Sprinters hold the top-seven general classification spots after three stages at the Abu Dhabi Tour, with Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) leading Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and Phil Bauhaus (Team Sunweb) by three seconds, and the rest grouped in ones and twos behind.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) breaks up the sprint party in eighth place, 10 seconds back, and Saturday's time trial should shine even more light on the final general classification outcome and provide a buffer for the specialists. The big test will be Sunday's climb to Jebel Hafeet, an 11km ascent that averages 6.6 percent gradient and reaches 11 percent in spots.
Kristoff won the opening sprint and held the lead for a day before Viviani won stage 2 in Yas Beach and seized the leader's jersey. The Italian finished fourth to Bauhaus on stage 3 to keep the overall lead, but more importantly, Viviani won the second intermediate sprint of the day at 82km and took a commanding lead in the points classification, a prize he'll hope to keep as others set their sights on the GC.
"I am satisfied after these flat stages, because I have the leader's jersey and a hefty advantage in the green jersey classification, thanks to three top-five placings and today's intermediate sprint. Now I'll go full gas in the time trial and then try to help our GC guys on the fifth stage."
Friday's 133km stage from Nation Towers to Big Flag, although flat, was not a straightforward affair once crosswinds blew things apart after the second intermediate sprint with about 40km remaining. Viviani took the sprint and then made the first group once crosswinds tore into the peloton. several teams tried to open a workable gap in the winds, but the race came back together when the wind changed direction, blowing into a hard head wind.
From there the sprinters' team picked up the chase, with Quick-Step sending James Knox up to marshal the team's interests at the tip of the spear until the sprint trains started jostling for position inside 10km to go.
"We controlled the race with Alvaro [Hodeg] and James, who were incredible and worked really hard," Viviani said. "Actually, the entire team was great again, protecting me in the crosswinds and delivering me in a good position at the finish.
"I came out of the last corner with 500 meters to go piloted by Saba [Fabio Sabatini], but unfortunately the stiff headwind was a big factor, even bigger than on the first day. I'm a bit frustrated for not getting the win, but that's cycling: sometimes you win, sometimes you don't."
With names like Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman lining up in Al Maryah Island for Saturday's 12.6km individual time trial, it's doubtful Viviani will be on the winning step of the podium at day's end. Quick-Step have Julian Alaphlippe, currently in 50th with a large group of riders 13 seconds down, to handle that for the rest of the week.
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