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Threats of crosswinds? Check.
Long grinding climbs? Check.
Superstar start-sheet. Check.
Are you excited for the UAE Tour yet?
The WorldTour starts in style with the Emirati stage-race Sunday.
Tadej Pogačar, Tom Dumoulin, Mark Cavendish, Sam Bennett, Dylan Groenewegen, and Filippo Ganna are among the headliners for a week of huge climbs, high-speed bunch sprints, and harsh desert winds.
There’s a lot to look out for in the opening event of pro racing’s big-league – here are the key things to know:
Tadej Pogačar’s road to the Tour starts in the sand
Double Tour de France champ Pogačar tops the UAE Tour’s GC pile as he returns to defend his title at the head of the nation’s home team.
Who’s likely to stop the “Pogo show” in the next week? Adam Yates, Aleksandr Vlasov, Romain Bardet, and even Pogačar’s teammate João Almeida are his likely rivals for the red leader’s jersey.
Dumoulin is kick-starting his comeback season in the Emirates ahead of a Giro d’Italia return and he could throw a wrench into Pogačar’s UAE Tour defense, too.
Pogačar’s road toward his tilt at a third yellow jersey hit a divot in his recent skirmish with coronavirus. However, the 23-year-old asserted his KOM-crushing winter training has been unaffected ahead of his 2022 debut.
“I’m really excited and motivated to start the season,” Pogačar said this week. “The last few months went almost perfectly. I had a small setback a couple of weeks ago with COVID but luckily it didn’t disrupt my preparation too much and I’m feeling good.”
If the Slovenian does work out a percentage point off his best, he’s got one heck of a team to tow through the two huge climbs that will decide the race. UAE Emirates’ stalwart Rafal Majka is joined by new recruits João Almeida and George Bennett in a UAE climbing collective that will likely form a core of Pogačar’s Tour de France crew this summer.
“I’m confident to lead the team, but we know how good João can be too,” Pogačar said. “We have trained together a lot lately and understand each other well, so if he’s strong enough to win I’m also happy.”
Pogačar founded his two previous Tour de France titles on successful runs through the Emirates.
Second-place at the corona-stricken 2020 edition and victory last year made for early steps toward yellow jersey triumphs in the summer.
All eyes will be on Pogačar to bring the home team another win next week – let’s see how’s he shaping up after his collision with COVID.
Mark Cavendish, Sam Bennett, Dylan Groenewegen and the Superbowl of the sprinters
You want sprinters? UAE Tour got sprinters.
Cavendish, Bennett, Groenewegen, Pascal Ackermann, Arnaud Démare, Tim Merlier, and Elia Viviani make up a super-seven of sprinters set to start in Madinat Zayed on Sunday.
The absence of Caleb Ewan, Fabio Jakobsen, and the COVID-hit Fernando Gaviria will be hard-felt in this Superbowl of the sprinters, but there’s still more-than-enough sprint stoke to go around.
Cavendish will reunite with Tour de France wingman Michael Mørkøv at the UAE Tour as he continues his quest to equal his highs of 2021. The Manx started the season strong with a victory and second-place in Oman and will be on a mission to prove to Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere that he’s the man that should be flying to France for this July’s Grand Départ.
“Mark proved he is in good shape in Oman and we have confidence in him going into the first WorldTour event of the season. He will rely on a strong train, with Michael as the last man ready to launch him on the four flat stages,” said Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl sports director Geert Van Bondt.
Cavendish and Mørkøv may have seen four Tour stage-wins last year, but they won’t have it easy in the Emirates.
Philipsen was the revelation of last year’s sprint scene, Groenewegen is on a tear with his new BikeExchange-Jayco crew, and Vivani is back to winning ways in his return to Ineos Grenadiers.
Bennett will be making the second debut for Bora-Hansgrohe of his career Sunday as he pedals back from his knee injury. The Irishman recently told VeloNews he won’t be in top shape, but that’s not to say he won’t be out of the frame altogether.
The Route: Sprints, crosswinds, diesel-climbs, and a high-speed TT
The UAE Tour keeps its routes simple. If it’s not a sprint stage, it’s either a pan-flat time trial or a very big mountaintop finish.
Cavendish, Bennett, and the sprinter swarm will see chances on stages 1, 2, 5, and 6 … Should things play out per the script, that is.
Long stretches through the desert in stages 1, 5, and 6 pose the threat of gusting winds and whipping sand. Stage 1 of last year’s race became a full-gas blast of echelon action that saw Bennet, Ewan and Ackerman off the back, leaving Mathieu van der Poel to punch to stage victory out of an elite 20-rider split.
Sprinter teams will be on red alert and thumbing their weather apps all week.
Ok, this is art 😍 pic.twitter.com/Lotlwogr91
— Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team (@qst_alphavinyl) February 21, 2021
The GC’s red jersey will be decided on stages 3, 4, and 7.
A 9-kilometer pan-flat TT through Ajman on stage 3 may be too short to see big GC shake-ups, but the grinding 20km haul to the finish atop Jebel Jais the day after will show who’s climbing well and who left the handbrake on over winter.
It’s the final stage that is likely to play ultimate kingmaker, however.
Organizers have recast the “classic” Al Ain-Jebel Hafeet route, putting the Emirates’ marquee climb at the crescendo of the WorldTour’s first race of the year.
Last year, Pogačar and Yates threw haymakers at each other along the three-lane, 8 percent, highway climb of Jebel Hafeet.
Pogačar outsprinted the Brit on the summit of the 10km grinder to open his account in 2021 – he’ll be wanting more of the same next week.