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Photo: Orica-GreenEDGE




10.10.2015 @ 13:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After two flat stages, it is time to find out who’s going to win the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour. The combination of brutal heat and an 11km climb with an average gradient of 6.6% will set the scene for the final big climbing battle of the 2015 edition as Vincenzo Nibali, Esteban Chaves, Alejandro Valverde, Fabio Aru and Wout Poels are set to go head to head in the queen stage of the race.


The course

For the climbers, the 2015 Abu Dhabi Tour is mostly about survival during the many hours spent on flat roads and saving as much energy as possible for one final big effort in the 2015 season. At the end of the third stage, they will have to go full gas for the final time this year when the Arabic race is set to be decided entirely in its queen stage. While the first part of the relatively short stage is all about promoting the city of Al Qattara Souq, the climb of Jebel Hafeet is where the nature of the race will change completely and where the winner of the inaugural edition of the race will be found.


The stage covers 142km from Al Qattara Souq to the summit finish on Jebel Hafeet. The first 33 kilometres follow a series of broad, straight roads, then the peloton will trace a wide circle around the city, crossing the Green Mubazzarah oasis before starting the final climb. This part of the stage is completely flat and includes the two intermediate sprints at the 79.1km and 91.3km marks as the highlights.


10.8km long, the Jebel Hafeet ascent reaches an altitude of 1,000m on gradients that average 6.6% and touch 12% on the lower slopes. The climb, on wide, well surfaced roads and with long, sweeping bends, eases into a short descent with 1.5km to go, before resuming a shallow climb to the finish line. The final part of the climb follows a long, slightly winding road until the riders take a sharp 180-degree turn just 50 metres from the line.




The weather

The heat has really been the major issue in the Abu Dhabi Tour as the emirate is hit my warmer conditions than usual for this time of the year. Unfortunately, it is set to get a bit worse tomorrow which will be another sunny day with a maximum temperature in the capital of 38 degrees.


It will be the windiest day yet as a rather strong wind will be blowing from a northwesterly direction. Of course the riders will have every possible wind direction in the tricky flat part in the city. They will have a tailwind in the run-in to the climb and then it will be a cross-tailwind as they go up the ascent.


The favourites

The first two stages were all about staying safe for the GC riders and all the main contenders are equal on time as we go into the stage that will decide the stage. After days of being in the spotlight, the likes of Elia Viviani and Andrea Guardini will now move into a domestique role as they have to work to set up their climbers for what will be the final big battle of the 2015 season. Tomorrow the nature of the race will change completely.


The heat has been a big issue in the first two stages and tomorrow is forecasted to be just as hot as the opening stage. As the riders will again be riding in the desert, there is a risk that we may see a repeat of the very slow riding from the first stage and maybe even alterations to the course. Race director Mauro Vegni has not ruled out the possibility of skipping the final climb if things are too extreme. If that turns out to be the best solution, the race will suddenly become one for the sprinters. However, we base this preview on the assumption that the race will go on as planned.


The flat part of tomorrow’s stage should be all about warming up for the final climb where all the action is set to play out and we can expect a rather predictable scenario with an early break made up of riders from teams like Skydive, Unitedhealthcare, Drapac, Katusha, Wiggins, Colombia and maybe even BMC. Everybody knows that the stage will be firmly controlled so it probably won’t take long for the break to be formed and it will be up to Astana and Movistar to make sure that the break is not too big and strong.


When the break has been formed, we can expect Astana and maybe Movistar to hit the front. Sky have the leader’s jersey and may lend a hand but as everybody knows that Viviani is not going to defend his position, they will probably leave it to the Kazakhs and Spaniards to do the early work. Today Guardini had the pleasure of having Aru and Tiralongo riding on the front for him but tomorrow he will probably be the first man in action alongside Agnoli while Lobato and maybe Soler will be doing the hard job for Movistar.


Tomorrow will be windier and it is not impossible that some teams will try to split things. There are several changes of direction and a number of crosswind sections too. Many teams know that they have no chance in a battle against the best on the final climb so they may prefer to try to so damage before we even get to the slopes. A team like BMC stands out as one that could try to split things. However, most of the stage takes place in urban areas so we don’t expect much to happen even though a small selection cannot be ruled out.


In the end, we should see a huge battle for position as we approach the final climb and the best the early break can hope for, is to still be clear when we hit the lower slopes. As soon as the climbing starts, we expect Astana to hit the front with Agnoli, Lutsenko and Tiralongo doing a huge damage. Especially Tiralongo is clearly riding really well and as he proved in Milan-Turin, he can whittle the group down to less than 20 riders.


It will be left to Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru to finish off the job and as the lower slopes are the hardest, they have to make their moves pretty early. It will be interesting to see if they will use Aru to ride tempo on the front to make things hard or if they will both be attacking to exploit their numerical superiority. There is no doubt that Nibali is the main rider – Aru was working on the front in today’s stage – but if he is unable to get rid of the likes of Chaves, Poels and Valverde, their best chance will be to use the fact that they can exploit their tactical opportunities on the final climb.


