instead give younger riders and those usually confined to domestique roles a chance to shine.
Peter Kennaugh will hope to repeat the great winter he had in 2016 (in which time he won the Cadel Evans Road Race and came runner-up to Chris Froome at the Herald Sun Tour) by being competitive on the Jebel Hafeet, new signing Kenny Elissonde hopes to continue to impress having podiumed at last month’s Herald Sun Tour, and American Ian Boswell will want to repay the team’s decision to make him leader for the Tour of California with a performance here.
The young British pair of ex-track specialists Owain Doull and Jonathan Dibben will also be there, with Doull making his delayed 2017 debut after an emergency appendix operation meant he had to sit out racing in Australia.