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Photo: Dubai Tour




08.10.2015 @ 12:50 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

With three flat stages, the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour has attracted a formidable line-up of sprinters that are ready to battle it out for a first time in the opening stage of the race. However, the first day may not be as straightforward as it looks on paper as most of the race will be held in the desert where strong winds can potentially throw a spanner in the works for the fast guys.


The course

Most of the UAE is made up of desert and so it is only fitting that the race shows off the spectacular red sand dunes that is one of the attractions of the area. They will be put on show in the first stage which will mostly take place in the spectacular scenery. Compared to stages 2 and 4, it is much lumpier but with a flat second half and no major climbs, it should be a day for the sprinters.


The stage will bring the riders over 174km from Qasr al Sarab to Madinat Sayed. The entire stage takes place in the stunning Rub al Khali desert part of Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. Starting among the red sand dunes that surround the beautiful Qasr Al Sarab Resort, the undulating race route accumulates about 1,200m of vertical climbing.


The riders will trace a ring around Liwa and the nearby oasis, passing through the town twice. The riders then head north along straight roads for 55km, with the slightest of downhill gradients, as far as the town of Madinat Zayed. After a first passage of the finish line, the peloton enters a final 14.8km loop, to be ridden just once. The circuit is not technical as it just includes six sharp 90-degree turns. The penultimate turn comes with 4.7km to go and then it’s a long straight road until the riders get to the final right-hand turn just 500m from the finish.




The weather

Much has been said about the weather for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour as the temperatures can tough 40 degrees at this time of the year. Peter Sagan who is no fan of the heat, even used the press conference to question whether it was safe for the riders to ride under such conditions.


Nonetheless, the race will go on as planned but it will really be a complete change from what the riders are used to from the races in Europe. Thursday will be a typical Arabic day with bright sunshine and a brutal maximum temperature of 39 degrees.


Stage one is also the one that is most likely to be influenced by the wind. There will be a moderate wind from a southerly direction but it will change as the day goes on and in the finale it will come from the west. This means that it will be a mix of cross-tailwind, crosswind and tailwind as the riders travel through the desert from the starting city to the finish. On the finishing circuit, the wind will be coming from all directions but it will be a crosswind in the long section leading to the final turn and then a tailwind on the finishing straight.


The favourites

Looking at the profile of stages 1, 2 and 4, it is no wonder why so many sprinters have been attracted by the prospect of spending four days in the Middle East. Those three stages offer very little elevation changes and all seem to be destined to end in a bunch sprint. That is clearly reflected in the line-ups for the race as there is barely a single team that hasn’t brought a big sprinter to the race.


While stages 2 and 4 and held in urban areas or on a Formula 1 track where the wind is unlikely to play much of a role, things could be different for the opening stage though. The Tour of Qatar has taught the riders that racing in the Arab desert can be one of the most challenging arts of bike racing and the February race has produced some of the most exciting racing of the entire season. Stage 1 of the Abu Dhabi Tour will spend most of the day in the desert and this means that there will be lots of nervous faces and teams that are eager to grab any opportunity that may arise.


However, recent history shows that it is hard to split things in these Middle Eastern races. Only the Tour of Qatar has had some really crosswinds dramas while the Tour of Oman and Dubai Tour have been much more controlled. Abu Dhabi Tour takes places in the same area as the Dubai Tour and the forecast doesn’t look like it will be enough to split the field.


However, the wind direction is definitely the right one as it will be a combination of cross- and tailwind for most of the day and that’s exactly what’s needed to try to create some chaos. Hence, we can expect some nervous racing in the early part of the race until the riders find out whether the wind is strong enough to do some damage. Furthermore, we should see some very aggressive riding whenever we approach a change of direction.


BMC don’t have a big name sprinter and no real contender for the GC but they have a very strong team of classics riders. If they want to have an impact on this race, their only chance is to ride aggressively in the wind so we would be surprised if they don’t take the initiative at some point. Tinkoff-Saxo and Etixx-QuickStep also have very strong teams for these conditions and they will probably try to force a selection too. We expect some aggressive racing at certain points but based on the weather forecast, we don’t think that it will be enough to split the field.


After a nervous start, we expect an early break to be formed and they will be allowed to spend some time in the spotlight. Depending on the wind conditions, they could be reeled in pretty early though as the nervous racing should make for some fast racing and we could see new groups getting formed in the finale. If the wind turns out not to be very strong, it should be a much more straightforward sprint stage, with teams like Sky, Giant-Alpecin, Tinkoff-Saxo and Lampre-Merida riding on the front. There is plenty of interest in a bunch sprint so there is virtually no chance that a breakaway will make it to the finish.


