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With the race being one for time trial specialists, it is hard to look beyond the world champion in the discipline when it comes to selecting a favourite. Tony Martin will start his 2014 season in Dubai and there is no doubt that he will be...

Photo: Sirotti


03.02.2014 @ 19:36 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Tour Down Under and the Tour de San Luis offered the first chance to get in some early racing kilometres and now it is time for one of the most important blocks of racing in the first part of the season. For a few years, the Tours of Qatar and Oman have offered the perfect conditions for preparation and this year the series of races in the Middle East has been extended with the addition of the inaugural Dubai Tour. In its first year, the race has managed to attract one of the most star-studded line-ups for a February race and while the course may not offer the most exciting kind of racing, the race presents a perfect opportunity to build up condition for later objectives.


With the Tours of Qatar and Oman having proved that racing in the Middle East can both be very exciting and attract the world's greatest stars, it was always just a question of time before the wealthy Dubai City would venture into cycling. After a few years of planning, 2014 will be the season where their assault on the cycling world will kick off in earnest, with the creation of a new continental team and a major UCI race.


The latter is the brand-new Dubai Tour, with the inaugural edition kicking off on Wednesday. While it was Tour de France organizer ASO who took the brave decision to put up the first major race in the Middle East by hosting the Tour of Qatar in 2002 and later adding the Tour of Oman to their ever-growing portfolio of races, the local Dubai authorities have teamed up with Giro d'Italia organizers RCS Sport to put on their new race.


In recent years, the block of racing in the Middle East has developed into what is arguably the most important preparation phase for several of the world's biggest stars. Even though the Qatari race if mostly one for the sprinters and classics riders and the Omani event offers the climbers and stage race specialists a chance to shine, a lot of riders do both races to get in 12 days of quality racing in good weather conditions.


With the addition of the Dubai Tour, the block will now be 4 days longer, meaning that few riders are expected to do all three races. Furthermore, the Tour of Qatar starts just the day after the conclusion of the race in Dubai, meaning that many riders will have to decide which one of the races to do. As the two different organizers also mean that the line-ups of teams are different, the block will not have the same kind of homogeneity as it has had in the past.


The Tours of Qatar and Oman both have characteristic and exciting courses that have given them their own unique brands. The windy desert roads in Qatar are perfectly suited to high-speed training for the cobbled classics, with the many echelons sharpening the riders' ability to fight for position. As opposed to this, Oman has developed into what is undoubtedly the first big rendezvous for the grand tour riders.


Without the kind of unique terrain that characterize its fellow Middle East races, the Dubai Tour probably has the least exciting course of the three races. With extensive TV coverage, we are guaranteed to see a lot of beautiful images from the city when the riders head around some of its famous landmarks but the course seems to be one for the sprinters, with the wind not expected to play the same role as it does in Qatar.


To add excitement to the race, the organizers have decided to include an opening time trial that is likely to decide the final GC, with bonus seconds on the remaining stages potentially coming into play. In that sense, the Middle East block is now complete, offering a race for both classics riders and sprinters, time trialists, and climbers.


Despite the less interesting course, the race has attracted what is simply a fantastic line-up for a new early-season race. World champions Rui Costa and Tony Martin, Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali, grand tour stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, sprinters Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish, and classics specialists Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan are just some of the riders who will travel to the Middle East for the race. For riders like Nibali, Rodriguez, and Valverde, the reasons for their attendance are less obvious given that the course doesn't do them many favours, but the good organization, the influence from RCS, and the wealthy organizers are likely to have played a crucial role in attracting the many big names.


While most of the big names are unlikely to be focused on their results, the race will be a good opportunity to get in the racing kilometres and hone their condition with some high-speed racing. As the organizers get the chance to show off the beauty of their city and can capitalize on the presence of the sport's biggest stars to do so, the fit is a perfect one. Whether the racing can live up the hype remains to be seen but there is little doubt that the Dubai Tour has all the ingredients to become an integrated part of the early part of the season.


