After running three separate races in recent years, the UAE will host its first national stage race this season. The inaugural UAE Tour is the coming together of the previous Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tours and features visits to the other five Emirates, including Sharjah – the scene of the country’s other multi-day race.
By combining the two events, organiser RCS Sport have been able to expand the event to seven stages and include multiple hilltop finishes that should see the fight for the overall classification spread across the whole week. There are also three opportunities for the sprinters to take a victory.
While most of the Classics riders will be back in Europe for the opening weekend in Belgium, the parcours, the weather and the race’s WorldTour status has attracted a wealth of Grand Tour talent and sprinters.
The overall contenders
Though the majority of the sprinters have raced already in 2019, the UAE Tour will be a first chance to see many of general classification riders in action. The climbs are not quite those of some of the European mountain ranges, but they will provide a stern enough test this early in the year.
Last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour winner, and new world champion, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) headlines the list of overall contenders alongside Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo).
Valverde is building up towards a shot at the Tour of Flanders and the Ardennes Classics this spring and showed that he is already on good form with second place finishes at the Vuelta a Murcia and Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
Porte has had a short break following his season opener at the Tour Down Under and Herald Sun Tour. He was going well Down Under, and the UAE Tour will be a stepping stone towards Paris-Nice next month. Both Nibali and Dumoulin are targeting the Giro d'Italia in May and the UAE Tour will mark the start of their season, so their form is an unknown at this point. Dumoulin will be sharing leadership duties with teammate Wilco Kelderman, while Nibali will have Damiano Caruso alongside him.
Chris Froome had been slated to race in Abu Dhabi, but the Team Sky rider has chosen to skip the event as he recovers from the Tour Colombia 2.1 earlier this month. Instead, Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon will lead the team with Kenny Elissonde stepping in to take the space left by Froome.
Others to keep an eye out in the fight for the overall classification will be Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) – who is also making his season debut, Tour de la Provence winner Gorka Izagirre (Astana), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Tsgabu Grmay (Mitchelton-Scott), Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data).
19-year-old neo-pro Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) will also be an interesting watch after his Vuelta a San Juan performance.
The sprint line-up is also seriously stacked with talent and so some high-speed battles between lead out trains and the big-name sprinters can be expected.
Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) will all be duking it out on the flat stages. UAE Team Emirates also bring Alexander Kristoff, while Bora-Hansgrohe have Sam Bennett in their line-up.
Outside contenders for the sprint stages are Jakub Mareczko (CCC Team), Samuel Dumoulin (AG2R La Mondiale), Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Merida), Sacha Modolo (EF Education First), Marc Sarreau (Groupama-FDJ) and Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb).
The inaugural UAE Tour has something for everyone. It will start on Sunday, with a team time trial that will set the scene for the general classification fight and create the first time gaps.
The 16-kilometre course winds its way around Abu Dhabi’s Al Hudayriat Island – one of the UAE’s many man-made islands, which was opened just last year. The course is fairly technical and features a mixture of hairpin bends and sweeping corners with a couple of long straights where the stronger teams can make their mark.
Stage 2 brings the race inland a few kilometres for a 184-kilometre trip around Abu Dhabi. Starting by the Yas Mall on the outskirts of the Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit, the route takes the riders north up the coast to Khalifa Port before they make their way back. The stage will finish by the Abu Dhabi breakwater with a sprinter more than likely to take the spoils on the pan-flat parcours.
Stage 3 will give the climbers their first opportunity of the week with a summit finish at Jebel Hafeet. There is little that marks the 179km stage other than the 10.8km climb to the finish. With such a flat run it will be a fast approach to the climb and it will be hard for any sort of breakaway to succeed. The climb, as a whole averages 5.4 per cent, though the main chunk of it is a slightly steeper eight per cent, with a maximum gradient of 11 per cent. The toughest part comes just under three kilometres to the finish before the road eases off. Previous winners on the climb include Valverde, Rui Costa, Tanel Kangert and Esteban Chaves.
There will be little respite for the GC contenders with the race turning to Hatta Dam for stage 4. The day will start on the Palm Jumeirah, which has traditionally hosted sprint finishes in the Dubai Tour. From the Palm, the route will wind its way inland towards the country’s northern border with Oman.
The second half of the stage will follow the same route as stage 4 of last year’s Dubai Tour, which was won by Sonny Colbrelli. It is the longest stage of the race at 205km and before reaching the Hatta Dam, the riders must face two other punchy climbs inside the final 20 kilometres. The climb to the dam is just a few hundred metres, but as anyone who has watched the Dubai Tour will know, it has a nasty gradients. It’s short enough to allow some sprinters to win but it can also spark gaps in the peloton and so significant time differences.
Stage 5 will be a much more clear-cut chance for the sprinters with just one short climb in the middle of the 181km ride from Sharjah to Khor Fakkan. There will be one more chance for the sprinters to have a go on the final stage of the race, but not before the general classification riders face off one last time.
The penultimate stage of the UAE Tour brings in a new climb in the form of Jebel Jais in the north of the country. Starting in Ajman, the 180km stage is – once again – pancake flat until the climb rears up at the end of the day. While it has almost 500 metres more altitude gain than Jebel Hafeet and is close to twice the length at 20.6km. It has the same average gradient of 5.4 per cent but the terrain is much more consistent. So early in the season, this will be a stern test of wills for the overall contenders.
The final stage around Dubai is short and sweet at 145km and provides a last chance for the fast men before the overall winner collects the heptagonal gold-plated trophy.