News feature: Abu Dhabi superrace is go, January 12, 2007
Vuelta a España organisers Unipublic and United Arab Emirates-based company Kenzay took the covers off an event which could change the future of cycling. Huge prize money, an exotic location, big incentives for teams and the guarantee of the sport's Grand Tour champions scrapping it out are all highly promising. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes was at the launch in Madrid.
Talk about creating a splash. €450,000 for the winner of the 2006 Tour de France, €333,446 for the Giro d'Italia and €106,144 for the best rider in the Vuelta. These are three of the biggest races in cycling, but that prize list has been completely dwarfed by what will be on offer to the winner of the new Abu Dhabi Cycling Race of Champions, which was launched on Wednesday at a glitzy function in Madrid.
Minor details have been circulating for the past few weeks but today's meeting between press, race backers, organisers and riders at the Hotel Ritz showed just how groundbreaking the new event will be. A first prize of one million dollars (€772,414) is up for grabs at the end of the three stage, four day race, ensuring a hugely competitive showdown between riders despite what is a late season date of November 6-9.
Under the details announced, the winners of the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España are expected to line out with their teams, and so too the three squads which come out best in the teams classification of each Grand Tour. There will also be three wildcard invites and, with a squad of eight riders each, this will total a field of 72 competitors.
"That will be a real motivation." - Team CSC's Carlos Sastre believes a million dollars should get the 72 riders moving
In recognition of the fact that the race is being held at the end of a tough season, the stages are short. The opening flat stage from Abu Dhabi Marina to the centre of Abu Dhabi will be approximately 90 kilometres (56 miles long), while the following day's mountain leg will also be around the same distance. This will take the riders in and around the Al Ain area, with the finishing line set at the summit of an eight kilometre climb.
Unusually for such as short race - but a clear acknowledgement that the season will have been a long one - day three is a rest day for the riders. Each will be allowed to bring a guest, so they will spend the day unwinding with wives, girlfriends or whomever they have elected to take. However, the huge first prize will ensure that motivation is at a peak for the third and final stage, a 20 kilometre individual time trial starting at the seven star Emirates Palace hotel and looping around the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi.
In terms of prizes, those who place first, second and third on stages will get $15,000/€11,585 approx, $10,000 and $5,000 each. (A Tour stage win is worth €8,000, while the Giro pays €10,795 and Vuelta €10,109). The overall victor nets a cool million, while the second and third placed riders get $60,000 and $30,000 respectively. The bulk of the list is clearly going to the winner, but with teams theoretically having a one in nine chance of scooping the prize, they will fight hard throughout.
"This came about after last year's moves to set up our own series of races," stated Unipublic Director General Ignacio Ayuso. "Due to conflicts with the UCI, it was not ultimately possible for this to take place. However we had made contact with Abu Dhabi and so we were keen to continue to work on this project."
The Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in Spain, H.E. Sultan M. Al-Qortasi Al-Noaimi, was present at the launch and was clad in region's distinctive garb. "I am very pleased to be here today to announce this championship, which will be considered to be the most important event to be held in the area," he told the media. "It will be on the same level as the big motorbike races we have there. It will help to develop sports relationships among young people who participate in the sports world."
Director General of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi was similarly enthusiastic. He spoke via video link from the UAE and promised that the race would bring together a very strong field. "For the first time in the Middle East, the winners of the sport's three most prestigious Grand Tour events will be pitted against each other in direct competition," he stated. "The Abu Dhabi Race of Champions will also showcase to the world the very best of the United Arab Emirates capital, with a route that starts and finishes at the seven star Emirates Palace Hotel, overlooking the Arabian gulf.
"The riders will also race up a challenging mountain on the second stage, the route taking them up to the Emirates' highest point at nearly 4,000 feet, which backdrops the garden city of Al Ain. The race is part of a growing portfolio of international sporting events now hosted by Abu Dhabi, and I think it is going to be a big success."
Huge budget promised:
In addition to the huge prizefund, the race will also see participating squads receive other monetary incentives. In 2006, the Tour de France paid a sum of €42,350 to each team to help them cover their expenses. It is understood that all costs will be paid for the riders' Abu Dhabi trip but, regardless, the squads will each be given a fee of $75,000 to attend. And, as mentioned before, riders will each be able to bring a guest, with a further four such people able to be brought by each team.
Popular CSC rider Carlos Sastre was the biggest name in attendance today and he told Cyclingnews that he was very impressed by what he saw. "I think that this is something new, something special, something important. It is the first time in the cycling world that they have organised an event of these characteristics. I think going to Abu Dhabi is like a present for all the teams who can go. It means that the end of the season will be good for the riders and the team."
Sastre feels the prize fund will generate a lot of encouragement. "It will certainly do that," he said. "For sure. Usually at the end of October or beginning of November, the season has ended for all of us. I think it is an extra motivation; you don't have any race in Europe which gives you such an amount of prize money to win a race.
"That will be a real motivation, but so too the fact that you will also get to visit the area. All of us can see on the television that this is a special country in many ways. I think those going there will have a nice holiday with their family and also a nice race."
But the riders won't be going there to relax. He feels that the nature of the route will generate some good action. "It will be difficult with these three stages - you have a flat stage, a mountain stage, a time trial. You will have a stage for each type of rider and, for sure, I think the prizemoney will be really attractive for all of us. It should be great."
Today's presentation promised a special trip for the teams. They and their guests will stay in top hotels and have access to beaches and luxurious sporting facilities in the expected 30 degree climate. Each team will be given two official cars, a van for equipment and a minibus for trips in the area.
As might be expected from an event which is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, gaining publicity for the country and its culture is a big goal. The local tradition will be emphasised at a presentation gala on November 4, where riders, team staff, officials and media will sit through a light and sound show complete with Arab dancers.
Putting it all together:
Unipublic and Kenzay will work together in arranging the race which, it was said at the launch, will run for a minimum of five years. Managing partner Tarek S. El-Kays said that a visit by several Spanish officials last year helped seal the deal, their teamwork getting started right away in unusual circumstances.
"We had a Spanish delegation who came to Abu Dhabi last year to check it all out," he stated. "We went up the mountain, we came down the mountain and the on the way back to Abu Dhabi we had a flat tire! They were very helpful in helping me change that. This event doesn't have any flat tires, though. Today is the launch, today is the big day and today is the first step towards what will be a very successful sporting event."
Unipublic's Sporting Director Victor Cordero agrees. "It is going to be very special. Cycling is growing and our aim is to make it more worldly through running this race in a location such as the United Arab Emirates. We are committed to take the best teams of the cycling champions there, using all our know-how to help the country put on a spectacular race. It is a country of marvellous tourist attractions and we think the Abu Dhabi Race of Champions will help get those images out there.
"Our main objective is to take cycling to the UAE and generate passion for it. We want to bring the best cyclists for that reason, but the race is also going to be a great social occasion for them. Each of the riders will be able to take a guest with them too. We want people there to enjoy themselves, to be relaxed, to spend time with people from their home environment, family and friends. They can stay on for a holiday afterwards if they desire, or else head back when the race is over."
The timing at the end of the season will ensure the party atmosphere, but Cordero says that the prize fund plus the nature of the event will guarantee a good spectacle too. "We are not going to make it a long race, but it will be an intensive one. We want to limit the distance at this time of the year, yet that will also mean that the riders can ride hard and express their full talent. The idea is to make sure the race is emotional, stimulating. We will take this very seriously, but it is also going to be a big party for everyone."