The course

With little natural elevation in the Dubai area, it was always difficult for organizers RCS Sport to put together an attractive route for the inaugural edition of the Dubai Tour. With its wealthy backers, the race has managed to attract a star-studded line-up but even their money cannot change the geography of the United Arab Emirates. With no Omani climbs and no Qatari wind, the route may more be spectacular for its surroundings that takes in many of Dubai's landmarks than for the sporting spectacle.


With the race being intended to show off the beauty of Dubai, two stages will be held in the important parts of the city, making them perfectly suited to big sprint finishes. To challenge the riders a bit, they will head out in the desert on the third day when the organizers have included some of the few climbs on offer but they are unlikely to make too much of a difference. To avoid a sprinters' festival, RCS decided to include an opening time trial that is likely to be crucial in determining the final outcome of the race. That stage will certainly open up the biggest time gaps and from then the race is likely to become a battle for bonus seconds.


Stage 1

The race will kick off with its most important stage as the 9.9km time trial will take place on the opening day. The stage will be known as the Downtown Stage and is held in the centre of Dubai near the Burj Khalifa skyscraper.


The stage may not be very long but it won't be technical either, consisting mostly of long, straight roads that are perfect for the biggest specialists. Shortly after the start, the riders will negotiate two 90-degree right-hand corners that lead them onto a long straight road. Another two 90-degree turns will be the only obstacles before the riders get to the turning point at the 4.8km mark where they will do a U-turn.


From there, they head all the way back along the same straight roads, passing through the two 90-degree turns. The only change comes at the finish as the riders will approach the start/finish area in a slightly different and more complicated way. The riders will head through two 90-degree turns inside the final kilometre before doing another U-turn that leads them onto the short finishing straight.


However, those final technical complications do very little to change the fact that this will be a course that suits the really powerful riders like Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara, and Taylor Phinney. All will benefit from the long straight sections but while Martin would certainly have preferred a longer distance, Cancellara would not have been bothered by a few more corners. Despite their different preferences, we are guaranteed to witness the first big time trial spectacle of the year between some of the giants in the discipline.



Stage 2:

The second stage will again be held in the city but will pass through its outskirts as it passes some of the major sports facilities, including the Hippodrome, the Olympic pool, the Al Qudra cycling tack, the Autodrome, and the amazing Golf Club. As a consequence, it will be known as the Sport Stage and will be a rather short affair at just 122km.


From the start in the centre of the city, the riders will head along mostly flat roads to the outskirts where they will make a number of changes in direction and take a couple of U-turns to visit all the big sports facilities in the city. Intermediate sprints will take place at the Hamdan Sport Complex and the Al Qudra Cycling Track at the 42km and 58.5km marks respectively. The roads will be slightly ascending as they reach the highest point after 62.6km of racing but at 60m above altitude the elevation differences will make no difference.


Having made the final U-turn at that point, the riders head back down towards the city. Having reached the seafront, they turn left and will do a small circuit in the city centre before heading out into the sea for a spectacular finish on the Palm Island Atlantis. On the island, they will do a U-turn which is located 3.2km from the finish and from there they will follow a flat, slightly bending road all the way to the finish.


Being entirely flat and with little wind in the city, a bunch sprint is the guaranteed conclusion to a stage whose only impact on GC will come courtesy of the bonus seconds. The first big sprint battle of the season between Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish is in store!



Stage 3:

During their 4-day stage in Dubai, the riders will only get one chance to leave the city as the 162km run brings them from the centre of Dubai to Hatta which is located west of the city in the medium mountains. Unsurprisingly, the stage will be known as The Nature Stage and will be the only chance for the riders to test their climbing legs during the four days of competition.


From the start, the riders will follow flat roads as they head into the desert and will contest the first intermediate sprint at Mushrif Park already at the 18.8km mark. From there, the road will be slightly ascending as they get onto the Dubai-Hatta road that takes them into  the desert.


