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Will Contador win his final race as a Tinkoff rider?

Photo: Sirotti




19.10.2016 @ 20:06 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Since 2011 the Tour of Beijing has been the final major stage race on the international calendar but after the demise of the Chinese race, the professional cycling circus will wave goodbye to the 2016 season at the second edition of Abu Dhabi Tour in the Middle East. Organized by the RCS Sport, the event aims to become a main fixture on the international cycling calendar and like in the debut year, partnerships with Velon and UCI have allowed it to attract a formidable line-up. With the event set to join the WorldTour in 2017, the foundation is laid for what could be solid and exciting future for the fourth big stage race in the region.


One of the major goals for the UCI in recent years has been to globalize the professional cycling world. The international federation has received lots of criticism for their achievements in several areas but when it comes to making the sport more global, they have had plenty of success. The main events during the core part of the season may still take place in Europe – after all it is impossible to change what is a long and glorious history of the sport – but nowadays the opening and final parts of the season both offer opportunities for teams to race in other continents.


The trend is most evident at the start of the year as teams are desperately searching for well-organized races in good weather conditions at a time when rain and cold make Europe less suited to bike-racing. That has led to a flurry of new events and nowadays races like the Tours of Qatar and Oman, Dubai Tour, Tour Down Under, Tour de San Luis (which will be cancelled in 2017) and – to a lesser extent – Tour de Langkawi have taken over the role as preferred early-season events for many of the sport’s biggest starts.


The trend is less evident at the tail end of the year as the riders are mostly looking forward to the off-season and some well-deserved recovery. In fact, a long journey at this time of the season is not very attractive for many riders. Hence, it is no surprise that the UCI’s attempt to end the season at the Tour of Beijing never became a big success and for many riders, it was definitely an unpleasant surprise to be asked by their respective teams to travel to China at a time when rest was the only thing on their mind. The Chinese event never became a big success and after the plans to establish a second WorldTour stage race in Hangzhou never materialized, the Chinese stage race has now disappeared from the calendar.


This has opened the door for others to fill the void and it is no surprise that it is the wealthy Abu Dhabi that has taken the opportunity to put on a final stage race. Qatar was the first Arab country to organize a major cycling event and the Tour of Qatar has developed into one of the highlights of the month of February. Oman was the next to be attracted by the idea and with the backing of ASO, the Tours of Qatar and Oman now form a solid block of racing in the early part of the season.


It has never been a secret that the new management at Giro d’Italia organizers RCS Sport want to globalize both their races and their general operations and they jumped on the opportunity to team up with Dubai when the emirate wanted to put on a bike race in 2014. The inaugural Dubai Tour was probably not very exciting from a racing perspective but with the combination of RCS’ expertise and the Arab money, the well-organized event was able to attract an incredible start field. The 2015 and 2016 races offered a more diverse course and again there were stars in abundance for the Arab race.


In 2015, RCS teamed up with another emirate, Abu Dhabi, to create a new event that brought the curtain down on the season. Unlike the Tour of Beijing, the Abu Dhabi Tour is not part of the WorldTour and so it doesn’t offer important WorldTour points as an incentive for riders to travel to the UAE for the race. Instead, RCS and the local organizers took other steps to gather a field that was the strongest ever for a stage race at this time of the year.


First of all, they joined forces with the new Velon group that has gathered several top teams and pushes for changes in cycling. One of their hopes is that active collaboration with organizers will benefit both parties. The teams can promise to line up their biggest stars while getting a share of the revenues. The collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Tour organizers was unprecedented and the results were evident. Few would have expected a stage race in October to attract the likes of Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Fabio Aru, Richie Porte, Philippe Gilbert, Tom Dumoulin, Marcel Kittel, Esteban Chaves and Michael Matthews but that’s what was made possible by the new partnership.


Secondly, a deal with the UCI was made to host a UCI Cyling Gala after the conclusion of the final stage. It has always been an obvious idea to gather the biggest stars of both men’s and women’s cycling and celebrate their achievements at a big event, much like it is known from many countries where the best national riders gather for a big gala. For the first time ever, the UCI celebrated the world champions, grand tour winners and WorldTour winners from the men’s side of the sport and the world champions and World Cup winner on the women’s side. As many riders had to travel to Abu Dhabi for that event, they also did the race.


