The 2018 Dubai Tour will again offer high-speed, adrenaline-fueled sprinting as some of the biggest–name fast finishers of the sport head to the Middle East for the five days of racing.
For Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), the Dubai Tour will also mark their season debut. Kittel will be racing with Katusha-Alpecin for the first time since moving from Quick-Step Floors and Kristoff will also debut with UAE Team Emirates after in turn quitting Katusha.
They and their lead out trains will face serious competition from John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia), who have already won sprints in the opening weeks of the 2018 season.
While the desert roads of Dubai offer a landscape of straight roads, endless sand dunes or a multitude of skyscrapers, with controlled breakaways often the order of the day, the complex mechanics of the lead-out trains should make up for the wait and be fascinating to watch. It will be fascinating to see how the balance of power in the sprints has changed after rider transfers and the effects of a long winter. Nerves and expectations will be high.
Kittel won three sprints at the 2017 Dubai Tour to secure overall victory under the protection of the Quick-Step Floors blue train. But will Katusha-Alpecin have the same power and technique to set him up so well?
Kristoff's lead out at UAE Team Emirates is also under construction. He will be without Roberto Ferrari but can count on the speed and youth of pursuiter Filippo Ganna, fellow Norwegian Sven Erik Bystrom, Matteo Bono and Simone Consonni.
Kristoff is starting a 'fake February Grand Tour' and will also ride the Tour of Oman and the Abu Dhabi Tour. He is under pressure to deliver success at the home of his sponsors and backers, adding an extra level of tension to the sprints.
Viviani will arrive in Dubai from Australia. He won a stage at the Tour Down Under and is benefitting from the support of Quick-Step Floors. But will it be enough to help him step up into the exclusive club of big-time sprint winners?
Will Cavendish still be fast as ever as he approaches his 33rd birthday after his injury-hit 2017 season?
We will start to get answers to these questions and many others on the opening stage on Tuesday, with three other sprints expected on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Friday's stage to the edge of Hatta Dam is likely to be a sprint up the steep ramp, with any gaps and the time bonuses deciding the overall classification. If any of the sprinters can accumulate bonus seconds before then, they could wrap up the overall victory on Saturday.
In 2017 a sandstorm turned stage 3 into a Belgian Classic, with echelons and even a punch-up between Kittel and Andrey Grivko. It also meant stage 4 was cancelled due to the dangers of high winds, allowing Kittel to confirm his overall success. Weather forecasts for this year's race predict sun, 24°C temperatures but little wind.
The secrets of the five stages
This year the Dubai Tour has taken the slot of the Tour of Qatar between February 6-10. It is one of two events in the Gulf organised in association with Giro d'Italia organiser RCS Sport, with the WorldTour Abu Dhabi Tour slated for February 21-15.
RCS Sport has wisely planned the race so that all the stages start in the same place, close to the luxury seafront hotels near the Dubai Marina that host the riders. It means long transfers after each stage but riders get to sleep in the same bed and even take an early morning swim if their directeur sportif is not watching.
This year the Dubai Skydive area will host the team area, stage starts and fan village. The five stages will finish in different parts of Dubai and neighbouring emirates.
The racing gets underway with a 167km stage designed to showcase Dubai's many signature construction projects, as well as the site of the 2020 Dubai Expo and the Al Qudra bike track. The stage heads into the desert and then returns to the Dubai Marina and testing city streets before heading out to the edge of the artificial archipelago of Palm Jumeirah.
The sea breeze blowing from the riders' right and the tunnel below the sea with six kilometres to go have always played a part in the outcome of the sprint. Kittel won in 2017, with Viviani taking the honours in 2015 and 2016. It should be a fascinating first battle. In 2016, Cavendish was forced across the road by Poland's Grzegorz Stepniak, with the Manxman responding with a headbutt.
Stage 2 takes the peloton north from Dubai and through four neighbouring emirates – Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah. The 186km route hugs the coastline in the second half of the stage, and the sprinters will expect another opportunity on Al Quawasim Corniche Road if the breeze does not cause disruption.
Another 190km leg follows on stage 3, as the race travels from Dubai to the emirate of Fujairah, perched on the Indian Ocean coast on the opposite side of the UAE peninsula on the Gulf of Oman.
The stage passes the red sand dunes and through the Hajar mountains with 30km to go. The gradual climb could hurt some of the sprinters' legs so early in the season, but cause few problems for the big names. John Degenkolb won a similar stage near here in 2017.
Stage 4 provides the puncheurs with a rare opportunity to upset the pure sprinters on the steep ramps of Hatta Dam. It is arguably the Queen stage of the race.
The 172km stage is flat and fast for the opening 120km but then enters the rocky, barren Hajar mountains with a rollercoaster profile. Two pitches with 11 and 9 kilometres to go offer a chance to attack and make the sprinters suffer. A fast road to Hatta follows, where team unity and positioning will be vital in the final kilometres. The fight for the front starts on the streets of Hatta and intensifies as the road begins to rise.
The final 200 metres before the finish is where the difference is made, with position and gear selection vital as the road turns right and the steep ramp up the dam is revealed. Sprinters with designs on the overall victory need to hang tough as the gradient briefly touches 17 per cent and hope there are no time gaps in the line of riders. The attackers will hope to win the stage, soak up the time bonuses and see at least a one-second gap in the line of riders. That could be enough to change the overall classification and set them up for overall victory.
The final stage takes place entirely within the city of Dubai is expected to end in a bunch sprint. The 132km leg takes the race between the skyscrapers, along the Dubai waterfront before the grandstand finale at City Walk.
The overall winner will again pull on the final blue leader's jersey and take home the Pininfarina-designed Circle of Stars trophy.
Teams and riders
A total of 16 teams have been invited to the 2018 Dubai Tour, including nine WorldTour teams, five Professional Continental teams, the Mitchelton-BikeExchange Continental team, and a UAE national team.
Astana, Bahrain-Merida, BMC Racing, Quick-Step Floors, Dimension Data, Katusha-Alpecin, LottoNL-Jumbo, Trek-Segafredo and UAE Team Emirates will line-up, with Aqua Blue Sport, Cofidis, Rally Cycling, Team Novo Nordisk and Wilier-Selle Italia completing the 112-rider peloton.
The sprinters and their lead-out trains fill out much of the start list with Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Nicolas Roche (BMC) the only Grand Tour riders in action. Roche always likes to mix up his racing, while Nibali is trying to make up for missing the Vuelta a San Juan due to illness.
Lesser-known sprinters to watch out for include Riccardo Minali and Magnus Cort Nielsen (both Astana), Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), who will share sprinting duties with Degenkolb.
Eritrea's Daniel Teklehaimanot will make his debut with Cofidis after his late signing, while Yousef Mohamed will be the local hero with UAE Team Emirates.
Novo Nordisk will no doubt help promote the fight against diabetes by going on the attack, while Rally Cycling will fly the flag for the USA after stepping up to Pro Continental level in 2018. Their roster should include Jesse Anthony, Robin Carpenter, Brad Huff, Ty Magner, Brandon McNulty, veteran Danny Pate and Eric Young.
Cyclingnews will provide extensive coverage of all the racing with interviews, news and exclusives during the five-day race.