The stage will reach a temporary elevation peak in Al-Madam at the 74.6km mark and from there it will be very slightly downhill for the next 29.8km. With 57.6 of the 162km stage to go, the riders reach the feed zone where they will again start to climb, albeit only slightly. 41.8km from the finish they will contest the second intermediate sprint and 8.1km further down the road, they will reach the top of the first climb, 495km above sea level.


From there 33.7km remain and they consist of a downhill run to the city of Munai, followed by the second climb of the day that takes the riders back to 417m. The final 7.1km will be made up of a short and fast descent and a flat run to the finish in Hatta. The riders will do their final left-hand turn 2.2km from the finish which leads onto the ascending finishing straight which has an average gradient of 2%.


The climbing and uphill sprint will make things more difficult but as the ascents are not very tough, the selection will be limited. As it will be the only chance to make a difference, we could see some aggressive racing on the final climb that will rule out some of the pure sprinters but it is hard not to imagine that we will see some kind of bunch sprint in the end.




Stage 4:

The riders will be back in the city for the final stage which is again a very short one at just 123km. Known as The Old Dubai Stage, it will cross the old part of the city, passing alongside two of the most iconic Dubai buildings: the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the World at 830 metres. The entire stage will take place in the city centre and like many other stage races, the final day will offer a criterium-like race that is guaranteed to end in a bunch sprint.


From the start, the riders will head onto a small loop in the northern part of the city before they get onto the coastal road. From there, they will start a sinuous route system that will mostly use the same roads on a rectangular circuit along the coast. With 57.8km to go, they reach the coastal Jumeirah Road and they will now do two laps that will see them head all the way down the coast to the Burj Al Arab and make a U-turn to go all the way back before making another U-turn to do it all again. On both laps, there will be an intermediate sprint at the Jumeirah Beach Park, 51.5km and 23.3km from the finish respectively.


With 15.5km to go, the riders reach the Burj Al Arab for the last time and 10km further down the road, they turn right to leave the sea. From there, they will negotiate three 90-degree corners on completely flat roads, with the last one leading onto the slightly bending 800m finishing straight in front of the Burj Khalifa. A big bunch sprint in front of the world's tallest building will be the fitting end to 4 days of racing that will have showcased both some of cycling's biggest stars and most of Dubai's important tourist attractions.


The stage will be held at an altitude between 0 and 11m, meaning that there will be no climbing at all to bother with. Instead, the challenge will be the fast pace and the many corners



The weather

One of the main reasons for doing the Dubai Tour is the good weather that the riders expect to find in the Middle East. They are unlikely to be disappointed as the forecast currently shows that they will fin d near-perfect conditions for bike racing.


There could be a small shower at the start of Wednesday's time trial but by the time, the big-name riders roll down the ramp, the conditions and roads should be dry. The sun will be shining from a blue sky and the temperature will be a pleasant 22 degrees. There will be a rather strong win from a northwestern direction but riding in the city alongside big skyscrapers, it should have no big impact.


Thursday should be an unusually cold day for the riders as it could be a cloudy day with no chance to see the sun. The temperature is expected to stay just below the 20-degree mark and things will only be made harder by the strong westerly wind. Again it will now play too much of a role as most of the stage takes place in the city but we could be in a some dramatic final kilometres as there will be a crosswind when the riders get onto the small island of Palm Island Atlantis for the expected sprint finish.


Things should be much better for Friday's hilly stage. Bright sunshine is expected and the temperature will peak at around 22 degrees. There will only be a moderate wind from a northeastern direction, meaning that the riders will mostly have a crosswind. As the stage takes place in the desert, the wind could potentially split things up a bit and it will be important to stay attentive near the front.


The conditions will be almost similar on the final day. At 24 degrees, it is expected to be slightly warmer and the sky may be a little more cloudy but it will be a perfect day for a bike race. As the wind doesn't come from the sea, the riders will be well-protected by the many buildings and it should do nothing to prevent a bunch sprint.


