Chris Froome makes his debut for Israel Start-Up Nation
Froome left Ineos after 11 successful seasons to sign instead for Israel Start-Up Nation, in the hope of reinvigorating his career following the long process of recovery and rehab he’s undergone since the horrific crash of June 2019. The UAE Tour will give us the first glimpse of how well he’s integrating with new team-mates like compatriot Alex Dowsett.
As his first race of the season, it will also provide revealing signs of what we can expect from him for the rest of the season, and whether the 35-year-old is indeed capable of rediscovering, or even partially rediscovering, his old form after such a long time away from the top level.
Froome also began his 2020 season at the UAE Tour, but was well off the pace — understandably seeing as that was his first race in the eight months since the crash. But this performance set the tone for the rest of the season, as he struggled to get up to speed and never found anything like his pre-injury form.
This time, Froome insists he’s in much better shape, and believes that the process of rehab is finally behind him. Whether or not that means he can start competing for victories again is something we should begin to discover next week.
Tour winner Tadej Pogačar is favourite for victory
As the first WorldTour race of the season, the UAE Tour will attract a stellar start list, with stars such as Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) all making their set to start their seasons here.
One rider stands out as the clear headliner, though — Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who will appear in his first race since finishing third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège last October, and his first stage race since his historic overall victory at the Tour de France.
Huge things are expected of the young Slovenian this season following that victory, and we can expect him to start with all guns blazing at the UAE Tour. As the home race of their Emirati sponsors, this is an important race for his team, so Pogačar will have more of an incentive to ride victory than some of the other big names, who may at this early stage of the season be more preoccupied with gradually building their form.
Pogačar was second overall in last year’s edition, winning on the summit finish at Jebel Hafeet (in what turned out to be the final stage before the outbreak of Covid abruptly ended the race), but not taking enough time on Adam Yates to win the race overall. With everything he has achieved since then, he enters this race as clear favourite, and the cycling world waits with bated breath to see what the sport’s new superstar will do next.
Some serious climbing on Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais
This part of the world might be more associated with desert landscapes and flat terrain, but the organisers have located and included two significant mountains that should, along with stage two’s 13km individual time trial, make for a compelling GC battle.
Stage three finishes atop Jebel Hafeet, a 10.8km climb first introduced in the now-defunct Abu Dhabi Tour that is characterised by a steady gradient that mostly hovers at around seven per cent. The final showdown of the race will occur two days later on Jebel Jais, a long, 20km climb located on the northern border with Oman and that is the highest point in the country.
These stages will give climbers the chance to gain time and compete for overall honours, including Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), the on-form Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) fresh from his fourth overall at the Tour de la Provence, and Sepp Kuss, who will get a rare chance to ride as leader in the absence of his star Jumbo-Visma team-mates.
The steady natures of the climbs might mean a sizable group remains together at the top for a sprint (as happened in 2019 on Jebel Jais when Primož Roglič was victorious), which could play into the hands of climbers with sharp kicks like Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo), and, if he’s still got the legs, quadragenarian Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
But it’s the addition of a time trial to this year’s edition at Al Hudayriat Island that looks set to shape the GC race, as it allows strong time triallists a platform to gain a lead to defend on these two mountains. Consequently, 2020 revelation João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), along with Pogačar, look like the men to beat for overall victory.
A classy field for the bunch sprints
There’s no middle-ground in their year’s UAE Tour route. When the riders aren’t battling for GC on one of the two mountain top finishes or the time trial, they’ll be preparing for a bunch sprint for the race’s four pan-flat stages.
That won’t suit the likes of Mathieu van der Poel who thrive on small hills and rolling terrain but does give the sprinters multiple chances to open their account for 2021.
Two of the stars of last year, Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) will make their 2021 season bow here, and will be looking to stamp their authority among the sprinters at this early stage of the season; as will Elia Viviani, who will be desperate to reignite his career after a barren first season for Cofidis, and bright young talent Jasper Philipsen, of whom big things are expected at new team Alpecin-Fenix following his stage win at the Vuelta at the end of last season.
Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos) and Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious) head into the UAE on sterling form having won respectively at last weekend’s Clasica de Almeria and Tour de la Provence, while Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Emirates) will be looking to find some form having performed underwhelmingly in those races.
It’s hard to pick a winner on what could be some very open bunch sprints, and plenty of drama should therefore be provided in between the GC stages.
New faces and on-form riders at Ineos Grenadiers
While Chris Froome makes his debut for Israel Start-Up Nation, a couple of the riders brought in to replace him will also be making their first appearances for Ineos Grenadiers.
Adam Yates is one, and will enter the race as defending champion having last year triumphed on Jebel Hafeet. Daniel Martínez is the other, as he competes for the first time since his transfer from EF Education-Nippo.
Both riders look like possible overall winners, but may have to cede leadership duty if Iván Sosa continues his current run of form. The Colombian was on flying form at the Tour de la Provence last week, and won the overall classification following a powerful attack on Mont Ventoux. He’ll therefore be one of the favourites for overall victory here, although the time trial may count against him.
One rider who most certainly won’t be disappointed by the inclusion of a time trial this year will be Ineos’ Filippo Ganna. The Italian is currently enjoying an extraordinary run of seven consecutive victories in stages against the clock, including last year’s World Championships, and the odds are overwhelmingly in his favour of making it eight.