Highways, headwinds, huge chainrings: Why a UAE Tour sprint is like no other

'Sprinting here is super-different to Europe': UAE Tour's fast-finishers forced to adapt to huge finish straights and a heaving sprint crop.

Photo: Getty Images

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MARJAN ISLAND, UAE (VN) – The UAE Tour‘s dozen-plus sprinters learned the hard way Thursday that the four-lane highways of Dubai are not the gnarly pitted streets of Europe.

The first WorldTour mass gallop of 2023 resembled a bunch sprint thrown into a washing machine as racers contended extra-fast pavement, a full pot of energy, and too much room to move.

“Sprinting here is super different to Europe. There was a big fight for a corner at 700 meters to go, and then it was basically a big scrap for the line. Everyone was all over the place,” third-place finisher Sam Welsford told reporters at the line.

Also read: Confidence, momentum and the quest for early wins at the UAE Tour’s Super Bowl of sprinters

The Emirati Tour’s stage 4 finish saw the marquee fastmen caught out in conditions far from the narrow streets and heavy tarmac of their Dutch and Belgian homelands.

Racing into Dubai harbor, a hot mess of sprint-oriented teams fanned and swirled through boulevards three times the width of a European lane.

After a day of steady tapping in the sun, Thursday’s finish was fast, furious, and impossible to follow.

“You have so much space across the road, so timing is different but crucial,” rising star Olav Kooij told the press after he was edged out of victory by Juan Molano’s bike throw. “It’s all a bit of a gamble.”

Throw in a cross-headwind down the finish straight, and things got even funkier as racers balanced positioning and sheltering.

“It’s hard to stay in a lead-out because it’s so wide. If you’re fifth wheel, you’re almost at the back of the pack before you know it,” Welsford said. “When it’s maybe 10 people across, you can be really far back before you know it.”

Long-established stars like Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan, Arnaud Démare, and Elia Viviani were among the victims Thursday of the Emirates’ big boulevards and bigger bunch of sprinters.

None of the illustrious quartet cracked the top-10 as the podium spots went to rising talents and leadout men.

“With these finishes, it’s all about being forward. When the pace is so high, it’s impossible to move up because the pace is 65-70 K an hour. To come forward and sprint at that speed is extremely hard,” Welsford said.

With a celebrated track palmarès and the momentum of two victories in Vuelta a San Juan, Welsford brought out the big dog for Thursday’s stage.

“These sprints need big top-end speed, and big gears. I was riding a 56-T chainring, and I was almost tapped out,” he said.

“A sprint like that is super-different from Europe, which is more about the position and having a lead-out. Here it’s about having the speed and being forward.”

Welsford and Kooij will see more chances in the two boilerplate sprinter stages arriving Friday and Saturday.

Both days will see them offered some 160km of pan-flat terrain in which to think – or not overthink – their chances of claiming their first WorldTour win of 2023.

“Things change so fast on a sprint like this that you need to adapt and react quick,” Kooij said. “Sometimes you think too much and then it’s too late.”

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