The favourites

With a mostly flat route and no chance for the climbers to make a difference, the inuagural Dubai Tour will be decided by two elements: the opening time trial and the bonus seconds. This turns the race into a battle between the time trial specialists who will look to defend the advantage they get on the opening day, and the sprinters who hope to gradually erase their time deficits as they score bonus seconds in the three roads stages.


The sprinters face the challenge that the race has attracted a rather strong line-up of fast finishers, meaning that they are likely to take away seconds from each other. Even though the opening time trial is only 9.9km long, the presence of some of the best in the business means that the specialists should be able to take enough time to defend their lead to the finish, turning the opening stage into the single most decisive.


With the race being one for time trial specialists, it is hard to look beyond the world champion in the discipline when it comes to selecting a favourite. Tony Martin will start his 2014 season in Dubai and there is no doubt that he will be the man to beat. At last year's world championships, he proved that he is currently in a class of his own in the time trials, beating Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara with a big margin, and if he is at his best, he will be very hard to beat.


At this time of the year, it is always hard to know what kind of form the riders have but there is no reason to believe that Martin is not well-prepared. With his team often having to slow him down, the German will doubtlessly have done the hard work during the winter and he usually starts his seasons very strongly. Last year he crushed the opposition in the Tour of Algarve time trial to win the race overall, again proving that he knows how to come out of the off-season with a pretty good condition. His posts on his personal website indicate that he already has his eyes firmly focused on the time trial which seems to be a clear early objective for him.


Martin would undoubtedly have preferred a longer time trial as he usually requires a bit of time to get his motor going. On the other hand, he will benefit from the non-technical nature of the route and he will relish the long straights where he can push a big gear. If he wins the time trial, the question is whether he can gain enough time on the sprinters to defend the lead all the way to the finish. In last year's 15km time trial in the Tour of Belgium, however, he put 40 seconds into a classy time trialist like Tom Dumoulin and he should be able to enter the road stages with a similar advantage over the fast finishers. As there are only 10 seconds available on each of the three finish lines, Martin is the favourite to win the race.


Fabian Cancellara is Martin's archrival in the time trials and he will again be his most dangerous rival. The Swiss is usually a better prologue rider than Martin and this time trial is very short. However, the non-technical nature will favour Martin over Cancellara who mostly excels on more difficult courses.


While Martin will be keen to win the race, Cancellara's focus is different. He is in Dubai to prepare for the classics and is usually not racing too hard for the win in his February races. He is likely to use the time trial as an important test but even if he is within striking distance of the overall lead, he is unlikely to do too much to take it. At the same time, he usually doesn't start his seasons too strongly and we doubt that he will be able to beat Martin. Nonetheless, a classy bike rider like Cancellara will always be a threat.


If Cancellara's form is uncertain, the same cannot be said about Taylor Phinney. The BMC rider has stated that he has had his best winter ever and he showed some really good form in the Tour de San Luis. He had targeted a win in the time trial in Argentina but a wrong choice of equipment saw him lose out to Adriano Malori by just 3 seconds.


Phinney has done nothing to hide that he is going for the win in Dubai and he will have a strong BMC team at his disposal. On this non-technical course, it will be hard to beat Martin but his aim will be to remain within striking distance of the German. Phinney is a rather fast finisher and should be able to score bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints. Martin will have little chance to do so and may have to ask Mark Cavendish to sprint for the seconds to take them away from Phinney. Whether his strategy is successful remains to be seen but with a fast finish and a good time trial, Phinney has all the characteristics to win in Dubai.


If one of the big time trialists is not going win, it will undoubtedly be a sprinter. Peter Sagan is a fabulous prologue rider and even if this time trial may be a bit too long and non-technical to suit him perfectly, he could post a good result. After all, he finished 10th in the Tour de San Luis time trial on a similar - and even longer - course and in that race he was nowhere near his best condition.