At the moment, Chaves, Nibali, Aru, Poels and Valverde stand out as the in-form climber and we will be very surprised if the winner is not one of those five riders. On paper, Nibali of course stands out after his win in Lombardy but we will actually put Esteban Chaves at the top of our list of favourites. A number of factors favour the Colombian over his rivals and it could be time for him to win his first race as a professional.


First of all Chaves is in impeccable condition. Apparently, the young Colombian has the very important and treasured ability to come out of a grand tour in great form. When he made his three-week debut at last year’s Vuelta a Espana, he was clearly fatigued in the final half where he completely dropped out of GC contention. Nonetheless, he bounced back with a very strong ride at Worlds and went on to take a third place in the Tour of Beijing.


This year it looks like a repeat. Unlike last year, he didn’t fade in the Vuelta and he rode to a fantastic fifth place. Hence, there was a much bigger chance that he would be fatigued but that turned out not to be the case as he made his return to competition in Il Lombardia. Throughout the entire race, Chaves was impressively strong. He was glued to Nibali’s wheel on the steep Muro di Sormano where Diego Rosa made the peloton explode to pieces until only a handful of riders were left and later it was Chaves preventing Nibali from escaping on the Civiglio climb as he matched his many attacks pedal stroke for pedal stroke. It looked like Chaves was a very likely winner of the race but he missed the boat when Nibali attacked on the descent and when he tried to bridge the gap with a strong attack on San Fermo della Battaglia, he was taken out of contention by cramps.


The outcome was a relatively modest 8th place but it was evident that Chaves was one of the 2-3 strongest riders in the race. For him to be competitive over such a long distance was really impressive and he should be even better in Abu Dhabi.


First of all the shorter distance of the queen stage should favour him compared to a diesel engine like Nibali who has much more experience in the very long races. Secondly, he excels in the heat and both in 2014 and 2015 he achieved his best Vuelta results in brutally hot conditions in the first week. Finally, the fact that explosiveness could be important in the easier final part of the climb is a big advantage for Chaves who is pretty fast in an uphill sprint. To beat the Colombian, Nibali needs to drop him and based on what we saw in Lombardy that won’t be easy. Furthermore, Chaves is evidently still extremely motivated – apparently he always is – and he will probably be a bit more eager than his Italian rival. All those factors add up to making Chaves our favourite.


His biggest rival will of course be Vincenzo Nibali. When he was expelled from the Vuelta, it was hard for anyone to imagine that the Italian would turn out to be the star of the autumn. The most likely scenario was that he would be ripped of motivation and head into an early off-season.


However, he proved his great character by going to Sicily to train seriously and when he returned to competition, he was simply unstoppable. Before the World Championships he did four one-day races that have traditionally been won in sprints and he ripped all of them to pieces, crowning it with a win in Coppa Bernocchi. After riding as a domesique in the Worlds road race where he suffered a very untimely puncture, he returned to Europe with a bang by winning Tre Valli Varesine – which should have been too easy for him – and Il Lombardia.


There is no doubt that Nibali is the in-form rider at the moment and his confidence will be extremely high after his exhibitions on home soil. The Abu Dhabi Tour offers him a perfect opportunity to also a stage race victory to his palmares.


Nibali has one big disadvantage: he can’t sprint. To win the race, he needs to drop his rivals before we get to the summit and his best chance comes on the steep lower slopes. If he fails to make the difference, he is likely to come up short against the punchier guys.


His main asset is the fact that he will be supported by what is definitely the strongest team. With Fabio Aru and Nibali, Astana have two potential winners of the race and they can also count on the support from a very strong. If the two Italians take turns attacking, it won’t be easy for their isolated rivals to respond to every move and that could open the door for both of the Astana riders to win the race. Of course Nibali is currently the strongest so he is in prime position to win the race.


Alejandro Valverde is known for his huge consistency but for once he actually seems to be a bit tired. That’s very rare for a rider that is always on top of his game from January to October but this year he has not been at his usual level after the Tour. He was unable to defend his title in the Clasica San Sebastian and his seventh place in the Vuelta was his worst result for years. He sprinted to fifth in the Worlds road race but he was never really in the race and didn’t have the legs to make his expected move. He again showed his consistency by riding to fourth in Lombardy but he was clearly not at Chaves’ or Nibali’s level. In this race he has even been working for his sprinters in the flat stages, indicating that he may be here more to pay back some of the earlier favours than to go all out for the win.


Nonetheless, Valverde is always an extremely dangerous contender in this kind of race. The final part of the climb could suit explosive riders and if Valverde is still there, no one is going to beat him in an uphill sprint. Valverde also deals very well with the heat and there is never any question about his motivation. It is likely that money has also been a big incentive for him and Movistar to travel to Abu Dhabi – after all he usually prefers to end his season after Lombardy – but Valverde is always competitive. That motivation is extremely important at this time of the season and could allow him to crown an excellent season with an overall stage race win.


