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JEBEL JAIS, UAE (VN) – “If you can win here, against this field, this early, you know you’re going to be in for a good season.”
Caleb Ewan is one of a galaxy of fast finishers vying for a crucial early WorldTour victory this week at the UAE Tour.
Winning here in this Super Bowl of sprinters brings a lot more than a trophy and a line on the palmarès. A “W” in the column against a stacked field in February can plant the seed for a full harvest of victories through the summer.
“Wins give you confidence, and confidence gives you wins,” Ewan told VeloNews at the Khalifa Port.
“The first one’s always the hardest to get, and once you get the ball rolling, it becomes easier. But the longer you go without a win, the more pressure you have on you, so then it becomes harder and harder.”
Ewan is joined by Mark Cavendish, Tim Merlier, Sam Bennett, Elia Viviani, Dylan Groenewegen, and a half-dozen more elite bunch finishers in the Emirates.
Almost every team that touched down in Abu Dhabi packs an option for the four flat finals available in this summit meeting of the sprinters.
This UAE Tour is a taste of the marquee sprints of the season’s spring classics and grand tours, and a chance to benchmark against the best.
“I won already, but this race is different. Most of the best sprinters are here, so if you win here, it shows the shape is super good,” said Groenewegen, who scored in the very first race of his season.
“This is a really important race for guys like us. It gives us all something to work from towards the Tour de France.”
Legspeed and leadouts
The modern-era sprint field is tighter than ever after a decade where only the smallest handful was in control.
Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, André Greipel, and Alexander Kristoff took turns to be known as the fastest of fast finishers.
Fast forward to 2022, and though Fabio Jakobsen won the most with 13 victories, Olav Kooij, Jasper Philipsen, and Arnaud de Lie weren’t far behind. Four different riders won the mass kicks in that year’s Tour de France, and only Philipsen won more than once.
When the physical level is so close, early momentum counts for months in a chest-beater environment that favors ruthlessness and a healthy appetite for risk.
“I’ve always felt winning early in the season is important – it can impact everything about how you race for months,” Viviani told VeloNews at the pre-race conference.
“That first victory gives you confidence, the rest of the guys confidence, and puts life in your legs. When you feel good like that, you go 20, 50, meters earlier. You go to the line with a different energy.”
That energy can extend through a team, from the pre-race briefing to the dinner table. And crucially, it diffuses into the leadout unit.
Jayco-AlUla nailed its train in the early races for Groenewegen, neatly delivering the Dutchman victory on season debut.
The Aussie crew is now saved from the stress and strategy meets of reconfiguring its carriages.
“If you can win in the winter or start of spring, it’s good for the staff, the leadout as well,” Groenewegen said. “Then, you know things are going well, and they feel in control. They know it’s working and there are no doubts.”
‘A sprinter is like a footballer. If you miss the goal, it’s a problem’
The UAE Tour is yet to see its first bunch sprint after the dramatic day in the crosswinds Monday.
Merlier reaped his winning form Monday when he delivered Quick-Step its sixth win of the season out of a small group.
“It’s always nice to start the season with a win, last year I didn’t take directly a win, I had to wait until Tirenno-Adriatico. Now I have two already [on the road] and one cyclocross,” Merlier told the press. “This has been a really good start for me.”
Three consecutive pancake-profile UAE stages Thursday through Saturday offer Viviani, Ewan, Groenewegen et all the opportunity to claim nerve-settling, kudos-bringing victory in the first WorldTour bunch sprint of the season.
A win in the dunes and downtowns this week could shape the sprinter narrative for months to come.
“A sprinter is like a footballer, if you miss the goal it’s a problem because it makes you feel mentally and physically like something’s wrong,” Viviani said.
“And if the head goes, it can all go. But if the head is there, good things happen.”