From a racing perspective, the race was a bit more exciting that the Dubai Tour. The early-season race had three sprint stages and a lumpy stage for classics riders and came down to a battle for bonus seconds between puncheurs and sprinters, and the Abu Dhabi Tour had a very similar format. In the new event, however, the hilly stage was a lot more difficult and one for the true climbers. Of course the race is all about promoting Abu Dhabi so three of the stages took place in the urban areas which are flat and suited to sprinters. However, the race ventured into the mountains on day three for a summit finish on an 10.8km climb that averages 6.6% which allowed Esteban Chaves to win the race after an exciting battle with Wout Poels.


The first edition was a huge success but it was also marred by extreme heat which forced one of the stages to be shortened. In 2016, those problems may be smaller as the late date for the Worlds means that the race will be held a few weeks later. However, that solution doesn’t work in the long term so the organizers have been keen to move it to February where it can be part of the already excellent racing block in the Middle East.


For 2017, the UCI have accepted the request and to make things even better for RCS, they have passed both the Tour of Oman and the Dubai Tour in the battle for a spot on the expanded WorldTour calendar. Next year the third edition will be held as the fourth and final stage race in the block and together with the Qatari race, it has been added to the finest series of the sport. It’s a dramatic and rapid move through the ranks that has seen the old race become one of the first Asian races on the WorldTour calendar after years of discussion about when and where the series would hit the biggest continent.


With the future changes, 2016 will mark the race’s final year as the final stage race of the season and next year it will be a key preparation event instead. Just like in 2015, the organizers have attracted a fantastic field but while the inaugural edition had a nice mix of sprinters and climbers, the balance has clearly tipped towards the fast men. This year most of the sprinters are already in the Middle East and riders like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, Elia Viviani, John Degenkolb and Michael Matthews have all decided to stay there for another week to ride in Abu Dhabi. However, most climbers ended their season already at the Abu Dhabi Tour and so it has been very hard to convince them to prolog their season by three weeks. Nonetheless, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali will be in attendance but the long racing break will turn the event into a very open affair.


In 2015, Esteban Chaves took his first stage race victory. While three of the stages were dominated by the sprinters, the race was decided in the queen stage on the third day. Wout Poels and Esteban Chaves battled it out after having dropped the Astana pair of Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. The Dutchman seemed to have taken the win but a stupid crash in the final turn just metres from the line cost him the glory. He was passed by Chaves who won the race ahead of Aru and Poels. Last year’s three podium finishers have all ended their seasons and so there will be no chance for them to make it into the top 3 for the second year in a row.


The course

It is a well-known fact that there is often a conflict of interests when organizers have to design their courses. On one hand, they want to design a diverse and exciting route that can inspire to great racing. On the other hand, the economic aspect plays a big role and the final outcome is often dictated by the amount of money that certain cities are willing to pay.


For the Abu Dhabi Tour organizers, it is evident that the main purpose of the race is to promote Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination and so most of the race has to take place in the tourist areas which are mainly flat. This makes for an obvious conflict of interest that is very similar to the challenges RCS have faced in Dubai.


The outcome is almost identical to the one that they found for their early-season race and the formats are identical too. In fact, the race will be almost a copy of the inaugural event. The race shapes up to be a paradise for sprinters as three of the four stages will take place in the urban areas and only the wind could potentially prevent three straightforward bunch sprints. Like in Dubai, the first two stages will be for the fast riders and again the race ends with a short, flat stage on the Yas Marina F1 circuit. Again the final leg will be held in the early evening.


While the sprinters will be in the spotlight for most of the time, the GC will be decided on the third stage which is one for the pure climbers. Most of it will take place in the city of Al Ain but the riders will head into the nearby mountains for the finish at the top of the Jebel Haffet climb which also decided last year’s race. In fact, the format makes it pretty similar to the Tour of Beijing which was also mainly a race for sprinters while the climbers decided the GC with a big mountaintop finish on the penultimate stage.