Fabio Aru is the second Astana card. He is no longer in his Vuelta condition but he is still in good form. He proved so by finishing third in Milan-Turin where he was his usual self, suffering on the lower slopes of the final climb and finishing very strongly. He did a good work to set up Lutsenko for the win in the Tour of Almaty before sprinting to second place.


However, Aru is clearly a step below Nibali and he finds himself at the bottom of the hierarchy. Nonetheless, he could still come out of top if the team decides to ride aggressively and attack in turns. It may as well be Aru who makes the difference and rides away with a second stage race victory this year.


Sky were scheduled to line up Richie Porte for a final race with the British team but it was always clear that he was never going to be a contender. The Australian is now out of the race with injury and it is Wout Poels who leads the Brits in Abu Dhabi. The Dutchman has clearly improved his level while riding for the British team and his performances in both the Dauphiné and the Tour proved that he is now one of the very best climbers in the world.


Poels is clearly no longer in the same condition but he is still riding well. He won the queen stage in the Tour of Britain and was one of the strongest in Milan-Turin until he faded in the end. In Lombardy, he was one of the strongest on Muro di Sormano but then again faded in the finale. That’s no big surprise as he seems to suffer a bit in the very long races. Hence, he should find the short queen stage in Abu Dhabi to his liking and as he is pretty fast in a sprint, he has the skills to win even if explosiveness turns out to be decisive.


Gianluca Brambilla missed the Giro d’Italia due to a broken collarbone but now he is back on top of his game. He rode a fine Vuelta to finish 13th and then did a very aggressive GranPiemonte. Most importantly he was very strong in Lombardy where he stayed with the best for a long time before finishing the race in 10th. Now he is motivated to lead his team in Abu Dhabi and the final climb suits the in-form Italian. Obviously he is not at the level of the top climbers in this race but at this time of the year, the hierarchy may have changed. He is very fast in an uphill sprint and has the explosiveness to do well here. With the support of an in-form Carlos Verona, Brambilla is likely to be at the pointy end of the race.


It’s been a fantastic few months for Tom Dumoulin who is still not ready to end his season. The Dutchman hopes to benefit from his condition one final time in Abu Dhabi but it remains to be seen how well he has been recovered after what has been a very hard final part of the season. The signs have been mixed after the Vuelta. He rode a disappointing time trial in Richmond but then got agonizingly close to silver in the road race where he was passed by the sprinters just metres from the line. However, he abandoned Il Lombardia where he was never really in contention. Much will depend on his motivation at this time of the year but there is a chance that he still has one big effort in his legs. On paper, the final climb is a bit too hard for him to ride for the win but that was always what everybody kept saying at the Vuelta…


Giovanni Visconti rode strongly in service of his leaders at the Vuelta a Espana and when he decided to skip the Worlds, he made it clear that he hoped to get some personal opportunities near the end of the season. He did so in Milan-Turin whose steep final climb was a bit too tough for him. Nonetheless, he finished strongly to take 8th. He supported Valverde in Lombardy and nearly made it to the top of the Muro di Sormano with the best. In Abu Dhabi, he is again likely to be second in the Movistar hierarchy but it could be time for Valverde to give his in-form teammate a chance to chase some personal glory.


Sky clearly have one of the strongest teams in this race. In addition to Poels, both Leopold König and Sebastian Henao could feature in the pointy end of the race. Of those two riders, the Czech seems to be in the best condition and it was clear that Henao is mainly here as a domestique as the Colombian rode on the front for most of stage 1. König is clearly not at 100% as he was off the pace in both Milan-Turin and Il Lombardia but he wasn’t too far behind the best riders. As he had done no racing before those races, his form is likely to be growing and he could be stronger in Abu Dhabi. It is probably not enough to win the race but he could still find himself up there.


In addition to Brambilla, Etixx-QuickStep have another card to play. Carlos Verona has been rather disappointing in his first time at the pro level but now it seems that he is starting to show his real level. He rode very strongly in the Vuelta where he was in several key breaks in some of the hardest stages and he went on to ride impressively in Il Lombardia where he attacked from afar, worked for Michal Kwiatkowski and still finished the race in 16th. He is unlikely to win this stage but should be able to do well.


Finally, Dominik Nerz and Diego Ulissi deserve a mention. Nerz was signed as the main GC rider for Bora-Argon 18 but has had a disastrous year with crashes and illness. Now he is showing better condition and actually did a good ride in Lombardy. Due to his bad season, he will be extremely motivated to end the season with a good result.


Ulissi is one of the big names in this race and on paper he should be a contender in this kind of stage even if he is not a pure climber. However, he has been far from his best recently and was never really a contender at the Worlds which was his big goal. We doubt that he will be among the best but sometimes the Italian pops out of nowhere and suddenly delivers a great performance. History shows that he is often strong and motivated at this time of the year.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Esteban Chaves

Other winner candidates: Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde

Outsiders: Fabio Aru, Wout Poels, Gianluca Brambilla, Tom Dumoulin

Jokers: Giovanni Visconi, Leopold König, Carlos Verona, Dominik Nerz



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