A new race with an appealing balance
Middle Eastern races have been a fixture of the month of February for several years now, and the new UAE Tour - created as a merger between the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Tours - looks set to be the most balanced and prestigious to date.
With a total of seven stages, the UAE Tour exceeds the likes of the Tour of Oman in terms of length, and will visit each of the nation’s seven Emirates. And whereas the now defunct Tour of Qatar and Tour of Dubai tended to be processions of flat stages, this race is broken down into three sprinter stages, two mountain top finishes, a hilly stage and an opening team time trial.
The UAE Tour will also mark the return of the WorldTour following a month-long hiatus since the end of the Australian events of the Tour Down Under and Great Ocean Road Race.
All this means the inaugural UAE Tour looks likely to produce exciting, competitive racing in an area of the world that has too often been characterised by dull parcours, to be contested by a star-studded line-up of riders (as we’ll get into below).
Team Sky improvise in absence of Chris Froome
The plan for Team Sky had been to be led by Chris Froome, in what was meant to be his second stage race of the season following an inauspicious opening at the Tour Colombia last month.
However, there will need to be a change of plan following the news on Wednesday that the four-time Tour de France champion will not be competing after all.
His absence should, however, be no cause for panic among the team, neither in the short nor the long term. Froome made slow starts to both his 2017 and 2018 campaigns, yet went on to win his first Grand Tour attempted in each.
And in terms of their line-up for the UAE Tour, in Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon the team boast two riders each capable of stepping in as team leader, both of whom will be making their first appearance of the season.
As winner of Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Poland and Volta ao Algarve last season, Kwiatkowski is probably the team’s best bet, but Moscon also possesses the all-round ability to excel on all terrain, and himself won the overall at the Tour of Guangxi in his last race of 2018.
In the sprints, Kristoffer Halvorsen is more of an outsider, but the 22-year old does already have a win to his name this season and could surprise some of the more established names.
Big hitters make season debuts
There’s been plenty of races already this season, but some of the top dogs of the peloton have waited until the UAE Tour to make their first bow.
One such rider is Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), who will be hoping for a better start to the season than the one he endured in the UAE last season, where frustrations from crashes and mechanical issues derailed his hopes at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
He’d no doubt have liked an individual time trial included in the route - as would have Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who built his early season overall victories last year at the Tours of the Basque Country and Romandie on the basis of strong rides against the clock, and will also be making his first showing of 2019.
The there’s Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who will be racing for the first time as a 34-year old, eager to prove that he still has what it takes to compete alongside the younger, fresher stage racers in the peloton.
Valverde chases first win in the rainbow jersey
It’s a little early to be making references to the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ - especially given how Peter Sagan has spent the last three years making a mockery of the very idea of such a curse - but Alejandro Valverde’s stint as world champion has so far been characterised by near misses.
The Spaniard has so far registered five podium finishes in total this season - including second overall at both the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and Vuelta a Murcia, and second behind Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) on a stage of the former - without yet registering a win.
The killer instinct might so far be lacking, but these performances suggest Valverde has the form to compete for overall victory in the UAE.
Other on-form contenders to look out for include Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), who was as competitive as ever in the early season Australian races, and Gorka Izagirre, one of the contributors to Astana’s prolific start to the season.
A showdown between the sprinters
So far this season, most of the big names sprinters have managed to bag at least one win, but none have been dominant to win any more than two.
With three stages expected to end in bunch sprints at the UAE Tour, the opportunity is there for one of them to lay claim to being the in-form sprinter of 2019.
The line-up is full of some of the peloton’s top leading talent. Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) will resume their rivalry from the January Australian races, where both picked up wins.
It will also be fascinating to see how Fernando Gaviria - who triumphed in a couple of stages at the Vuelta a San Juan - goes up against former team-mate Viviani, in the pair’s first showdown since the former left for UAE Emirates.
Another former Quick-Step rider Marcel Kittel already has half the tally he managed during his entire first season at Katusha-Alpecin following a win at Trofeo Palma, but faces a far sterner test in the UAE up against a far stronger field of riders - a field that also includes Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), who, in the absence of Pascal Ackerman (who denied Kittel a stage win at the Clasica de Almeria last week) and Peter Sagan will lead his team’s sprinting hopes.
It’s too much to expect Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) to compete for stage wins, but he’ll be hoping for high placings as he continues his rehabilitation, but the on-form Brit Dan McClay (EF Education First) could spring a surprise.
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