The return of Chris Froome
It’s been a long time since we’ve got to see Chris Froome race competitively. Eight months in fact, during which time he has undergone surgery and extensive rehabilitation following a horrific crash at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, forcing him to watch from afar as team-mate Egan Bernal won the Tour de France, leading the team in his absence alongside Geraint Thomas.
With those two riders performing so well, Froome will be desperate to remind the team what he can do. His goal remains to win a fifth yellow jersey at the Tour de France, but he’ll need to show some form leading into the race in order to command a leadership role in the team – starting with the UAE Tour this week.
While it’s been a long time since Froome raced, it’s been even long since his last win – you have to go way back to the 2018 Giro d’Italia for that, which the Brit won in such memorably dramatic circumstances.
Now approaching 35, and following such a long absence, he’ll need to mount a comeback just as spectacular as that which saw him turn his fortunes around in that race if he’s to have a realistic chance of winning the Tour come July.
Stellar line-up to compete in sprints
There aren’t an awful lot of mountains in this part of the world, so the sprinters will have plenty of chances to compete for stage wins over the week.
Both stages one and four look dead certs for sprint finishes, while the route is unusual for ending with two similarly-looking straight-forward sprint stages on Friday and Saturday, with the key GC stages instead taking place earlier in the race.
These sprints will see the strongest line-up of fast finishers to assemble in 2020 so far. Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) all return having won a stage each in least year’s edition, and will be joined by Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Mark Cavendish (Bahrain-McLaren).
Last year there was little to choose from between all the sprinters, with four different riders claiming one stage win each – a pattern that would continue for the rest of the season. Will one rider emerge as the best this time around?
Jebel Hafeet summit finishes
The most eye-catching and unusual feature of this year’s UAE Tour is the fact that both of the key GC stages will finish atop the same mountain – Jebel Hafeet.
The riders will first tackle the climb at the end of stage three, before returning for a rematch two days later in what is very likely to be the decisive day in the race for overall victory.
At 10.8km and with an average gradient of between six per cent and seven per cent it’s certainly a tough enough climb to force serious selections, and will favour climbers who can climb steadily for a long period of climb on slopes that don’t fluctuate too much.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has an especially impressive record here, having won last year’s stage ahead of Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), as well as triumphing here on the final stage of 2018 Abu Dhabi Tour, sealing overall victory in the process. He’s on the startlist once more this edition, and will be one to watch for a hat-trick of victories here.
Hatta Dam finale
Mixing up the pan flat sprint stages and summit finishes atop Jebel Hafeet will be stage two, which strikes a fine balance between sprinters who can sprint uphill and climbers who can sprint.
An expensive architectural feature located at the Hatta exclave North East of the country, Hatta Dam is a familiar finish for races hosted in the UAE.
Last year, Caleb Ewan was victorious, using his unusually lightweight frame for a sprinter to combat gravity and sprint to victory, while his usual sprinter rivals floundered further down the climb.
A look at the riders who trailed him that day reveals just how varied an array of riders will be in contention for this stage – in third and sixth were GC contenders Primož Roglič and Wilco Kelderman; in fifth was sprinter Luka Mezgec; and in second and fourth respectively were the surprise names of Matteo Moschetti and Quentin Jauregui, young riders who have yet to specialise in a particular disciple.
Expect a similar hodgepodge of riders to compete for victory again this year, with more rounded sprinters seeking an advantage over their more one-dimensional pure sprinter rivals, and GC riders hoping to gain a few potentially crucial seconds.
Pogačar leads overall contenders
Last year’s winner, Primož Roglič, will not be returning to defend his title, opting instead to delay beginning his season until next month’s Paris-Nice.
In his absence, however, another Slovenian emerges as the favourite – Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates), who is already building upon his sensational season as a neo-pro with overall victory at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
As well as Froome, British interests will lie with Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), who typically begins his seasons in red hot form.
Also watch out for top class climbers who will relish the absence of a time trial like Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT Pro Cycling), as well as the young duo of David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Laurens De Plus (Jumbo-Visma), who kicked off breakthrough seasons in 2019 with third and ninth in the overall here respectively.