The Abu Dhabi Tour returns this week for its second edition in the space of four months. What started out in 2015 as a season-ending affair has now become part of a February festival of Middle Eastern racing, with the new slot in the calendar going with its newly acquired WorldTour status.
The move to February will mean cooler conditions than the furnace in which the first two editions were held, giving organisers the opportunity to be more creative with the race route in the future – though the format remains largely unchanged this year.
There will be a stage in the desert and a stage in the city, both for the sprinters, before the GC men come to the fore on day three for the Jebel Hafeet summit finish. Both men who have won atop the climb – Esteban Chaves in 2015 and Tanel Kangert in 2016 – went on to lift the overall trophy the following day after a showpiece final stage under the lights of the Formula 1 Yas Marina circuit.
What has changed is the calibre of riders on the start line. The three flat stages have attracted a stellar cast of sprinters, while the fact that there’s just one hilly stage hasn’t deterred a raft of top names from the GC ranks.
Indeed, almost every top contender for the Giro d’Italia will be in Abu Dhabi.
Reigning Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will get a first taste of racing against his compatriot and former teammate Fabio Aru (Astana), while Movistar's Nairo Quintana is the other former Grand Tour winner on the start line. The Colombian is laying the foundations for his audacious Giro-Tour double attempt.
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) will be looking to build on his overall victory at the Vuelta a San Juan last month, while Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNl-Jumbo), who came agonisingly close to winning the Giro last year, are others who will be in the frame in May.
There are non-Giro-bound stars, too, with two of the big favourites for the Tour de France in Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). The latter was a late addition to the line-up as he looks to hone his condition. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) are two more who've had strong performances in recent Grand Tours, and the latter will be riding his first stage race for his new team.
Of course, with just one climb so crucial, you don’t need to be a pure GC rider to win, and there are plenty of other strong climbers, including Kenny Elissonde (Team Sky) and Astana's defending champion Kangert.
The sprint stages will see the majority of the world’s top fast men go head-to-head, with Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) resuming their battles from the Dubai Tour.
Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) is also in attendance, while Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), after cleaning up at Tour Down Under, is set for a real test now that others have had a chance to catch up with their form and training.
With the cobwebs having been blown away, Abu Dhabi will be a key test for the sprinters to see how they measure up against each other, and while the likes of Kittel and Greipel have already got the ball rolling this term, Cavendish and Viviani will no doubt be eager to get that first win on the board.
The move to February has allowed organisers to increase the overall distances of the stages, but the format of the race – with two flat stages, the Jebel Hafeet summit finish, and the night-time finale on the Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit – remains intact.
The opening stage takes place in the desert, starting and finishing in Madinat Zayed. The riders will set out along a wide, arrow-straight highway until they reach the oasis of Liwa and, after a loop in the rolling dunes, they’ll head straight back along that road and prepare for a bunch sprint.
The second stage takes place in the city of Abu Dhabi, starting on the Al Maryah island before heading along the corniche and back around in an anti-clockwise direction. With the stage taking place on wide boulevards and not a hill in sight, it’s another one for the sprinters.
The sprinters will take a back seat on stage 3 as the GC men gear up for the Jebel Hafeet summit finish. The stage starts in Al Ain and comes back after a lengthy loop, but the day is all about the one climb. The road begins to rise with 15km to go and the climb proper starts with 11km to go, with an average gradient of between eight and nine percent, but touching 11 percent with around three kilometres to go – where Kangert shook off Nicolas Roche last year.
The final stage is something of a showpiece, taking place on the Yas Marina circuit under the floodlights. It will be a zippy final day as riders complete 26 laps of the 5.5km circuit on the marble-like smoothness of the asphalt.