Stage 1

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 and is very similar to the opening stage of last year’s race. Compared to stages 2 and 4, it is a bit 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 147km and will both start and finish in Madinat Sayed which also hosted the finish of last year’s opening stage. It runs entirely into the desert, with the first and last parts of about 45km on straight, wide roads. From the start, the riders will follow a long, straight and flat desert road without a single turn to the city of Liwa. Once they are there, the will contest the first intermediate sprint at the 53.2km mark and then the riders will do a short circuit characterised by constant undulations over dunes, adding up to a small amount of total elevation. Back in Liwa, they will contest the second intermediate sprint after of racing. From there, they will follow the same straight, flat road back to Madinat Zayed, where, after a first passage of the finish line, a final 14.5km circuit will conclude the stage. It is flat and mostly follows straight roads with a few sharp 90-degree turns. In the final kilometres, there are only three proper bends, one to the right and two to the left (the final bend being to the left). The last kms are on wide, straight boulevards, punctuated by wide-curved roundabouts. The final km is straight on asphalt.


The amount of climbing is limited and even though it comes late in the season, it will not play any role. Instead, it will be the desert winds that could potentially cause some dangers. In the Dubai Tour, the wind has never really played a role and last year it was no different in Abu Dhabi. Otherwise, it should be a straightforward day for the sprinters as a formidable field of fast finishers means that it will be hard for anyone to deny the sprint teams a chance to set up a bunch kick.




Stage 2:

After a day of riding in the desert, it is time for the organizers to show off the main city. While stage 1 had the wind, a bit of climbing and a longer distance to challenge the riders, their won’t be many difficulties in the second stage which is all about showing the capital and giving the sprinters another chance to go for glory. Like the first stage, it closely resembles the second stage of last year’s race.


Unlike last year, the stage won’t stage at the Yas Marine Circuit. Instead, it starts in the centre of Abu Dhabi and ends at Al Marina just a few hundred metres away from the start. At just 115km, it is mostly in the city. After the start, the peloton will travel on wide roads towards the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and then towards Yas Island with a passage through Khalifa City, where there are several roundabouts and speed humps. At the Yas Island the first intermediate sprint comes at the Yas Marina circuit after 55.1km of racing and then the race goes to the Sheikh Zayed bin Highway towards Abu Dhabi Corniche. It follows a route within Reem Island – including the second intermediate sprint after 95.9km of racing – and then returns to the Corniche where the finish line is located. The entire route is on wide boulevards with road furniture constantly dividing the lanes, and the roads are completely flat. The final 5km are on increasingly large roads with large semi-curves leading to the straight finish on asphalt.


With a completely flat course along wide, straight roads with barely any technical challenges, this stage has bunch sprint written all over it. Even though there are no circuits, it’s a typical stage in a capital and as it takes place in urban areas, the wind is unlikely to be an issue. It has all the ingredients to be a fast affair where the sprinters will battle it out in the end.




Stage 3:

For the climbers, the 2016 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 2016 season. At the end of the third stage, they will have to go full gas for the final time as the Arabic race is set to be decided entirely in its queen stage. While the first part of the relatively short stage is mainly about promoting the city of Al Ain, the climb of Jebel Hafeet is where the nature of the race will change completely and where the winner of the second edition of the race will be found. Again the stage is very similar to the one that decided last year’s race.


The stage covers 150.+km from Al Ain to the summit finish on the nearby Jebel Hafeet and comprises both urban surroundings and mountains. The first part, inside Al Ain city, is all on wide roads with roundabouts and speed humps – and includes the first intermediate sprint after 30.4km of racing – and is followed by a second part in the desert along wide and predominantly straight roads. From a turning point on the western outskirts of the city, the riders will head towards the main climb which is located just south of Al Ain. With 15km to go, the route starts to rise slightly towards the final ascent – and the riders will contest the final intermediate sprint with 13.5km to go – culminating in an uphill finish at an altitude of 1025m, following an 10.8km climb with slopes with an 11% gradient and an average gradient of 6.6%. The final climb is on wide-ranging bends on a three-lane roadway. The gradient is mostly around 8-9% with a peak of 11% at 3km to go. From there, it gets easier at 3-4%. There are short descents in the last kilometre before the final 4% ramp with a straight finish on asphalt. The penultimate hairpin bend comes with 3km to go while the final one comes just 100m from the line where Wout Poels famously crashed in 2015.


