The Dubai Tour saw the big-name sprinters fight for victory on the four flat stages. However, a new name, or an old name depending on how long you have been following the sport, also showed up several times in the results.
Riccardo Minali is a 21-year old neo-pro with Astana. He impressed in each of the Dubai Tour sprints, finishing 13th, eighth, fifth and then third. He clearly knew how to ride the hectic sprint finishes, putting himself in the right place time and time again. He had the courage to hit out early in the opening sprint and then was not afraid to go up against Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), and fellow Italian Elia Viviani (Team Sky).
If you followed professional cycling in the 1990s, you may remember Nicola Minali winning Grand Tour sprints and Paris-Tours, in Gewiss or Riso Scotti colours. Riccardo is Nicola's son and is following in the family tradition of successful sprinting.
"My dad was my hero when I was a boy. I used to wait for him to come home from training. When he won the final stage of the 1997 Tour de France I was there, but I was only two and I've been told I was asleep on my granddad's shoulders," Riccardo recalled to Cyclingnews and Gazzetta dello Sport.
"My dad is smaller than me and was perhaps more explosive in the sprints. I'm sure I get my talent from him but we're different sprinters. He had an amazing final kick. I'm taller and have a longer sprint. He was more like Cavendish, while I'm more like Viviani, who I know well because we're both from the Verona area of Italy."
When a train goes by, you've got to jump on it
Riccardo was successful as an under 23 rider with the highly respected Colpack team, winning nine races and securing a place in the Italian team for the World Championships in Qatar. He was hoping to be the protected sprinter but was forced to accept a minor role after the Italian Federation finally allowed professionals to ride in the under 23 championships and put their hopes in Jakub Mareczko, who went on to finish third.
The Quick-Step Floors team showed interest in signing him during the summer but when Astana came calling, Minali jumped at the chance to test his speed and sprinting skills at WorldTour level. Andrea Guardini has moved to UAE Abu Dhabi and so Minali knew he would have some opportunities, even if he would rarely have an Astana lead out train.
"When Astana made me an offer I didn't think twice. When a train goes by, you've got to jump on it as we say in Italy," Minali told Cyclingnews.
"I know my first year will be all about learning. But I'd love to win a race, even in my first season in the WorldTour. There are a lot of races out there and it'd be fantastic to get some results. I like racing with the pros. It's harder of course but there aren't the stupid attacks and surges. I love it. It was nice to be up there in the early sprints but I'm not as happy as people think I should be. I wanted to get on the podium."
Nicola Minali watched his son make his successful professional debut on television from Italy, encouraging him from afar.
"My dad has always helped me but also left me to do my own thing, to race how I wanted and to even make mistakes so that I could learn from them," he explained. "He doesn't ride much anymore but we talk through sprints when I win and lose. But he never puts me under pressure. He's an important role model for me but now it's up to me to carry on the family name."
Riccardo is hoping to secure a place in Astana's squad for Milan-San Remo. His has already raced on the cobbles in Belgium and northern France and has been promised a place in Paris-Roubaix.
"Like any young Italian, Milan-San Remo is naturally the race I dream about winning but I also love Paris-Roubaix, I'm fascinated by the cobbles," he revealed. "Boonen has always been my idol. Knowing that I'm going to ride it this year, on the day he says farewell to cycling is special. I can't wait."
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