This week's Abu Dhabi Tour is the final race of the 2016 international season, with the four days of racing in the Middle East bringing the curtain down on a season that began in late January at the Tour Down Under in Australia and the Tour de San Luis in Argentina.
The Abu Dhabi Tour will become part of the growing WorldTour calendar in 2017 and move to February 23-26, slotting in after the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman but overlapping with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium, which will also join the WorldTour.
After clocking up more kilometres in the air than they have on their bikes during the nine months of an ever more global sport, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Diego Ulissi were amongst the riders on the flights from Europe to Abu Dhabi on Monday, while World Championships contenders Greg van Avermaet, Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish, Michael Matthews, John Degenkolb and Giacomo Nizzolo travelled from nearby Qatar.
Riders went for a relaxing ride on Tuesday; others hit the beach or the nearby shopping mall, and looked briefly at the 2017 Tour de France route on line, before attending the UCI Gala.
The four days of racing at the Abu Dhabi Tour begin on Thursday and end on Sunday, with Friday's stage 3 mountain finish at Jebel Hafeet ensuring a climber will win the overall classification. Last year's winner Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) will not defend his 2015 success, having ended his season with victory at Il Lombardia.
With riders tired after a long, hard season, the eventual winner could be a total surprise and perhaps even come from the four Professional Continental or three Continental teams in the race rather than the nine WorldTour teams in action.
Four days, four different stages
The four Abu Dhabi Tour stages vary in length and location around the Abu Dhabi emirate. The climbers will fight for overall success and the red jersey but the sprinters are expected to dominate the other three stages.
The racing begins with an out and back stage in the desert town of Madinat Zayed, with the midway turning point in the sand dunes of the Liwa oasis in the south of Abu Dhabi. The 147km route travels south and then north. The air was still and stifling in 2015 but any desert winds could spark echelons and see some aggressive racing just like in Sunday’s World Championships.
Last year, Andrea Guardini (Astana) won the sprint in Madinat Zayed as the riders suffered in temperatures close to 40C. Conditions are expected to be cooler this year, with forecasts of 36C and 45 per cent humidity but the sprinters will again be fighting for the first red leader's jersey as well as the stage victory. Three sweeping corners are the only obstacles in the final seven kilometres, meaning it should be a fast and furious finish.
Stage 2 is the shortest of this year's race at just 115km. It is also pan flat as it loops around the skyscrapers and modern landmarks of Abu Dhabi, including the Grand Mosque, the Yas Marina motor racing circuit and the new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum before finishing at the Marina. The sweeping finish veers right with 300 metres to go, meaning the inside line will be the shortest way to victory.
The sprinters will no doubt be at the back of the peloton on stage 3 as the 10km climb to the finish at Jebel Hafeet sees the climber's rise to the top of the overall classification. The 150km stage covers a long flat loop before the 10km climb up the spine of the climb. The gradient begins gently at the oasis but then climbs constantly at 8% for seven kilometres on a wide, often curving highway. The gradient eases and then kicks up again in the last two kilometres, before the vital sharp hairpin turn to the left that leads into the finish area.
Last year, Wout Poels made a late solo attack and seemed set for victory, only to slip out on the final corner. Chaves was just behind him and charged past to win the stage and set up overall victory. Whoever is first into the corner and stays up this year, is likely to take the leader's jersey.
The Abu Dhabi Tour ends with a spectacular circuit stage on the Yas Marina circuit. The 143km starts at sunset and will be contested under the lights of the Formula 1 motor racing circuit, with riders covering 26 laps of the 5.5km circuits. Thanks to a deal with the Velon teams association, there will again be live on-board footage from the stage as riders race and dive through the corners without touching their brakes.
Star-studded start list but who can win overall?
An agreement with Velon and the Abu Dhabi Tour has lead to a revenue sharing program and not surprisingly, the 11 Velon WorldTour teams have convinced many of their big-name leaders to make the late-season trip to the Persian Gulf.
Alberto Contador will make his farewell appearance for Tinkoff at the Abu Dhabi Tour, while John Degenkolb leads Giant-Alpecin before his move to Trek-Segafredo, Greg van Avermaet will lead BMC, Michael Matthews leads the Orica-BikeExchange team, while Michal Kwiatkowski, Elia Viviani and Owain Doull lead Team Sky.
Vincenzo Nibali will also ride in Astana colours for the last time this week before starting a new chapter of career with Bahrain-Merida. The Giro d'Italia winner returned to racing in mid-September after recovering from the fractured collarbone he suffered in the Rio Olympics. However he is not expected to be a contender on the climb to Jebel Hafeet.
Picking out the overall contenders amongst the team leaders is a lottery so late in the season but Nicholas Roche (Team Sky) could be a name to remember. So to could Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal). Contador hasn't raced since the Vuelta a Espana and may just want to let his legs respond to the criticism of team owner Oleg Tinkov in his farewell interview with Cyclingnews.
The sprinters will no doubt dominate on three days, with Mark Cavendish backed by his trusted Dimension Data teammates Bernard Eisel and Mark Renshaw. Viviani has the support of Doull, Van Poppel and Andy Fenn, while Giacomo Nizzolo also leads a solid Trek-Segafredo squad. Andre Greipel will be hoping to end his season on a high with Lotto Soudal after Germany’s debacle at the World Championships. Italy Jakub Mareczko from Wilier Southeast and Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida) should not be forgotten as the sprints are fiercely contested.
World champion Peter Sagan was in Abu Dhabi for the UCI Gala dinner but will then head home to Europe and not ride the Abu Dhabi Tour.
Cyclingnews will have full coverage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, with stage reports, news and exclusive interviews.
2016 Abu Dhabi Tour stages:
Stage 1: Thursday, October 20: Madinat Zayed to Madinat Zayed, 147km
Stage 2: Friday, October 21: Abu Dhabi to Abu Dhabi Al Marina, 115km
Stage 3: Saturday, October 22: Al Ain to Jebel Hafeet, 150km
Stage 4: Sunday, October 23: Yas Marina Circuit, 143km