Remco Evenepoel was not invited to the UAE Tour 'top-riders' photo shoot and pre-race press conference but he is a rider to watch during the seven-day race as he makes his debut at WorldTour level in the Middle East.
The 19-year-old Evenepoel turned professional with Deceuninck-QuickStep direct from the junior ranks after winning the world time trial and road race titles in Innsbruck. He made his debut in the recent Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina, finishing third in the time trial, ninth overall and winning the best young rider's jersey.
The Flemish media have enthused about Evenepoel's potential and followed his every move. They were waiting for him when he arrived in the UAE on Friday and were keen to discover his ambitions for the UAE Tour. The Deceuninck-QuickStep team is largely built around sprinter Elia Viviani, and that will give Evenepoel and young British climber James Knox a free role on the two mountain finishes.
Pavel Sivakov (Team Sky) and Knox are likely to be Evenepoel's biggest rivals for the best young rider competition at the UAE Tour.
Evenepoel is wise beyond his years and shrug off any sense of expectation but he is clearly ambitious. "I just want to test myself here and see how far I get," Evenepoel told the Belga news agency, revealing he had just a few hours sleep after arriving at is hotel in Abu Dhabi at 5:00 a.m. on Friday after a night flight from Belgium.
"I started off in San Juan and it was great to race against the pros. It went as I expected and I'm curious to see how first WorldTour race goes, I want to see how well I can do against all these stars.
"I'm not nervous but there's a lot of healthy stress. I'm not here against just anybody, the level will be high here."
World champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) are the big-name rides expected to fight for overall victory, with the Jebel Hafeet and especially the 20km Jebel Jais mountain finish expected to shake-up the overall classification after the opening team time trial and the sprint stages.
Evenepoel will have to help Deceuninck-QuickStep set up Viviani for the sprints but is keen to test himself on the climbs. "I want to try to follow as long as possible, push my boundaries and go home with a good feeling," he said.
"I’m not aiming for a specific result, I will be satisfied if I can finish this race, if I can climb uphill and see where I land."
Cyclingnews will have live coverage of every stage of the UAE Tour, with news and interviews from Sadhbh O’Shea in the UAE.