Some of the best sprinters in the world will clash in this week's Dubai Tour, with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) all making their season debuts in the shadow of the Dubai skyscrapers and on the desert roads. Importantly, all have strong and experienced lead-out trains to help them in the sprint finishes.
Elia Viviani is due to lead Team Sky after quitting the Vuelta a San Juan early, while Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport), Sacha Modolo (UAE Abu Dhabi), Jakub Mareczko (Wilier-Selle Italia) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) will also be in the action and no doubt be keen to land an early win, while taking the scalp of Cavendish and Kittel.
Four of the five stages are flat and so expected to finish in high-speed sprints. Even stage 4 to Hatta dam is not out of reach to the likes of Degenkolb, who fought the pain and climbed the 17 per cent ramp to win in 2015. Time bonuses and any seconds won or lost on the Hatta Dam finish will also be important in deciding the final overall winner. Kittel pulled on the blue jersey and posed with the special Circle of Stars wheel-shaped trophy last year after winning two stages.
The Dubai Tour is raced mostly on wide, sweeping highways under sunny skies but an expected desert storm later in the week could spark chaos, attacks and echelons. Current forecasts predict cloudy conditions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a 50 per cent chance of rain, with temperatures dropping to 20C and 40km/h winds expected. Those conditions could turn the often docile stages into an early test for the spring Classics and inspire attacks and aggressive racing.
Details of the five stages
While the Abu Dhabi Tour has stepped up to WorldTour level for 2017, the Dubai Tour as stayed but a Hors Category race on the Asia Tour and added an extra stage. Stage distances have also been increased with four over 170km and stage 3 covering 200km.
Organiser RCS Sport has wisely planned the race so that each starts in the Dubai International Marina Club, which has a fan village and areas for each team in the shadows of the Dubai Marina skyscrapers. The riders stay in the nearby Westin hotel and so can walk or take a golf buggy ride to the start.
The adding of a fifth stage means the race visits the northern and eastern edges of Dubai as well as two that visit the Palm Jumeirah island, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
Tuesday's opening stage covers 181km on a figure-eight loop that includes some twisting roads and lots of roundabouts before heading out to the edge of the Palm Jumeirah. The finale includes a late tunnel, an out-and-back final five kilometres and a breeze that blows across the road, making it difficult to control the sprint.
Viviani won the sprint last year after Cavendish was forced across the road by Poland's Grzegorz Stepniak (CCC Sprandi). Cavendish responded with an angry head butt.
Stage 2 takes the race up the coast to the Ras Al Khaimah Emirate, switching inland near the Burj Khalifa skyscraper and then returning to the coast road for the final two hours of racing. The 186km stage is pan flat but the finish includes a left turns and sweeping curves in the last two kilometres.
Thursday's third stage is the longest of the race at 200km and heads east across the UAE peninsula and then north to Fujairah overlooking the Gulf of Oman. The middle of the stages passes through sand dunes and includes a gradual climb to Sifuni. The finish includes a tunnel with two kilometres to go but is flat and fast.
Stage 4 to Hatta Dam is considered the queen stage of the Dubai Tour, with the rolling roads and then steep finish likely to decide the overall race winner. The 172km stage zig zags across the desert, with the climbs beginning with 15km to go. Two kick ups at 8 per cent offer a chance to attack and drop some sprinters. However the fast descent helps compact the peloton before a fight for position in the streets of Hatta.
The climb up to the edge of Hatta Dam begins with three kilometres to go. The gradient steepens constantly before hitting the final lung-burning 200 metres that kicks up like a wall at between 11 and 17 per cent. Riders are left gasping for breath after making a huge effort with the view across the reservoir offering little comfort. 2016 stage winner Juan Jose Lobato is back in 2017 after his surprise move to LottoNL-Jumbo.
The sprinters fight for a placing and hope to limit the time gaps so that they can stay in contention for overall victory.
The Dubai Tour ends with a now traditional city centre stage that ends near the Burj Khalifa skyscraper. The 124km stage is fast and furious with position vital going into the two left turns in the final two kilometres. The 10, six and four second time bonuses awarded on the line will decide the final overall classification and share out the prize money pot that is a 13,983 Euro – one of the biggest of the season for such a short race.
The riders to watch
Thanks to a financial deal with Velon, the Dubai Tour has attracted some of the best teams and riders in the sport, with 10 WorldTour teams on the start list. Also competing are Aqua Blue Sport, Novo Nordisk, Bardiani-CSF, Wilier-Selle Italia, ONE Pro Cycling and a UAE national team. The Dubai Tour will see the UAE Abu Dhabi team compete for the first time in the Middle East. Each team has eight riders.
The Dubai Tour is a sprinters' race and will offer the biggest showdown so far this season, with Cavendish, Kittel, Viviani, Degenkolb and Groenewegen backed by their best lead-out trains.
The clash between Cavendish and Kittel is the prize fight of the Dubai Tour and will also reveal both riders' early season form. Cavendish raced deep into the winter, ending with the Gent Six, as other riders were already training for 2017. He has been in the UAE since last week's Abu Dhabi Tour presentation, training in the heat. He will perhaps have lesser kilometres in his legs than his rivals but will no doubt still be hungry to win on his season debut. If he is beaten it will be fascinating to analyse how and why.
Kittel's success in the 2016 Dubai Tour got his career back on track, and he will be looking for another successful start. He holds the record of five stage victories in Dubai and it would be no surprise if he adds at least one more.
Viviani raced with an Italian team in San Juan but failed to match Gaviria's speed in the sprints he contested before bailing out of the race. He faces a long flight from Argentina to Dubai but is looking for early success in 2017 as he focuses fully on road racing.
Groenewegen was one of the most successful sprinters in the second half of 2016 and will be looking to pick up where he left off, with the LottoNL-Jumbo team knowing the aggressive and powerful Dutch sprinter is their best chance of success. Watch out for his red, white and blue Dutch national champion's jersey. He will not be afraid to take on Cavendish and Kittel.
Other jersey's to watch for include Adam Blythe's debut in his white British national champion's colours. Aqua Blue Sport will be keen to land an early win.
The finish at Hatta Dam offers a chance for fast finishers who can handle a steep climb to the line, so Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain-Merida) are two clear candidates for success. So is Degenkolb after his 2015 win, and the German would no doubt love to win overall on his debut with Trek-Segafredo. Like every sprinter, he lives for and is motivated by success. The Dubai Tour offers an opportunity to score that key early win, to take off the pressure, relax the mind and show everyone who is a candidate to be best sprinter of 2017.
Cyclingnews will provide extensive coverage of all the racing with interviews, news and exclusives during the five-day race.