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CyclingQuotes gives a detailed analysis of UAE Abu Dhabi

Photo: A.S.O.


21.12.2016 @ 20:49 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The holiday is over and it is time for the professional riders to start their serious training for the 2017 season. After the team building activities at the first team meetings in November, the month of December is traditionally the time for the first real training camps where the first drafts of the season schedules are made and just a few weeks later, the cycling season is in full swing at the Tour Down Under. During the next few weeks, CyclingQuotes prepares you for the coming season in a series of analyses where we take a detailed look at each of the 18 WorldTour teams and what to expect during the next 12 months.


Below we take a look at UAE Abu Dhabi – the former Lampre-Merida team.


Returning riders

Matteo Bono, Valerio Conti, Rui Costa, Kristijan Durasek, Roberto Ferrari, Marko Kump, Louis Meintjes, Sacha Modolo, Matej Mohoric, Manuele Mori, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Simone Petilli, Jan Polanc, Diego Ulissi, Federico Zurlo


New signings

Darwin Atapuma (BMC), Simone Consonni (neo-pro), Filippo Ganna (neo-pro), Andrea Guardini (Astana), Vegard Stake Laengen (IAM), Marco Marcato (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Edward Ravasi (neo-pro), Oliveiro Troia (neo-pro)


Riders leaving the team

Yukiya Arashiro (Bahrain-Merida), Mattia Cattaneo (Androni), Davide Cimolai (FDJ), Mario Costa (?), Chun Kai Feng (Bahrain-Merida), Tsgabu Grmay (Bahrain-Merida), Ilia Koshevoy (Wilier – Selle Italia), Luka Pibernik (Bahrain-Merida), Gang Xu (?)


Analysis of the transfer campaign

Bahrain-Merida and former Lampre-Merida manager Brent Copeland has signed a lot of Lampre-Merida riders which has forced the management of the new UAE Abu Dhabi team to make a number of changes. However, they have managed to keep all their captains and as what looked to be a solid injection of Chinese money apparently gave them the power to attract some solid reinforcements, it looks like the team will be considerably stronger in their first year with an Asian license.


The team has not made a standout signing like they did when they managed to attract world champion Rui Costa for the 2014 season but they have attracted a few riders with proven skills at the highest level. The best signing is probably Darwin Atapuma. The Colombian has had a very gradual progress and he has now reached a level where he can turn his many attacks into wins on the biggest stage. With his many near-misses, he deserved at least one stage win in the Giro but in the Tour de Suisse he showed that he has the ability to finish his long-distance rides off. He also wore the red jersey and was close to stage wins in the Vuelta and so backed up his performances from the spring. He is still developing and will only get stronger in the coming years which makes it very likely that he will win a mountain stage in grand tour for his new team in 2017.


After Sacha Modolo’s hugely successful 2015 season, the team had a very poor sprint season in 2016. Over the last two years, they have lost back-up sprinters Niccolo Bonifazio and Davide Cimolai and so it was only natural to sign a few fast finishers. Andrea Guardini and Ben Swift have been brough in as replacements but it is unlikely that they will increase the winning tally significantly. Guardini has had very little support at Astana which partly explains his poor results but it has also been evident that he is no longer as fast as he once was. As UAE Abu Dhabi don't have a big lead-out train either, we doubt that he will be able to win on the biggest scene like he has done in the past. On the other hand, he has always been great in the very flat stages of the Tour de Langkawi and Lampre-Merida have traditionally done several races in Asia which are usually dominated by that kind of stages. If they send Guardini to races like the Tour of Japan, Tour of Quinghai Lake and Tour of Hainan, he should be in a class of his own. If that's the strategy, he could propel towards the top of the victory list.


While Guardini will focus on the pure sprints, Ben Swift gives the team another card to play in the harder races. Among the sprinters, the Brit is probably the best climber together with Sagan – both climb even better than Michael Matthews – but he rarely got a chance to shine in the Sky team. He is looking for more space for himself and he has found that in the UAE Abu Dhabi team. The team will go into races like Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tour de Romandie with genuine GC hopes but there will be room for a sprinter too. With no Cimlai and Bonifazio in the team, Swift will be the man for those races. There are lots of riders that are faster than the Brit but on the really hard days when only 30 guys are left, he will still be there. He will not win a lot but one or two WorldTour victories are definitely within his reach.


Marco Marcato is a solid addition to the team for the cobbled classics where they have always been completely invisible and even though he is unlikely to be on the podium in any of the Northern races, he will at least make sure that the team is present late in the races.


