In-form and big name sprinters clash
The 2022 season may still be in its infancy, with the UAE Tour set to be the first WorldTour race of the year, but already multiple sprinters have opened their accounts.
Of those poised to ride in the UAE next week, Mark Cavendish (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) picked up a win in his battle with Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) in Oman, Elia Viviani made a triumphant return to Ineos Grenadiers in Provence, and Dylan Groenewegen dominated the sprints in Saudi Arabia on what was his first race for new team BikeExchange-Jayco.
As well as an encouraging sign of form, winning so early will come as a significant confidence booster, especially for riders like Viviani and Groenewegen who have endured a difficult last couple of years.
But the UAE Tour will be 2022’s first major gathering of top sprinters. Joining Cavendish, Groenewegen and Viviani will be Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), both of whom will be making their first starts of what are highly anticipated seasons, plus Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates) and Alberto Dainese (DSM), all of whom are hoping to get going after slow starts.
Even with a total of four stages expected to be decided by a bunch sprint at the UAE Tour (stages one, two, five and six), there isn’t enough to go around, and most of these sprinters will come home winless. But those who do come out on top will bring themselves forward as the men to watch this year.
First test for the new-look UAE Team Emirates line-up
As defending champion and best rider in the world, there is no doubt that Tadej Pogačar is the hot favourite for overall victory.
The only doubt hanging over the Slovenian is what kind of form he is in, especially considering that his preparations were recently interrupted by a Covid infection. But the 23-year-old has said that he believes he’s fully recovered, and the time trial on stage three and the two mountain top finishes at Jebel Jais on stage four and Jebel Hafeet on stage seven all play to his strengths.
Of most significance in the long-term for Pogačar might not be how well he himself rides, but rather the performance of his team as a whole. Perhaps concerned about the gulf in talent between themselves and Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Team Emirates have invested heavily in new recruits for this season, of which Joao Almeida, George Bennett and Pascal Ackermann will all be riding in the UAE.
Almedia and Bennett will be expected to assist Rafał Majka in looking after Pogačar on the climbs, and how well they manage to do so will be of great interest. If Pogačar has had a weakness these last two years, it’s that his team-mates have not been able to provide him as much protection as his rivals; so if this new, bolstered UAE Team Emirates line-up manage to control with an iron grip what is the team’s home race, then the early signs would be that Pogačar might be even more difficult to defeat in 2022.
Yates and Ganna star for Ineos Grenadiers
This time last year, Adam Yates began what would turn out to be an excellent first season with new team Ineos Grenadiers with a runner-up finish at the 2021 edition of the UAE Tour.
He was the only rider able to stay with Pogačar on both Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais, and only lost out on victory due to an inferior time trial. That ride set the tone for what was arguably the best season of the Brit’s career, more than justifying his decision to leave BikeExchange, the team he had spent his whole career at.
In the absence of their other major GC riders, Yates will again lead Ineos Grenadiers at this year’s race. He’ll have Michał Kwiatkowski and Andrey Amador to help him on the climbs, but it will be down to Yates himself if he’s to take-on Pogačar for overall victory.
Also riding for Ineos will be Filippo Ganna, who has started the season in intimidatingly good form. As world champion he will of course be favourite for the stage three time trial, but the way he rode at the Tour de la Provence (where as well as winning the prologue he also finished third in a sprint and climbed very impressively) suggests he’ll have a major part to play throughout the race — perhaps helping lead-out Elia Viviani in the sprints, Yates on the climbs…and possibly even tearing the race to pieces in the desert crosswinds? Watch this space.
Dumoulin back among the list of GC favourites
He’s back! One of the most welcome names on the startlist of the UAE Tour is that of Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), who starts his 2022 season around a year on since he decided to take a break from cycling.
Back then it wasn’t clear that we’d ever see Dumoulin race again, but now, after returning to racing last June, he’s back and raring to go. He intends to return to the highest level, too, with a bid for the pink jersey at the Giro his first major target of the season. If he can go well in the UAE and resemble his old self, that dream might begin to look like a potential reality.
While his form is uncertain, one GC contender who is flying at the moment is Aleksandr Vlasov, who has made a fantastic start to life at Bora-Hansgrohe with overall victory at Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, a result that places him among the favourites to challenge Pogačar for the spoils in the UAE.
Based on form, Jan Hirt (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux) and Fausto Masnada (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) should also be considered contenders having finished first and second respectively at the Tour of Oman, although they’ll find tougher competition in this race — including Romain Bardet (DSM), David de la Cruz (Astana) and the Bahrain-Victorious duo of Gino Mader and Pello Bilbao.
Climbs, a time trial — and crosswinds?
With two mountain top finishes, the UAE Tour looks like one for the climbers, but things might not be quite as straightforward for them as they’d like.
Both Jebel Jais and Jebel Hafeet are long, steady climbs that will suit climbers with diesel engines. With an average gradient of over 7%, Jebel Hafeet is certainly the harder of the two, and last year Pogačar and Yates rode away from the rest of the field on its slopes. But even it only just about exceeds 10% for its maximum gradient, meaning it is possible for the less pure climbers to dig deep and get into a rhythm to limit their time losses.
At just 9km, the tie trial in Ajman is shorter than its equivalent 13km-long stage last year, so is unlikely to see especially big time gaps. Instead, where the race could be turned on its head is in the exposed roads of the desert, if the wind blows.
In particular, the coastal roads that feature on stages two and five look like they could see some action. As ever in this part of the world, the flat roads need to be feared as much as the uphills — get caught out in an echelon here, and your hopes for overall victory could be over in an instant.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.