The second edition of the Dubai Tour marks the start of the triptych of Persian Gulf Races with the area now a favourite location for riders targeting the Spring Classics and early-season stage races.
Some riders will travel to Dubai from Australia after riding the Tour Down Under, others will fly in from Europe to make their season debut. Some will stay on to ride the Tour of Qatar or return a week later for the the hillier Tour of Oman. Every rider will enjoy the warm weather.
Giro d'Italia organiser RCS Sport organises the Dubai Tour with the Dubai Sports Council and secured several big names for the four-day race between February 4-7. The Dubai Tour has been upgraded to 2.HC status, allowing RCS Sport to invite more WorldTour teams. There will be 10 WorldTour teams in action in 2015: BMC Racing, Etixx-Quick-Step, Lampre-Merida, Movistar, Giant-Alpecin, Katusha, Team Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo. They have also invited Bardiani CSF, CCC Sprandi Polkowice, UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk, while local team SkyDive Dubai also earned a spot, as do a UAE national squad.
Vincenzo Nibali leads Astana in the race, two days after the team's official presentation in Dubai. He will be hoping to test his legs before targeting the Tour of Oman and then going up against Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana at Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) leads the long list of sprinters in race. He was beaten by Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) last year but the German is absent this year. Cavendish and his lead out train will likely clash with his former teammate John Degenkolb, and the Manxman can count on Mark Renshaw, who travels to Dubai from Australia after Sunday's Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
Other stand out names on the start list include Philippe Gilbert (BMC), who is a firm candidate for overall success, Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step), Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) and the on-form Lars Boom (Astana). Juraj Sagan is also riding for Tinkoff-Saxo but his brother Peter has opted to make his racing debut at the Tour of Qatar.
Other riders to watch out for in the sprints include Luka Mezgec (Giant-Alpecin), Andrea Guardini (Astana), Robert Förster (UnitedHealthcare), Juan Jose Lobato (Movistar) and Team Sky trio of Ben Swift, Elia Viviani and Andy Fenn. Taylor Phinney (BMC) won the inaugural Dubai Tour in 2014 but is still recovering from the serious leg fracture he suffered last summer.
A tougher course
This year's Dubai Tour will be tougher than the first edition in 2014 when the race stayed largely inside the Dubai city limits and snarled up the traffic. This year the four stages total 663km of racing, with stage three touching 205km.
While stages 1, 2 and 4 look perfect for the sprinters - as long as they control the breakaways- the stage 3 finish to Hatta Dam will no doubt shake out the overall classification. The final climb to the Dam is short and not tough but the rolling roads in the final 50km of the stage plus the fight for position will surely cause some splits in the peloton.
Time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds are awarded at the end of each stage and there are also three, two and one seconds awarded at the intermediate sprints. These precious seconds could prove decisive in deciding who gets to pull on the overall winner's blue jersey, which was designed by British fashion designer Paul Smith.
The opening stage on Wednesday, February 4 will show off the spectacular Dubai seafront. It is only 145km long but any side winds blowing off the sea could be a factor. It starts close to the Westin Hotel where the riders stay for the whole race and finishes in the shadow of the Giant Arab Emirates flag that flies on a 123-metre high flagpole near the Union Museum. The finale of the stage covers four laps of a 8.2km circuit and down the sea front.
Stage 2 on Thursday, February 5 is 187km long and includes a long loop inland into the desert. However the finish is again exposed to the sea breezes and is outside the spectacular Atlantis hotel on the edge of the Palm Jumeirah resort. A late turn in the final kilometres will shuffle the peloton and a perfect lead out will be important. Kittel beat Sagan and Phinney in a similar finish here in 2014.
Stage 3 on Friday, February 6 takes the riders into the hills and ends on the edge of the Hatta Dam, where locals often go in the summer to avoid the extreme heat of the Emirates. Much of the stage is flat and fast as it heads east but the finale is in the hills and will make for a totally different day of racing.
Kittel won the stage to Hatta last year but only after a late desperate chase to get back on after the hills. This time the pure sprinters will surely be unable to survive with the likes of Gilbert, Valverde and perhaps Degenkolb expected to fight for victory and the decisive time bonuses.
Stage 4 on Saturday, February 7 wraps up the race and final sprint is expected to bring down the curtain on the second edition.
The 123km stage is short and ends after a loop through the hundreds of skyscrapers and a parade along the Jumeirah seafront. There are no finishing circuit this year, with a sharp right turn before the finish in the shadows of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper. Time bonuses will again be awarded and could mean the last sprint decides the final overall winner.
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