It had been a long time since Mark Cavendish last won a bike race – almost a whole year in fact, since he sprinted to victory in the opening stage of last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour.
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After that long without any success, and having suffered so much from injury and illness in that time, expectations weren’t that high going into the Dubai Tour.
But, despite a slow start (he failed to feature at all in stage one’s finale, and was the following day out-sprinted by rivals he’d usually expect to beat), Cav bounced back to seal the long-awaited win that brought an end to his drought, proving to any sceptics that he still has much to offer.
Yet more encouragingly, the win came against quality opposition. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) were the riders who trailed him in second and third place respectively, as part of a very strong field of sprinters.
The result suggests that Cavendish could once more be among the main sprinters to beat this season.
Quick-Step Floors aren’t missing Marcel Kittel…
Quick-Step Floors were the dominant team at each Dubai Tour between 2015 – 2017, but there were reasons to doubt that they could continue that run this year – chiefly, that the riders who them multiple stages and successive overall victories (Cavendish in 2016 and Kittel in 2016 and 2017) were now competing for rival teams.
Yet they did indeed manage to make it four out of four, as new signing Elia Viviani stepped up to win stages two and five, and ultimately seal overall victory.
Kittel had been let go by Quick-Step after the emergence of Fernando Gaviria jeopardised his guarantee of a spot on the Tour de France line-up, with Viviani brought in as a less high-profile sprinter happy to play second fiddle to the Colombian.
Intriguingly, it was Viviani who got the better of Kittel and other supposedly bigger names, riding with the most consistency to win the overall and earn bragging rights among his colleagues.
The win suggests that the might and reliability of Quick-Step Floors’ lead-out train makes for a significant advantage in the sprints, and that Viviani is indeed talented enough to make the most of it. The Italian could be set for his best season yet.
…But Marcel Kittel is missing Quick-Step Floors
It seems Katusha-Alpecin still have a lot of work to do to sort out their lead-out for Marcel Kittel.
As mentioned above, the team’s new star signing has a great history in this particular race, winning a total of eight stagesand two overall titles across his three previous participations.
But, despite signalling their intent by taking it upon themselves to ride at the front of the peloton, Katusha-Alpecin’s riders failed on each occasion to successfully set him up, with his third-place finish on stage three his only top five placing across the whole race.
There’s plenty of time for the team to get it right before Kittel’s major season objectives, but at present the German could be forgiven for pining for his old Quick-Step Floors lead-out train.
Brandon McNulty looks like a future star
Keen followers of cycling’s up and coming stars will probably know about the huge potential of Brandon McNulty, but more casual viewers got a first glimpse of what Brandon McNulty is capable of in Dubai this week.
Over the past few years, the American has progressed rapidly in the youth ranks as a time trial specialist. He was third at the 2016 Worlds junior race aged just 17, upgraded that to gold the following year, and last season made the step up to the next level by winning silver at the under-23 time trial.
He put those time trialling skills to use in stage four, striking out alone with around 12km to go having been in the break all day, and holding off the bunch with an eye-widening display of strength.
If it weren’t for the severity of the gradient in the final kilometre, and for a mechanical that left him stuck in the big ring, he may well even have won the stage against all odds. It wasn’t to be, as the bunch enveloped him with the finish line in sight, but his time will surely come.
More wind needed to animate the race
As satisfying as it was to see many of the world’s best sprinters slug it out against each other, four bunch sprints and one uphill sprint didn’t make for the most varied of races.
The Dubai Tour this year was pushed back on the calendar to fill in the slot formerly held by the Tour of Qatar, a similarly flat affair but one that did occasionally burst into life whenever the wind picked up.
The wind did play a role on stage three, splitting the peloton into smaller groups and contributing to the end of overall leader Dylan Groenewegen’s GC ambitions, when he was penalised 20 seconds for drafting whilst trying to catch back up to the lead group following a mechanical.
That stage still culminated in a mass bunch sprint with over 70 riders finishing together in the front group. The GC race needed more severe winds to make for a truly exciting battle.