In World Champion Filippo Ganna, the British team had the big favourite for the 9km individual time trial in Ajman, but the Italian was beaten into second place by Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-EasyPost).
Highly-rated neo-pro Luke Plapp, meanwhile, was ruled out of contention when he crashed and broke his bike in the warm-up, forcing him to race on a road bike.
However, Adam Yates rescued the day with one of his best-ever time trials, setting him up for yet another crack at the overall title.
Ganna set off after Bissegger and the pair were evenly matched at the half-way mark, with Ganna a single second down. However, they had been enjoying a tailwind up to that point, and the course then turned into a headwind for the run home.
With a lower-profile, the aerodynamic Bissegger put a further six seconds into Ganna to take a comprehensive seven-second victory. For the world champion, there were no complaints and no regrets.
“I did a great performance. The average power was more than the plan and at the end of the day, chapeau Bissegger. That’s a great ride," he said.
"I felt good and also for the next few days, I’ll be ready to help Adam, starting on tomorrow’s climb."
Plapp, meanwhile, has been touted as a future star, and one who should be competing with the best against the clock, having won silver in the U23 World Championships time trial last autumn. However, his first time trial as a professional rider veered far from the script, as he took to the start ramp on a standard Pinarello road bike.
"Luke Plapp tackled the TT on a road bike after a small crash in the recon on his time trial bike caused a mechanical issue that could not be fixed before his start time," read an update from the team.
Setting off later, Yates put a gloss on the day with a storming ride to 12th place, which lifted him into the top 10 overall.
As a light climber, he's not known for his time trialling but has made significant improvements since joining Ineos last year. Still, this was arguably one of his best rides, as he averaged almost 53 kph to finish within half a minute of Bissegger.
In terms of the overall standings, Yates was 15 seconds down on the best-placed GC rider Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), but perhaps the most relevant gap is that to Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who beat him to the 2021 title, and whom he beat to the 2020 title.
The Tour de France champion placed fourth, 11 seconds up on Yates. Considering Yates conceded 34 seconds to him over just a few extra kilometres last year, it was an encouraging performance.
"It didn’t feel like a good ride! The first TT of the year is always super hard. I followed the plan and did all I could do," Yates said.
Yates now sits 10th overall, well in contention as the race starts to climb, first with the steady Jebel Jais summit finish on stage 4, then with the sterner Jebel Hafeet summit finish, where he beat Pogačar by a minute in 2020, but lost out in a sprint last year.
"It’s the first mountain stage tomorrow but it’s not super hard - last year there was a group of 30 at the finish," he said. "It’s the second mountain stage that will create the biggest gaps - but it’s the first mountain stage of the year and we’ll give it a crack."
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
after your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.