Pogačar benefits from improved UAE Team Emirates line-up
We didn’t learn anything new about Tadej Pogacar at the UAE Tour this week — he remains the best rider in the world, capable of out-climbing everyone else (as on the stage seven summit finish), outsprinting riders on an uphill finish (as on stage four), and riding time trials that can compete with the specialists.
But one significant revelation that did emerge last week was of the improvement of his team. UAE Team Emirates this race from start to finish, especially on the two mountain top finishes, where they adopted an aggressive, front-foot approach that overwhelmed the other teams.
On Jebel Jais, Rafał Majka attacked the peloton rather than simply pace Pogačar all the way, and as a result forced the other teams to chase.
Then on Jebel Hafeet at the climax of the final stage, both Majka and João Almeida ganged up on Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) to help defend Pogačar’s jersey.
Even when Pogačar suffered the misfortune of a horribly-timed puncture during stage five just as the sprinters’ teams were winding up their lead-out trains, the team impressed with their calmness and composure under pressure, sending riders back to pace him up to the peloton, and doing so with apparent ease and plenty of time to spare.
Behind Pogačar in first, Almeida ultimately finished fifth on GC, with Majka close behind in seventh. They’ll come up against stronger opposition later this year, particularly when Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma assemble their best line-ups, but the early signs are that UAE Team Emirates are now a force to be reckoned with.
Yates makes Pogačar work for overall victory
For the third year in a row, the UAE Tour boiled down to a showdown between Tadej Pogačar and Adam Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco). And like last year, Yates didn’t quite have what it took to overcome the mighty Slovenian.
Yates did at least make Pogačar work for his victory. He subjected the defending champion to an onslaught in the final few kilometres of the Jebel Hafeet, producing two sustained accelerations that brought about a rare sight: Pogačar grimacing, and gasping for breath.
Yates might have been outsprinted by him at the top, but can take heart from having put him under such pressure, with Pogačar later admitting that he was ‘really suffering’ during the final acceleration.
The other big names weren’t quite at the level of Pogačar and Yates this early in the season, but there was a fine showing from Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious) to round off the podium in third, while Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana winner Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) continued his strong start to the season to finish fourth overall.
Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) still has a long way to go to rediscover his climbing legs of old, as he was dropped early on both the big climbs. But a third-place finish on the time trial suggests he’s on his way back to the top of the sport.
New-look Ganna continues to impress with his climbing
Filippo Ganna looks set for a huge 2022 season. The Ineos Grenadiers rider brought intimidatingly good form into the race following his success on all terrain in the Etoile de Bessèges and Tour de la Provence stage races in France, and built upon that to again show himself as a new, more versatile rider.
In some respects, his race might actually be considered a disappointment. Despite being a hot favourite to win the stage three time trial, he finished a whole seven seconds behind Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-EasyPost), whose scintillating stage win suggests he might be a challenger to Ganna’s title as best time trialist in the world.
Yet what the Italian might have been missing in terms of peak time trialing speed, he made up for with some jaw-droppingly good climbing legs. Just watching him drag his large frame alongside the skinnier, lightweight climbers on the Jebel Jais stage four mountain top finish was enough to make you wince, yet Ganna managed to dig improbably deep to hang on to the back of the group of favourites that featured all the top GC candidates.
Agonisingly, that performance was enough to come just two seconds away from taking what would have been an extremely unlikely overall lead, but that shouldn’t take away from just how impressive the ride was
He again hung on for a while on the final stage summit finish at Jebel Hafeet, but didn’t quite manage the same heroics and was dropped halfway up, tumbling out of the top ten on GC.
With debuts at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France to come, there’s no telling what this new-look Ganna might achieve this year.
Philipsen proves credentials as an elite sprinter
It’s time we started including Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) in the hotly debated conversation about which sprinter is the best in the world.
Given the quality of the field meeting at the UAE Tour, that debate was expected to be ignited, but there were more expectations surrounding riders like Mark Cavendish (QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) than Philipsen.
Yet Philipsen was clearly the best sprinter in the race. He won the bunch finish on the opening stage despite having to start his sprint early, and followed that up with another win on stage five. And his sprint to again defeat the other sprinters on stage six should have been enough to win him a third, had Alpecin-Fenix and the other sprinters teams not messed up by failing to catch the break and thus handing the win to teenager Mathias Vacek (Gazprom-RusVelo).
The young Belgian emerged as an elite sprinter last year, but that season might be best remembered for his many runner-up finishes behind Mark Cavendish (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl). Although he was again subjected to the familiar sight of Cav’s rear wheel when he again finished second to him on stage two, he’ll take great confidence in defeating him in every other sprint in the race.
We’ll have a clearer picture of whether or not Philipsen really is currently the fastest rider in the peloton at the upcoming Paris-Nice, when he’ll face up against the season’s other in-form sprinter, Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl).
Mixed fortunes for the other sprinters
Behind Jasper Philipsen, the other sprinters were mostly left to scrap it out for the minor placings, and most will come home either frustrated at not having quite managed to win a stage, or concerned by their lack of form.
The only sprinter besides Philipsen who did manage a win was Mark Cavendish (QuickStep-Alpha-Vinyl). The 36-year-old was not in the mix for any of the other sprints, but that win at Abu Dhabi was alone enough to prove that last year’s comeback was not one last high of his career, and keeps him in contention for a Tour de France slot despite the form of teammate Fabio Jakobsen.
The sprinter with more near misses was Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), who was second on stage one and third on stage five. Still, after such a long time away from the World Tour, he’ll take heart from sprinting fast and getting himself into the mix, and, unlike so many other sprinters who have left QuickStep - Alpha Vinyl, the early signs are that he’ll still be able to get results despite being away from the prized wheel of Michael Mørkøv.
Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) might be more concerned, the former with his difficulty in getting himself in contention for the sprints, and the latter for his lack of finishing speed generated from a good position.
The slump in form suffered by Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates) and Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) also appears to be ongoing, but the very promising 20-year-old Dutchman Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) continued his emergence, by outshining many of the established names to finish fourth on stage two and second on stage five.
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