Crosswinds and echelons played a major part on stage 1 of the UAE Tour with several pre-race GC leaders already ruled out of the race for the leader's jersey.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won the stage to Al Mirfa and could yet play a major role in the overall standings towards the back end of the race, but in reality only João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious), Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma), Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo), and the defending champion Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) now have genuine chances of competing for the final podium.
For the likes of Alejandro Valverde, Jack Haig, Vincenzo Nibali, Sepp Kuss, and Chris Froome, attention will have to turn to stage wins, with the latter hoping to at least demonstrate some improvements on last year’s showing.
The stage 2 time trial on Al Hudyriat Island may only consist of 13 kilometres of tarmac and end with an inevitable win for Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) but it will also play a significant part in the overall race.
A handy one-second time advantage carved out in the intermediate sprints ensures that Almeida will start his solo effort after Tour de France winner Pogačar. One of the most engaging battles will be between the two stars.
Pogačar comes into the race as the man to beat and has already spoken about the added pressures that now rest on his young shoulders.
He’s not only racing in his team’s home race, but he’s doing so with his every performance put under greater scrutiny than ever before. That means no mistakes and certainly not repetition of last year when he and his team were too slow to react when Adam Yates attacked on the first summit finish of the race.
Almeida, who had a breakthrough Giro d’Italia, has never raced against Pogačar in a key time trial but early-season form can often be deceptive and throw up plenty of surprises. If the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider can limit his loses, or even extend his lead over the UAE rider, then his chances of a podium place become far greater.
Yates is somewhat of a dark horse when it comes to racing against the clock. He’s actually level at one a piece against Pogačar in time trials but on both occasions – including last year’s TT in the Tour de France- the riders were racing with varying degree of ambitions.
At the UAE Tour the natural balance sits with the defending Tour de France champion and he will be expected to put time into Yates and all of his remaining GC threats before becoming the likely race leader.
The six seconds Almeida has on Yates should, in theory, also grow over the course of the time trial. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Powless, who has the capacity for a strong ride against the biggest clock.
Of course, the rider with the most mystery surrounding him is the stage 1 winner Van der Poel.
The Tour of Flanders winner came into the race as a self-declared lead-out man for Jasper Philipsen, but that argument lasted all of 176 kilometres with the Dutch rider once more demonstrating his undoubted skill with a resounding sprint victory.
Van der Poel appears to only have one pace: fast. He will no doubt throw himself into the time trial with gusto and all his talent.
His time trial experience at the WorldTour may be limited but this is no ordinary time trial, given that it comes so early in the season.
With top-six rides against the clock in both the BinckBank Tour (2020) and the Tour of Britain (2019), Van der Poel’s challenge will certainly not end by the time stage 3 begins. It’s also worth adding that his top-end speed and short-power output will be ahead of most of his rivals due to his cyclo-cross winter.
Crunch time for Van der Poel will come with the two summit finishes, with the first coming at Jebel Hafeet on stage 3 and the second two days later at Jebel Jais.
Both of those ascents will provide clearer pictures as to where Van der Poel sits, but given the nature of stage 1 and the huge deficits caused in the crosswinds, the only certainly is that this race has plenty more twists and turns to come.
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