The Bahrain-Merida rider is starting his season later than normal after taking the decision to avoid the Southern Hemisphere races and the travel that comes with it, after falling ill ahead of the Vuelta a San Juan at the start of last year. He is planning to target the Giro d’Italia and then the Tour de France and so is carefully dosing his racing to be fresh for the Grand Tours.
Nibali has stayed in Europe for the opening two months of the season, heading to Tenerife – where rival Tom Dumoulin also went - in recent weeks for an altitude training camp. Nibali reportedly clocked over 10,000 m of climbing during ten days of active training but it can be hard to predict how a rider will come out of a stint at altitude. As a result the seven-day UAE Tour is a chance for Nibali to test his legs on some challenging, but not too difficult, terrain.
“I’ve come straight from a training camp, I’m in good shape and I’ve reacted well to training at altitude,” Nibali said ahead of the race. “I come here thinking of this and the coming races. I’m very happy to be here, it’s a race that is on the rise and it’s a very good field so I’m looking forward to it.
“I don’t really know how my form is, because it’s my first race and I’m trying to find out how I feel. I’ve worked all winter and did a Tenerife camp a few weeks ago. I’m here to find out my form is and where I am compared to the others.”
Nibali has a solid programme of racing in March before a second altitude camp in April. Following the UAE Tour, he will head back to Italy for Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, where he’s looking to defend his title from 12 months ago. The weeklong Tour of the Alps is back on the menu before a brief trip to Belgium for Liege-Bastogne-Liege, his final race ahead of the Giro d’Italia.
It’s a very different programme to 2017, when he last rode the Giro d’Italia, and it remains to be seen if it will work for Nibali.
“My calendar is very intense this year. We have made this choice, but I do not know if it's right,” Nibali explained. “Tenerife was a block similar to last year, trying to gradually increase the workload to grow in the right way."
The UAE Tour begins on Sunday with a 16-kilometre team time trial. It will be an important stage in deciding the overall title, but it is also a chance for the team to practice the discipline ahead of the Tour de France in July.
“It’s very important because we’ve got a team of trial trialists here. It’s important to see where we’ve improved and what we need to work even more thinking ahead to the Grand Tours,” Nibali explained.