Last year’s stage turned into a big showdown between the best climbers and this is what we can expect again. The climb is hard enough to do some serious damage, especially at this time of the year, and it will split the race to pieces. However, the hardest part comes on the lower slopes while the short descent and easier gradients near the top could suit punchier riders. This should set the scene for an exciting battle where the less explosive riders have to try to make the difference pretty early, trying to dislodge riders who have the punch to finish it off in an uphill dash to the line. The Furthermore, the riders have to be careful of the desert wind before they even get to the climb. With just one largely ceremonial stage to go, this is where the overall winner will be crowned.






Stage 4:

It’s a tradition that the biggest stage races end with a criterium-like race in the capital while shorter stage races often see the GC battle go down to the wire on a challenging final day. Despite being just a four-day race, the Abu Dhabi Tour will do like most national tours do: end the race with a circuit race in the city centre. Like last year, they have chosen the Yas Marina F1 circuit as the venue and the stage will be held early in the evening. This should make for a spectacular end to the stage racing season when some of the best sprinters battle it out in Abu Dhabi on the final big day of racing in 2016. Compared to last year, the stage is a bit longer as the riders will do more laps.


At just 143km, the final stage is still a short one and the entire stage takes place on the Yas Island. There are 26 laps on the F1 Yas Marina circuit, each of 5.5km with three intermediate Sprints as we count down to the finale. The first intermediate sprint is at lap 11, with 15 laps to go; the second at 10 laps to go and the last intermediate sprints with just five laps to go. The circuit is flat, the roads are wide and the surface is in impeccable condition. The first part is mainly made up of long, straight roads but the final two kilometres are technically pretty challenging, with four 90-degree turns coming in relatively quick succession in the final kilometre. The final right-hand turn comes just a 250m from the line, meaning that it will be a sprint where positioning and lead-outs are very important.


The stage is largely ceremonial and unless bad luck strikes, it is unlikely that it will have an impact on GC. However, if the gaps between the best riders are small, the bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints are likely to come into play. Otherwise we should have a typical criterium where a number of riders will be keen to have one final big hit-out in the breakaway before their celebrations later in the evening. The gaps rarely get very big in this kind of stage though and it will be a big surprise if the sprint teams fail to big it back together for a final bunch kick.




The favourites

Late-season races are always a bit of a lottery because the level of fatigue and motivation changes the usual hierarchy significantly. However, we usually have some recent races to use for the predictions and even though form changes quickly at this time of the year, it gives dome kind of indication of who’s going well.


Things will be much worse at the Abu Dhabi Tour. Last year the race was held less than a week after Il Lombardia and so many climbers were still in great form. This year the race comes almost three weeks after the Italian race and the queen stage will be held exactly 21 days after the last hilly race of the year. Most of the climbers haven’t done a single race since then and so we have no indication of who’s going well. It must be very hard to keep the motivation to keep training for three weeks at a time when almost everyone else have ended their season and it would be no surprise if most of the riders have been attracted more by what is likely to have been a solid paycheck than the real desire to go for the win.


This puts the Abu Dhabi Tour up there with the most unpredictable races of the year and to find out who’s on form, we probably had to do a survey among the climbers in the race. We can expect some pretty big surprises and even non-climbers may do quite decently. At this time, it is more about motivation than anything else.


Nonetheless, we know what’s going to decide the race. Stages 2 and 4 will be for the sprinters and as they take place in the city, the wind will play no big role. However, stage 1 could become dangerous as most of it takes place in the desert. Interestingly, pretty strong winds are forecasted and this could change the race completely. Unfortunately, it will be a northwesterly wind and this means that it will be a cross-headwind on the way back. It’s not impossible that things will split up in the early part of the race but it take a really committed team to keep it going all the way to the finish.