For the rest, the focus has been on young talents as they have signed neo-pros Simone Consonni, Filippo Ganna, Edward Ravasi and Oliveiro Troia. It is unlikely that any of them will make an impact already in 2017 but they are great long-term investments. With his second place in the Tour de l’Avenir, climber Ravasi is probably the most interesting prospect but unlike many others he hasn’t had much success in the pro races he did during his stagiaire time. Consonni is a former silver medallist at the U23 World Champions and the current Italian U23 champion. He is an exciting sprint talent and he should learn a lot from riders like Modolo, Roberto Ferrari and Guardini. Ganna is the world champion in the individual pursuit, a skilled time triallist and a good classics rider even though he hasn’t been among the best in his category. Troia was fourth in the U23 Paris-Roubaix and is aiming to become strong in the classics.


As said, the team have lost numerous riders but most of them are domestiques. The biggest loss is probably Davide Cimolai as the Italian has secured WorldTour wins in the last two years. However, the Italian will never be a regular winner and the addition of Swift and Guardini makes up for that loss. It is more of a surprise that they have lost patience with talented climbers Ilya Koshevoy and Mattia Cattaneo. The latter beat Fabio Aru at the Baby Giro before he turned pro and his very poor results were mostly due to health issues. Koshevoy was very inconsistent but had shown flashes of his potential. It is also a shame for the team to lose Tsgabu Grmay as the Ethiopian showed huge progress with some very good rides in the mountains at the Tour de France and the prospect of having a black African winning at the Tour would have been huge for an international team like UAE Abu Dhabi.


What to expect in the classics?

The classics are usually divided into two categories, the cobbles and the hilly races, and UAE Abu Dhabi/Lampre-Merida have a very different history in those two races. While they have often been competitive in the Ardennes, they have been almost completely invisible on the cobbles. Even though they have reinforced their line-up for the Northern races, the priority will be the same in 2017.


The team will first aim for victory in Milan-Sanremo where they will have a two-pronged approach with Sacha Modolo and Ben Swift. The former has been fourth and the latter has been on the podium so both have proved that they have the speed to be competitive at the end of a long, hard race. However, La Primavera has suited the faster guys in the last few years and many riders are significantly faster than both of them. A podium finish would be a good result but we doubt that any of their fastmen will be able to win the first big classic.


On the cobbles, it will be up to new signing Marco Marcato to make sure that the team is present. That hasn’t been the case in recent years and no one expects them to win. Marcato is no longer the rider he once was but on his best days, a little luck could see him land a top 10 in one of the big classics. Modolo will be on hand for some of the easier races like Gent-Wevelgem but the Italian has never really had much success on the cobbles.


The team should be a lot more prominent in the Ardennes where they will go into the races with the two-pronged attack of Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi. The pair may even be joined by Ben Swift for the Amstel Gold Race. The Brit has never had much success in the past which is a bit of a mystery as it is probably the classic that suits him the best. While the race is too easy for Ulissi and Costa, Swift will have a solid chance to deliver a good result in the Dutch classic.


For Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it will be up to Ulissi and Costa to deliver. None of them are really suited to the Mur de Huy so for that race, the top 10 will be the target. Things will be different in Liege. This year Costa had a fantastic seaseon and in the spring he was probably better than ever, even better than when he won the Worlds in 2013. He was third in Liege and the addition of a cobbled climb in the finale clearly favoured his bigger stature compared to the tinier guys. He was also the strongest rider in the August and September classics which again suggest that he is improving in the one-day races. There is no reason that Costa can’t win Liege. Ulissi will be a plan B and his fast finish will make him competitive. Until now, he has always suffered in the long races but he seems to be getting stronger with age.


Costa, Ulissi, Modolo and Swift will again be pivotal in the second half of the year. Costa is always flying in August and September and he is capable of winning the GP Montreal again. If the course is not too hard, Il Lombardia is also within his reach. Ulissi will be competitive in both the Canadian races and Swift can do well in both Plouay, Quebec and Montreal, meaning that the team should feature in most of the autumn races.


What to expect in the grand tours?

Lampre-Merida have traditionally focused more on stage wins than the GC in grand tours but with Louis Meintjes' emergence as a real contender for the podium, the team is likely to have a focus more on the overall classification in 2017. Meintjes is set to return to the Tour de France where he finished 8th overall and as he will be just 25 years old in July, there is no reason that he can't do better this time around. The lack of time trialling is a big advanatge for the South African but he would have preferred a harder course with more mountaintop finishes. On the other hand, his climbing is likely to become even better during the coming year and his excellent performances in the third week in 2016 suggest that has a much better recovery than most. This makes him one of the most exciting GC prospects and the team should target a top 5 finish with their talented South African.


There has been a bit of a disagreement between Rui Costa and the management about the Portuguese’s role in the team. The former world champion still hasn’t shelved his GC ambitions but the team prefers to focus on stage wins. With Meintjes being the GC leader, Costa will probably have to focus on select days and he has proved that he is a formidable stage hunter. He was close on a number of occasions in 2016 and he is definitely capable of winning a stage in 2017. Ben Swift has also expressed his desire to do the Tour with more personal ambitions than he has done in the past and he could get his chance next year. He is unlikely to win a stage in a sprint but he could very well come out triumphant from a breakaway on a medium mountain stage with a flat finish.