Hence, this stage should come down to a bunch sprint and the only real question is whether it will be a complete field that’s left in the end. As said, the weather forecast indicates that we should have a full bunch sprint and the many fast riders will relish the chance to battle for glory on the non-technical finishing circuit.


The sprint is characterized by its long straight that leads to the final turn just 500m from the line. It will be crucial to be one of the first riders to get through that corner and so lead-outs will be of utmost importance. We should see a big sprint as the riders approach that turn and there won’t be much time to get back up to speed after the corner. This means that this sprint is more about lead-outs and acceleration than actual speed.


The sprint field is a formidable one but one name stands out. Elia Viviani has had a remarkable first year with Sky. During his time at Liquigas/Cannondale, he had often proved that he has the speed to beat the very fastest but due to poor positioning and a lack of lead-out, he didn’t win the number of races that he deserved. That has changed since he joined the British team which has built a solid train around him.


The combination Ben Swift-Andrew Fenn-Viviani has proved to be very effective. It already worked early in the year when Viviani was winning sprints in the Dubai Tour but Viviani didn’t have the same kind of support in the Giro where he was often left on his own in the sprints. However, the trio were back together for the Tour of Britain where they delivered three wins for Viviani who showed that he has the speed to beat Greipel whom he also managed to beat in the Eneco Tour.


In this race, the Sky train clearly stands out as one of the best lead-outs which is very important for Viviani who is not always very good at positioning. Furthermore, Viviani has proved to be in excellent condition. In the Worlds road race, he showed new aspects of his talent by joining the very strong Boonen-Kwiatkowski break in the finale and there is no doubt that he has improved his endurance massively. Since then he has been riding on the track and there is no reason to believe that he is not close to 100% at his capabilities.


Viviani has a tendency to fade later in stage races but on an opening stage he has impressive speed. On paper, he is probably the fastest rider in this field and as he is also supported by one of the best teams, he is definitely the favourite.


When it comes to pure speed, Andrea Guardini is probably the only rider who can really match Viviani. The Astana rider is a pure sprinter who finds it hard to overcome even the smallest obstacle but is very hard to beat in a big sprint at the end of a short, fast, easy stage. His best chances will come later in the race in stages 2 and 4 but he should also have a shot on the opening day.


Guardini was riding very strongly at the start of the year when he proved an improved resistance and endurance but since his great beginning he has had a tough time. He didn’t get the results he was hoping for in the Tour de Pologne and the Eneco Tour and he has been rather anonymous in the second half of the year. Most recently, he was dropped in the GranPiemonte where he never got the chance to sprint.


However, there is a vast difference between the Italian classic which turned out to be very hard due to bad weather and a tough course, and this opening stage. There are no major elevation differences here and Guardini has proved that he is pretty strong in the crosswinds.


The main disadvantage for Guardini is the fact that he is mostly surrounded by climbers. However, he can rely on Alexey Lutsenko and he has the speed to keep him up there in this rather small field. Furthermore, he has improved his positioning massively. The short finishing straight doesn’t suit him perfectly but as he is one of the fastest riders in this field, he is definitely one of the biggest favourites.


Peter Sagan is no pure sprinter but as he has returned to his former level after this year’s spring classics, he has probably been sprinting better than ever. In the Tour, he was closer to the giants than usual and he beat the likes of Degenkolb and Bouhanni in the Vuelta.


However, Sagan has had a busy time since he became world champion and history shows that it is very difficult to perform well in the aftermath of a Worlds victory. On the other hand, the sprint stages in this race should not be too difficult and Sagan was obviously in excellent condition when he won his rainbow jersey.


When we place Sagan in a high position among out favourites, it is mostly due to the fact that he has a fantastic lead-out. He is supported by Matteo Tosatto and most notably and in-form Daniele Bennati. That will be very important in this sprint which is very much about positioning. Finally, Sagan has a fantastic acceleration which is crucial on this short finishing straight. This turns him into one of the favourites.


When it comes to form, Tom Boonen definitely has the upper hand on most sprinters. The Belgian rode very strongly in the Worlds road race where he changed his plans and decided not to wait for a sprint. He proved his good condition last Saturday where he won the Münsterland Giro and he is clearly still very motivated.


