The many big-name sprinters at the second edition of the Abu Dhabi Tour promised some high-speed finishes on the flat stages but Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) played down the chance of seeing them fight for overall victory, passing team leadership to their understudies who are on better form so late in the season.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Michael Matthew (Orica-BikeExchange), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Elia Viviani (Team Sky), UAE national champion Yousif Mirza (Nasr-Dubai) sat alongside Contador and Nibali on the long table at the top rider press conference on Wednesday as they revealed their hopes and ambitions for the four days of racing that kicks off with a flat stage on Thursday.
Cavendish sat centre stage as the official ambassador of the Abu Dhabi Tour and seemed to be the happiest to be in the UAE. Last year, he was forced to watch from the roadside after injuring his shoulder in crash at the Tour of Britain. This year, he leads the Dimension Data team after a hugely successful 2016 season that included his second place behind Peter Sagan at the World Championships in Qatar last Sunday.
"To be back here racing is pretty special, I watched with envy as others raced last year," he said. " I'm looking forward to racing and contesting the three sprint stages. The mountain finish isn't a stage for me but it was a dramatic stage I think we're going to see some great racing.
"It's great that Abu Dhabi Tour is going to be WorldTour in its third outing. It has one of best calibre of riders outside of the Tour de France that shows people want to come here. It has incredible sponsor and is in a great location. It was only a matter of time that it was going to elevated to the pinnacle of pro cycling."
A World Championships revenge match
The sprints at the Abu Dhabi Tour will be a kind of revenge match for the World Championships. In the absence of Peter Sagan, sprinters Cavendish, Viviani, Greipel, Degenkolb, Matthews and many other lesser-known sprinters will be looking to make up for missing out on the rainbow jersey.
Greipel and Degenkolb missed the decisive attack in Qatar and were forced to chase all day. They both hope to in the sprints on stages 1, 2, and 4 in Abu Dhabi.
"I won't say no to a win," Greipel said with subtle irony. "We have a bit of a lack of lead-out guys but Elia (Viviani) said he has a good lead-out so we'll try to put on other peoples' trains and go for wins. We'll find out soon."
Degenkolb has only raced for 55 days this season after missing the early months when a car hit a group of Giant-Alpecin's riders during training in Spain. For the German sprinter, the Abu Dhabi Tour will also be his last race with Giant-Alpecin before his move to Trek-Segafredo.
"This season was very particular with the big accident at the start of the season. I started much later and so it's important to do some big races," he explained. "I'm motivated to do some good sprints. It's my last race with Team Giant-Alpecin and so it's nice to enjoy the time together. I'm sure we'll have some fun and hopefully some success too."
Michael Matthews will also be moving from Orica-BikeExchange after 2016, in many ways taking Degenkolb's place at Giant-Alpecin as it becomes Sunweb-Giant. He suffered in the heat in 2015 but is on better form this year after taking fourth in the World Championships.
"We'll focus on stages first, we've got two sprint stages, then the mountain stage. It'd be good to share the sprint opportunities in the team. I'll enjoy it a lot more than last year because I've been here for two weeks and so I'm far more acclimatised. I think my performance will be a lot better.
"We've got a good chance for the overall too with Carlos Verona; we'll set him up at the bottom of the climb and send him on his way."
The sprinters dominate the official start list and should engage in a fierce battle for stage wins. Understanding who will win the red leader's jersey is far more of a lottery because the ten kilometres to the finish atop Jebel Hafeet will reveal who is on form and who has already wound down their season and dreaming of a beach holiday away from their team kit and bikes.
Contador and Nibali set for a low-key farewell
Contador hasn't raced since finishing fourth in the Vuelta a Espana and the Abu Dhabi Tour will be his last race in Tinkoff colours and the last race for the Russian team after Oleg Tinkov opted to end his funding and no replacement sponsor was found. The team have created a special retro Tinkoff jersey for the race but Contador played down his chances of giving the team a final victory.
"It's a surprise to be here because it wasn't on my programme but I'm here and I'm happy," he said.
"I think it's a good race, with several possibilities for the sprinters one for the climbers. I'm maybe not in my best condition but we've got a good team and were motivated. We have Jesper (Hansen) for the mountain stage. We'll see what we can do."
Vincenzo Nibali will also race for the last time in Astana colours before moving to Bahrain-Merida in 2017. He also played down his chances after only racing twice since recovering from surgery on the collarbone he fractured at the Rio Olympics.
"What's the plan? We don't have a plan," he conceded. "After the Olympic crash I didn't ride for a month and had another operation too. I've been training steady, day after day to find some condition but I've only ridden two races in Italy."
"This is my last race for Astana and I hope to race well. There's one mountain stage and it's not great for me. It's hot too but I'm happy to be here. We have a good team for the flat stages with sprinter Andrea Guardini."
Greg van Avermaet leads the BMC team and will no doubt hope to disrupt the sprinter's hopes and is looking to end his hugely successful season on a high.
"It's always nice when you can stop after a great season and we'll try to do something this week too," he said, showing off a new watch from new sponsor Tag Heuer.
"We'll ride aggressively and do some attacks. We've got some good riders in the team for the GC and maybe Ben Hermans can do something on Saturday, while me and Jean-Pierre Drucker will go for it in the sprints."
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