A tweet from Nathan Haas spoke for many of the riders boarding their charter flights at Malpensa and Charles De Gaulle airports on Thursday: "Well I never thought I’d be going back to the UAE Tour. Life lesson, never say never."
Twelve months ago, Haas was among the unfortunate riders and staff who remained quarantined in an Abu Dhabi hotel long after a confirmed coronavirus case had seen the 2020 UAE Tour come to a halt five stages in.
At first, the suspension of racing in the United Arab Emirates seemed a temporary inconvenience, but by the time men like Haas were given permission to return home, the WHO had declared a global pandemic and the cycling season was on indefinite hiatus.
A year on, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to condition daily life across the globe and professional cycling, of course, is no exception. The early-season calendar has been reconfigured, with the spate of cancellations and postponements affecting events in Europe and beyond, including the Vuelta a San Juan, Ruta del Sol, Tour Colombia and Volta ao Algarve.
Some racing has taken place – most notably in southern France, but also in Spain and in Venezuela – but the UAE Tour marks the first WorldTour event of the new campaign, following the cancellation of the Tour Down Under.
In a bid to create a protective bubble, the UAE Tour organisation arranged charter flights from Milan and Paris for the scaled-back race caravan, as well as a series of PCR tests throughout the week, while riders and staff will be housed in separate hotels. Caution is the byword in the new normal.
The UAE Tour is now in its third year of existence following the merger of the shorter Dubai Tour and Abu Dhabi Tour, and, despite last year’s events, the depth of the field is largely in line with the preceding editions. All 19 WorldTour teams have made the trip to Gulf, together with 2020 Europe Tour winners Alpecin-Fenix.
Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar, riding in his UAE Team Emirates squad’s home race, is the headline act, and the Slovenian will aim to improve on his second place finish a year ago, when he also claimed a mountaintop stage win at Jebel Hafeet. On that occasion, he had already raced – and won convincingly – at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, but this will be his first race of 2021 due to the postponement of Challenge Mallorca. No matter, he should be competitive here, and he is backed by a strong squad that includes Davide Formolo and new arrival Rafal Majka.
2020 winner Adam Yates returns to the UAE to make his debut in Ineos Grenadiers colours, and he is flanked by a team of notable depth, with Tour de la Provence winner Iván Sosa and Daniel Martínez also in action. Filippo Ganna will be the overwhelming favourite for the short time trial on stage 2, and he demonstrated his progress on the climbs at both the Vuelta a San Juan and the Giro d’Italia last year.
Another notable debutant is Chris Froome, who takes his bow for Israel Start-Up Nation, while Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are also in action. Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) begins his build-up to the Giro d’Italia, and it will be fascinating to see what João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), such a revelation at last year’s corsa rosa, can achieve here.
Sepp Kuss has a rare chance to lead for Jumbo-Visma, while Bahrain-Victorious have climbing talent in Wout Poels, Jack Haig and Damiano Caruso. Elsewhere, Domenico Pozzovivo is on hand for Qhubeka Assos, and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) is usually a strong performer in the Gulf.
With up to four bunch finishes a possibility, the UAE Tour has attracted a slate of sprinters worthy of a Grand Tour. Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), so impressive at last year’s Tour de France, will renew their friendly rivalry, but they will also have to reckon with Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious).
Most cobbled Classics specialists have remained in Europe for Belgium’s Opening Weekend, but Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) has opted to start his road season in the UAE. Building towards March and April might be his main objective, but the Dutchman, fresh from a fourth cyclo-cross world title, can seemingly do just about anything. It would be a surprise if he didn’t make an impression over the course of the week, even against such an imposing cast of sprinters.
The UAE Tour gets underway on Sunday with a flat run from Abu Dhabi along the coast to Al Mirfa that should end in a bunch sprint, but stage 2 brings a novelty in the shape of an individual time trial, where Ganna is the favourite for stage honours. Although only 13km in length, the stage will also lend shape to the general classification. Almeida should benefit, and the event is an early test for Pogacar and Froome.
Stage 3 sees the first of the race’s summit finishes, with the familiar ascent of Jebel Hafeet (10km at 6.8 per cent), which featured twice on last year’s race. Adam Yates took a decisive overall lead when he soloed to victory there on the first ascent, while Pogačar beat Lutsenko to the top two days later. Valverde won atop the mountain in the final Abu Dhabi Tour three years ago.
The fast men should have another opportunity on stage 4 to Al Marjan Island, before the road climbs once again on stage 5 for a summit finish. The final ascent of Jebel Jais drags upwards for 20km to an altitude of 1,491m, though its relatively shallow gradients didn’t provoke sizeable gaps on the race’s last visit in 2019, when Primož Roglič took the spoils.
Jebel Jais will likely bring the curtain down on the general classification battle, with the final two days again tilted towards the sprinters. Stage 6 finishes in Dubai at the Palm Jumeirah, while the final day sees the race return to Abu Dhabi for a finish at the city’s breakwater.
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