The UAE Tour is sometimes seen as a gentle introduction to the season, with warm weather, wide well-surfaced roads, and more important goals awaiting in Europe in later months. For a sprinter, however, the next week will be anything but calm and gentle.
Four of the seven stages are expected to culminate in bunch sprints, but that’s not enough to go around a cast that includes Sam Bennett, Caleb Ewan, Giacomo Nizzolo, Fernando Gaviria, Pascal Ackermann, and more. Arnaud Démare is the only absentee from the top rung of world sprinting.
Speaking to Cyclingnews ahead of the race, Bennett was braced for a hard landing into the 2021 season.
"It’s funny, because when you go back to racing, everyone is so motivated. Everyone has worked hard in the winter and everyone wants to come out and have best season of their career," the Deceuninck-QuickStep sprinter said.
"When you go back in, it’s a bit sketchy. A lot of guys haven’t ridden in a peloton for a long time, so it can be a bit dangerous. It’s really aggressive until there’s order put back in and you establish your position again – that kind of happens with the results."
Coupled with that new-season enthusiasm is the sprinting conditions in the UAE, with Bennett pointing out that the wide, flat desert roads only add to the chaos.
"I expect it to be messy. It’s always messy at the beginning of the year, but when you have straight roads on the run-in, you get a lot of guys coming over the top, coming from behind with more speed, whereas on the smaller roads with more corners you can control it easier," he said.
"Staying calm will be the key - not panicking if the situation doesn't go as planned, and standing your ground. In general, a lot of guys go too early, so you just have to wait."
Although Démare might have something to say about it, Bennett topped Cyclingnews’ 2020 ranking of sprinters thanks to the fact two of his seven victories came at the Tour de France. However, he knows that any hierarchy is partially re-set over the winter.
"I suppose as a sprinter, we do have egos, and you want to be the top dog,” he said, although he insisted he wouldn’t be drawn into personal rivalries this week.
"I’m not interested in playing mind games. If anything, I’m probably too honest. I don’t go around saying I’m the best, or this or that. If I feel bad, I feel bad and I’ll say it. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m just focusing on myself."
Still, Bennett is someone who doesn’t always need other people to put pressure on his shoulders.
As he revealed in an in-depth Cyclingnews interview this winter, he felt overawed when visiting Deceuninck-QuickStep headquarters for the first time since signing from Bora-Hansgrohe, wondering how he could justify his place on such a successful team.
With a successful season under his belt, including the points jersey at the Tour de France, Bennett goes into the 2021 campaign with significantly less weight on his shoulders.
"The biggest thing I get confidence from is my training. When I know I’ve put the work in, I have nothing to worry about. When I’m within 20 per cent of where I want to be condition-wise, I can win a bike race," he said.
"To be honest, I have no excuses now. I have the work done, I should be good."
In fact, he could be very good. Coming off two Grand Tours – the Tour de France and Vuelta a España – in 2020, Bennett’s off-season spanned just three weeks, with the base mostly already built.
"The form should be really good – I’m just too afraid to say anything in case it’s not," he joked.
More confident, but maybe not full of confidence, although that might come if he does manage to open his account for the season in the UAE.
"Deceuninck-QuickStep is a team where you have to perform straight away and all the time. No one wants a sprinter who doesn’t win. You have to win all the time and can’t just peak for one time in year – you have to be able to win everywhere you go,” he said.
"I want to be ready, I have to be ready, and I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get a good result this week."
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