Variety is the byword for the fourth edition of the Abu Dhabi Tour. Now extended to five days in length, the route is a mixed one, with opportunities for sprinters, climbers and – a novelty for 2018 – time triallists. The Abu Dhabi peloton, meanwhile, is also a diverse one. Some riders who have been in action since mid-January will be keen to amass points in the second WorldTour event of the year. Others, just starting their seasons, might well be moving a little more gingerly in Abu Dhabi.
Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) are the most notable among the riders beginning their campaigns at the Abu Dhabi Tour, and while both men have designs on the Giro d'Italia. They will each be expected to offer some signs of life here.
Aru, riding in the home country of his new employers, will look to impress on the concluding summit finish at Jebel Hafeet. Dumoulin, who placed third on that climb and thus third overall a year ago, will have an additional opportunity to stake a claim for GC victory with the 12.6km time trial on the preceding afternoon.
Dumoulin will be flanked by Wilco Kelderman in the Sunweb line-up in what is set to be their only appearance together this side of the Tour de France. With Kelderman looking to reach a peak in the spring before building up again for July, he might be the more likely option for Sunweb here. Similarly, Aru will be accompanied on the UAE Team Emirates squad by Rui Costa, who won this race in 2017, though the time trial might prove an impediment to the Portuguese rider this time out.
Regardless of who leads the line elsewhere, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) looks the man to beat for overall honours. The 37-year-old seemed to possess an extra gear to the rest as he won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana earlier in the month, and with WorldTour points on offer here, it would be a surprise if he was not in the mix.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), a narrow second a year ago, is in Abu Dhabi for his first race of the year, and will expect to ride strongly in each of the final two stages, as will Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) and Rohan Dennis (BMC).
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) illuminated the Vuelta a España in September and will look to stretch his legs on the ascent of Jebel Hafeet, an ascent that might also prove to the liking of Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida). It will be fascinating, too, to see what the EF Education First-Drapac duo of Michael Woods and Pierre Rolland can conjure up on the race's principal climb.
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) arrives in the United Arab Emirates under a cloud after some unflattering reports in the Italian press last weekend, the contents of which he has denied. Davide Formolo lines out alongside him in his first race in Bora-Hansgrohe colours.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) looked on song at the recent Colombia Oro y Paz race, and the climb of Jebel Hafeet will not faze him. He placed 5th overall a year ago, and will look to impress again as he builds towards a tilt at Paris-Nice.
The short time trial, meanwhile, will not be the lone preserve of Dumoulin. Jos van Emden (LottoNL-Jumbo), winner of the final time trial at the Giro, should perform well here, together with Dennis, Kelderman, Steve Cummings (Dimension Data), Alex Dowsett (Katusha-Alpecin), Svein Tuft (Mitchelton-Scott) and Jonathan Castroviejo, who will be riding his first time trial as a Team Sky rider.
Sprinters and classics men
The tussle for overall honours is only part of the bill at the Abu Dhabi Tour, of course, and the first three stages offer opportunities for the fast men to open their accounts or add to their running tallies for the season.
Elia Viviani (Quick-Step) was in sparkling form in Dubai and, backed by a fine Quick-Step train, can chalk up more success here. Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) perhaps surpassed his own expectations by clocking up an early win in Dubai, and after another week of racing in Oman, will be even sharper here.
Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) showcased his form by winning the Clasica de Almeria last weekend, while André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) bookended his Tour Down Under appearance with two stage wins.
Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) has yet to notch up a win for his new team and it remains to be seen if that additional pressure proves to be a motivation or an impediment. Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) finished the Tour of Oman with a stage 6 win and will be looking to continue that success.
The competition will be ferocious, in any case, with other fast men like Dan McLay (Education First-Drapac) and Andrea Guardini (Bardiani-CSF) in the mix.
The mixed parcours of the Abu Dhabi Tour means the race pitches itself somewhere midway between the avowedly sprinter-friendly Dubai Tour and the rather more rugged terrain of the Tour of Oman. The three flat stages early on should give the fast men ample opportunity to do battle, before the serious business of the general classification takes centre stage with a time trial and a tricky summit finish on the final two days.
Stage 1 features a 189km trek through the desert before the likely bunch sprint in Madinat Zayed, stage 2 includes a sweep along the seafront before the finish at Yas Island, while the short, 133km route of stage 3 is a largely city-centre affair.
The 12.6km time trial on stage 4 is on a pan flat, urban course, which means that wind ought not to be a significant factor. Given that only the time bonus atop Jebel Hafeet separated Rui Costa and Zakarin in the GC a year ago, the penultimate stage looks like being the decisive one.
It will, in any case, set up stage 5 as something of a handicap race. Riders like Dumoulin and Kelderman will hold an advantage, and the onus will be on Lopez, Aru et al to attack them on the final haul up Jebel Hafeet. The 10.8km ascent is the only climb across the entire five days, and the transition from flat roads to gradients of 11% (and an average of 6.6%) could be a brutal one.