Results aren’t always the priority for general classification riders at this stage in the season, and sure enough all of the big names at the Abu Dhabi Tour, gathered at a pre-race press conference on Wednesday, said they were most interested in seeing how they’re shaping up in comparison with their rivals.
And there’s no shortage of yardsticks here in the Middle East. The ‘top riders’ press conference saw 14 pros sitting in front of the media, and each GC rider could look round and see seven others that will be challenging for Grand Tour titles this year.
"The level of rivals is so high here we’ve got plenty of other things to worry about," joked Fabio Aru (Astana) when the inevitable question came about his rivalry with Vincenzo Nibali, with this the Italian pair’s first race on opposing teams.
Also at the top table were seven-time Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Vuelta a Espana champion and former Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), along with Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) , Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates). And that’s just those who were asked to attend the gathering; others here include Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alepecin), and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"It’s exactly these kinds of tests that you need after a big block of preparation," said Quintana, who won the Volta a la Comunitat a la Valencia on his season debut last month. "We’ve seen that it’s true, I’ve got a got level, but we don’t want to just wait for what’s ahead. Here the intention is to see how things are going, and that will decide how we take it from here and approach the following races."
The Colombian is one of the world’s best climbers and will be a big favourite on the Jebel Hafeet summit finish on stage 3 – the only GC flashpoint of the race – but equally important will be the other three flat stages. Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué recently said Quintana needs to improve on flat, windy stages of the sort that cost him so dearly at the 2015 Tour de France.
"It’s a race that works well as preparation and to see the how the team functions on the flat stages, with wind and echelons – that’s important for us," added Quintana. "It hasn’t been all bad for us [in the wind] but we have to keep improving, that’s for sure. The important thing is to have a great team for this type of terrain, to be able to defend ourselves without problems."
The Jebel Hafeet climb is 10.8km long with an average gradient of 6.6 per cent but with ramps of 11 per cent three kilometres from the top.
Contador continues to build
Contador, who made a strong season debut last week at the Ruta del Sol, finishing one second behind winner Alejandro Valverde, knows it well, having raced Abu Dhabi in its October slot last year.
"I remember it was a complicated stage," he said. "There was wind and the peloton split before the foot of the climb. It’s a hard climb and will be selective. The work of our team will be important in fighting against the wind and being well positioned on the climb."
Contador was a late addition to the start list and is here to sharpen his form – which says is "better than expected" – though he acknowledged that he’ll be working for Bauke Mollema, who’s heading to the Giro this year and is keen to build on last month’s Vuelta a San Juan victory.
"I’m happy to be here with the team and with Bauke. Without doubt, if I have to work for him I’ll work for him," said Contador. "The important thing is to get a good result for the team – we’re in a WorldTour race and it’s important for the end-of-year rankings. I’ll be more than happy to lend him a hand."
Contador and Quintana have made the strongest starts to the season of the GC contenders in Abu Dhabi, though Fabio Aru, who hasn’t been known to perform to his best outside the Grand Tours, finished third at last week’s Tour of Oman and should be a big favourite on the third stage.
"There's only one stage for the GC riders and so I’m sure we'll race it hard. I'm curious to see how I perform. It'll be important to feel good as we get closer to Tirreno-Adriatico,” said the Astana rider, who will take over team leadership from defending champion Tanel Kangert.
"The decisive climb is long and tough. I raced it last October when the temperatures were a lot higher. It'll only be 25-30C this time. Last October the riders were a little more tired and there wasn’t such a high quality field. But it hurt in October and so I'm sure it'll hurt in February too. It'll be a good early season test."
Romain Bardet could only manage sixth in Oman after crashing ahead of Green Mountain, but seemed happy enough with his first race of the season and is “looking forward to seeing how my condition is compared to the best GC riders” before heading to the all-important Paris-Nice.
Along with Quintana, Aru and Nibali, Steven Kruijswijk is one of the many riders here who’ll be in the frame for winning the 100th maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia in May, having come so agonisingly close last year. Two others – Tejay van Garderen and Tom Dumoulin – are only now making their first outings of the season,
"I’m ready to put 2016 behind me and look forward to a successful 2017," said van Garderen, who slumped at last year’s Tour de France. "I wouldn’t say I changed anything in particular [over the winter], but I spent a lot of time in California with the family, trained really well, stayed relaxed stayed happy. I think I’m ready for the season."