Boonen claims that he is even faster than during his sprinting heydays and his win in the Eneco Tour proved that he can still beat the fastest. Etixx-QuickStep have a solid team for this race, with Fabio Sabatini and Lukasz Wisniowski both able to do a great lead-out. The short finishing straight is not perfect for Boonen but he may make up for that due by virtue of his train.


Sacha Modolo was on a high in the Giro where he won two stages but since then he has not been at the same level. The second half of his season has been poor as he failed to achieve the desired results in the autumn classics, the Eneco Tour and the Tour de Pologne.


Modolo now hopes to have returned to form and he was pleased with his performance in the GranPiemonte. However, he doesn’t have the speed to beat the fastest and his Giro success was more due to his excellent lead-out train with Roberto Ferrari and Maximilano Richeze. None of those riders are in this race but he can still rely on Davide Cimolai to bring him into position. He likes this kind of sprint with a late turn and if the two Italians can get first through that corner, Modolo may take another win.


Giant-Alpecin are here with Marcel Kittel but the German is in no condition to be competitive. Instead, he will be working for Luka Mezgec who is riding his last race with the team. The Slovenian has been unable to build on the progress he showed in 2014 when he won numerous races and he has not had much success in the sprints. Still he has a solid train with Kittel, Tom Dumoulin and Albert Timmer and he has always been strong at the end of the season, winning stages in the Tour of Beijing in the past. He was riding really well in the Vuelta and should be competitive in this race.


We are very curious to see how Juan Jose Lobato will do in this race. The Spaniard was flying at the start of the year but since then his season has been very poor. He showed progress in the Tour of Britain and felt confident for Worlds which proved to be a bit too hard for him. When it comes to pure speed, not many can match the Spaniard but he is terrible when it comes to positioning. This means that this sprint doesn’t suit him but for once he can rely on the experience of Jose Joaquin Rojas which could make the difference.


Michael Matthews is eager to make up for the disappointment from the Worlds but the sprints in this race don’t really suit him. The stages are too easy for him and this is too much about pure speed. On the other hand, he can count on support from one of the best trains in this race and with a late turn, it won’t be impossible to overcome his lack of speed to win this stage.


Theo Bos has had a terrible first year with MTN-Qhubeka as he has crashed whenever he has started to build some form. Now he is finally back in reasonable condition and he did his first sprints for a long time in the Tour de l’Eurometropole. In his heydays, he was one of the very fastest sprinters in these kind of finishes at the end of flat, easy stages but it remains to be seen whether he still has the necessary speed. He didn’t have it in Belgium but the stages in that race were generally a lot harder. With Matthew Goss, Andreas Stauff and Youcef Reguigui, he is supported by one of the best trains and so he has the means to return to his winning ways.


Katusha lost Joaquim Rodriguez so they no longer have much chance of success in this race. Their best options probably come in the sprint finishes where they hope for Jacopo Guarnieri who gets a rare chance to ride for himself. The Italian is one of the best lead-out men in the business but usually doesn’t have the speed to win bunch kicks. However, he is excellent at positioning himself and this has allowed him to achieve numerous top results.


Drapac have no overall contender in this race and are mostly focused on the sprint finishes with Brenton Jones. The Australian has never had a chance to test himself at this level so he will be extremely motivated to give it a go. The team is loaded with firepower for the flats and most notably has Graeme Brown who is an excellent lead-out man. This will make a huge difference in a race where positioning is very important.


Unitedhealthcare go into the race with John Murphy as their lead sprinter. The American has stepped up his level in 2015 and has got more opportunities to ride for himself. He proved that he has the speed to win at a high level when he won the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge and these flat, easy stages should suit him well. With Alessandro Bazzana, Federico Zurlo and Marco Canola, he has a great lead-out train which should make him a contender.


Finally, Andrea Palini deserves a mention. The Italian didn’t get his contract with Lampre-Merida renewed and so has been riding with the Skydive team this year. However, he has had lots of success and with numerous top 10 finishes in the Dubai Tour, he proved that he has the speed to be up there with the best. He has not raced since May so his condition is very uncertain but this race should be one of his season highlights, meaning that he must be highly motivated to mix it up with the stars.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Elia Viviani

Other winner candidates: Andrea Guardini, Peter Sagan

Outsiders: Tom Boonen, Sacha Modolo, Luka Mezgec

Jokers: Juan Jose Lobato, Michael Matthews, Theo Bos, Jacopo Guarnieri, Brenton Jones, John Murphy Andrea Palini



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