In the Giro, the team is likely to focus on stage wins. Diego Ulissi has proved that he is almost a guarantee for success in his home race and he will again try to add to his tally in 2017. Sacha Modolo is likely to lead in the sprints but unfortunately nothing suggests that the Italian will return to his 2015 form. Back then, his success was largely due to the excellent lead-out train of Roberto Ferrari and Maximilano Richeze but the loss of the latter has been felt. Nonetheless, Modolo is still one of the best Italian sprinters so he should still be competitive. Darwin Atapuma has not announced his plans yet but it would be a good idea to allow him to return to the Giro. A grand tour stage win is on the cards in 2017 and like in 2016 he could finish in the top 10 due to his aggressive ride in the mountains. Finally, Valerio Conti must be motivated to ride his home grand tour and even though he lacks consistency, the stage winner from the Vuelta has proved that he can be hard to beat when he hits the right day.


The plans for the Vuelta are less clear but we would expect the team to go into the race with Atapuma and Meintjes at the helm. In 2015, Meintjes proved that he can be very good in two grand tours so it is definitely possible for him to finish in the top 10 in both the Tour and the Vuelta. Atapuma was close to a stage win in 2016 and is definitely capable of a winning ride in one of the mountain stages. It must also be tempting for Ben Swift to target the grand tour that probably suits him the best. There are usually lots of reduced bunch sprints in the Vuelta and most of the fastest riders are usually absent, leaving lots of room for a rider like Swift.


Finally, we expect talented climber Simone Petilli to do either the Giro or the Vuelta. The Italian has a huge potential and should be able to deliver a good result in a mountain stage in his second grand tour.


What to expect elsewhere?

Rui Costa has traditionally finished in the top 10 of the WorldTour rankings due to his many top results in the one-week stage races. As said, he seemed to reach new heights in the month of April in 2016 and so we can again expect the Portuguese to be in podium contention in almost every stage race that he does. He has been in the top 4 in Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse and he is likely to be in podium contention in all those races apart of the Dauphiné as we expect him to have a schedule similar to the one he had in 2016. The climbs in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco has always been a bit too steep for him but he showed remarkable improvement this year. Hence, a podium in that race is not out of reach. In any case, Costa is likely to be a very prominent figure from March to April.


Louis Meintjes has never really featured in the one-week stage races, most notably because of his time trial skills, and that is unlikely to change. The South African rarely shines in the spring and we expect it to be up to Costa and Ulissi to lead the team in the stage races. Ulissi has never really gone for GC and he will probably be focusing more on stage wins in races like Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Furthermore, he must be keen to target the many Italian one-say races where he has had lots of success in the past.


Ben Swift is tailor-made for the hard races in Catalunya, Pais Vasco and Romandie and should be targeting a stage win in those events. Sacha Modolo will be the protected sprinter in other races and should win a few race along the way. As said in our transfer analysis, however, the loss of Richeze after 2015 has had a big effect and we doubt that he will return to the lofty heights from two years ago.


Andrea Guardini is no longer as fast as he once was and we doubt that he will win much in Europe as he won’t have much support. However, the team must be keen to ride a lot in Asia and Guardini seems to be the perfect fit for the Chinese races. As said, the Italian can score a lot in races like Tour de Langkawi, Tour of Quinghai Lake, Tour of Japan and Tour of Hainan.


Finally, we are curious to see whether Kristijan Durasek can find the legs of 2015. The inconsistent Croatian will never be a regular winner but if he finds his best legs, he has the skills to win in the mountains somehere during the season.


Who’s ready to surprise?

Simone Petilli is one of the most talented Italian climbers and the Italian had a very promising debut in 2016. He still misses a bit of consistency but that could come with age. Petill now has one year of WorldTour racing and a grand tour in his legs and he should show some progress in some of the mountain stages in the one-week races.


Valerio Conti has had a turbulent start to his pro career. He is very inconsistent and it seems to be hard for him to find his best form. However, he showed his brilliance in the third week of the Giro, at the Dauphiné and at the Vuelta where he won a stage. With his punchy climbing skills and his fast sprint, he is a great rider for the hard one-day races.


Edward Ravasi finished second in the Tour de l’Avenir in 2016 and like Petilli, he is a very promising climber. It is probably a bit too early for him to target a top result but we are curious to see what he can do in his first year at the WorldTour level. The same goes for Simone Consonni who could become the next Italian top sprinter and classics rider. It is often easier for sprinters to show themselves in their first year and it won’t be impossible for him to pick up a win somewhere during his neo-pro year. Finally, Filippo Ganna is both a great time trial talent and formidable classics rider who has won the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2016. The cobbled classics usually require some experience so it will be too early for him to achieve results in his first year at the pro level. However, he is capable of a good TT result somewhere.



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