It is certainly true that Sagan needs to improve a lot compared to his first race if he wants to win in Dubai but due to his huge talent he usually builds up a good condition extremely quickly. On the final stage in Argentina he mixed it up in a sprint for the first time and immediately finished 2nd behind Sacha Modolo despite the hard nature of the finale. He is a fierce competitor who usually goes for the win when the race suits him and the race in Dubai certainly does. If he can ride one of his standout prologues, he will limit his losses sufficiently to be able to take back the lost time via bonus seconds.


Mark Cavendish will enter the race with a similar strategy even though his role as a teammate of Martin means that he will not have a similar focus on the German. Cavendish is a good time trialist on short, flat courses as he has proved several times in the past. Most recently he was 20th in the longer time trial in San Luis and despite working for Tom Boonen in the sprints, he showed some good form in Argentina.


He is in Argentina to fine-tune his lead-out train as it will be the first race where he will ride with both Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi and his main target will be stage wins. If he rides a good time trial and takes a few wins in the sprints, it may be enough to give him the overall win though.


The same goes for Marcel Kittel who faces the first big battles with Cavendish. Before turning professional, Kittel was mostly known as a time trialist and is even a former junior world champion in the discipline. His focus on sprints has definitely taken away his top level in the race against the clock but on a short, flat course, he should be able to limit his losses. He showed good condition in the Tour Down Under but his lead-out train didn't work well. This is unlikely to be the case in Dubai where he can count on the support of his usual train, with riders like Tom Veelers, Koen De Kort and Bert De Backer all in attendance.


As he is probably the fastest rider in the race, this could give him the edge, and if he can again dominate the sprints, an overall win could be with reach. The dark horse, though, is the hilly third stage as the route information doesn't tell much about the climbs. They could be enough to rule out Kittel from the list of potential winners.


Adriano Malori has long shown that he is a fantastic time trialist and on short flat courses, he was not too far behind Tony Martin in the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie. This Dubai time trial is not too different from those stages and he will not be far off the mark. He showed good condition in San Luis when he beat Phinney in the time trial even if the American would probably have won had he chosen the right equipment. As Malori will find it hard to beat Martin and is not fast enough to score bonus seconds, it will be difficult to win but don't be surprised if he ends on the final podium.


Movistar lines up a formidable roster of time trialists. In addition to Malori, they can count on Spanish champion Jonathan Castroviejo. It will be his first race of the season and so his form level is a big unknown but there is little doubt that he will give the time trial a short. His best may not be quite up to the level of Martin, Cancellara, Phinney and Malori but if things go perfectly, a  podium spot is certainly within reach.


The same can be said for the final card on the Movistar hand, Alex Dowsett. The Brit famously beat Bradley Wiggins in the long time trial in last year's Giro but has had difficulty reproducing that kind of form since that fantastic ride. Nonetheless, no one doubts that he is a fantastic time trialist and he is guaranteed to give it a shot on the opening day. Being happy to play the domestique role, his personal targets are the races against the clock and he will be eager to start his campaign to get selected for the Movistar Tour de France squad. A podium spot in Dubai would be a good way to do so.


Finally, Tyler Farrar deserves a mention. The American is not able to match the likes of Kittel and Cavendish in the sprints but he is a versatile rider who rides very good prologues. Alongside Sagan, he could be the fast finisher who posts the best time on the opening day, and from there he will try to take back time via time bonuses. He is reported to produce some very good numbers in training and even if he failed to show it in the Tour de San Luis, he should be in the mix in Dubai. He is unlikely to win a stage but if he can produce a good ride in the time trial and consistently finish in the top 3 in the sprints, a much-needed podium place could be within reach.


***** Tony Martin

**** Fabian Cancellara, Taylor Phinney

*** Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish,  Marcel Kittel

** Adriano Malori, Jonathan Castroviejo, Alex Dowsett, Tyler Farrar

* Giacomo Nizzolo, Bob Jungels, Kristof Vandewalle, Thor Hushovd, Danilo Hondo



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