The day before the opening stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, the many big-name riders in the WorldTour race attended the pre-race press conference and team presentation and got a chance to shake out the travel from their legs with a training ride on the Yas Marina motor racing circuit.
This year's Abu Dhabi Tour is a race of two parts, with three flat stages that are perfect for high-speed sprint finishes. The overall winner will be decided on the stage 4 12.6km individual time trial and then the stage 5 mountain finish to Jabel Hafeet.
WorldTour status means that 17 of the 18 WorldTour teams have opted to race in pursuit of points, with only FDJ opting to skip the race. Completing the field of 20 teams are Bardiani-CSF, Gazprom and Novo Nordisk.
Last year's Giro d'Italia winner, Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), makes his season debut in the race and the route seems perfect for him. He can gain time on many of his overall rivals in the time trial and then control them on the 10km climb to Jabel Hafeet. Dumoulin will race in the time trial world champion's rainbow jersey for the first time on Saturday.
"With the time trial and the summit finis, it's a perfect course for me and I hope to do really well," he said. "I saw my rainbow jersey for the first time a few days ago, so I'm really looking forward to the TT."
Dumoulin posed for pre-race photographs with many of his overall rivals and the big-name sprinters. His biggest challenge is expected to come from Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Tour of Oman winner Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
Last year's Dubai Tour winner, Rui Costa, took centre stage, holding the new winner's Golden Grit trophy made by GDE Bertoni, who is well known for the production of the FIFA World Cup trophy. The Golden Grit is 24kt gold plated and weighs 4kg. Grit signifies bravery but also refers to the sand: two elements that represent the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The sprinters fought for early season glory at the Tour Down Under and the more recent Dubai Tour and Tour of Oman. This time Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), and their respective lead-out trains will clash in the opening stages as they look for more success.
Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) won two stages and the overall classification at the Dubai Tour but is still hungry for success.
"I've had an amazing start to the season in Australia, which continued with winning the Dubai Tour, but I want more," he said.
"I've spent one week at home after a long time away. For the Abu Dhabi Tour, we have a very strong team and Julian Alaphilippe for GC. The world's best sprinters are here. The addition of André Greipel and Caleb Ewan will not change the dynamic of the sprints we had in Dubai - we expect really powerful sprints again."
The other sprinters intend to challenge Quick-Step Floors strength in the fast finishes.
"We had a good start in Dubai and we want to do even better here, but we will not only focus on sprinting, we'll also try to win GC [with Ilnur Zakarin]," Kittel said.
"My legs were all right again in Oman after my stage victory in Dubai," Cavendish said. "It makes it a long time racing in the Middle East, but it's an honour to come back to Abu Dhabi. We have a GC team here, I'll be missing my lead-out guys who are injured or sick, but I want to be successful."
Dennis leads the BMC Racing team, and the time trial and and mountain finish suit him. However, he revealed the race is also a kind of honeymoon.
"I recently got married, so this trip to Abu Dhabi is like a honeymoon for me. After my wedding in Australia, I spent one week in Girona, Spain, so I went from heat to cold and back to heat again. The time trial is only 12km long, so I don't think it's gonna play that much importance in the final result," he said.
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