Unless things split up in stage 1, it will all be decided in the queen stage. Again it will be pretty windy and as the riders will spend some time in the desert, the climbers have to be attentive even before we get to the climb. In the end, the race will be decided on the ascent. Last year it turned out to be a brutal mountain which split the peloton to pieces. The climb is definitely hard enough for the climbers to make a difference and there is little doubt that the race will be won by such a rider. However, it is important to remember that the final kilometres are rather easy so if a good puncheur can survive the steep part, he will have the upper hand.


As said, the race will be decided by motivation and climbing legs and this makes Alberto Contador the favourite. On paper, the Spaniard is one of the two best climbers in the race but it is even more important that he is known for his huge motivation and consistency. He hasn’t raced since the Vuelta and had to skip Il Lombardia due to illness so we can’t expect him to be at 100%. However, this is his final race in Tinkoff colours and there is no doubt that he wants to leave the team on a high.


Oleg Tinkov had some very harsh words for Contador in a recent interview with Cyclingnews and he could be forgiven to have lost all motivation. However, he is a very proud rider and he would never turn up for a race if he was not in decent condition. With the kind of field that is here, he doesn’t need to be in peak condition to win and if he is probably better prepared than most others. Furthermore, his huge attentiveness means that he is unlikely to miss out in the crosswinds and he may even gain time there. We expect Contador to end his time at Tinkoff on a high by winning his final race for the team.


On paper this is a race for pure climbers and the main climb should be too hard for Diego Ulissi. However, as it is more about form than climbing skills, the Italian stands out as one of the big favourites. Last year he surprised himself by finishing fourth in the queen stage and this will make him confident that he can be up there with the best. More importantly, he had a much better autumn season in Italy where he did very well in Tre Valli Varesine and in Milan-Turin which has an even harder finale. Of course the main question is whether he has maintained his form but he has proved that he has the ability to stay motivated right until the end.


Finally, Ulissi should benefit from the easier finale to the climb. He is a master in limiting his losses and that’s what he will do in the steep part. If he can get back in contention in the easier part, no one is going to beat him in a sprint. There may be better climbers than him but the combination of form and the nature of the climb means that he can very well win the race.


Vincenzo Nibali is the big joker. After his crash at the Olympics, he has only done two races. He was surprisingly good in the Tre Valli Varesine where he was thee late in the race and then he worked for the team at the Tour of Almaty. He hasn’t races for three weeks but he must be motivated to get into a decent condition and lay a solid foundation for the 2017 season. He should be a lot fresher than most others and must have had more motivation to keep training. On paper, he is the only rider able to match Contador on a climb like this and everything depends on whether he has had enough time to get into a winning condition.


Sky go into the race with Nicolas Roche as their leader. The Irishman is one of the few riders who were active at the Worlds as he did both the TT and the TTT. He proved to be in pretty good form which he also showed at the European Championships time trial and the Tour of Britain. He was hugely frustrated to miss the Vuelta a Espana due to illness and made it clear that he wanted to make up for the disappointment with a solid showing at the end of the year. It seems that has remained motivated and he has a strong history as a rider for the late season. Of course there are better climbers than him in this race but in the Vuelta he has proved that he can match the best at this time of the year.


Another rider arriving straight from Qatar is Tanel Kangert who did the team time trial. The Estonian is one of two Astana cards and seems to be in pretty good form. He worked really well for his team in the Italian classics where he was there late in the races and as he had to do the Worlds, he has probably maintained his training. He rarely gets a chance to ride for himself so he should be motivated to grab a rare opportunity. If he is close to his best form, he is definitely climbing well enough to win the race.


Movistar have several good climbers but none of them have shown much form. However, they haven’t raced much recently and if they have stayed motivated, they have the climbing skills to do well. Their best card is probably Andrey Amador who has shown very little form is the Giro. However, he was active in the Worlds TTT and so he is likely to be in decent condition. Of course he is not a pure climber but in the Giro he has proved that he can match the bet when he is on form.


Orica-BikeExchange will be riding for new signing Carlos Verona who was flying at this time of the year in 2016. H This is a rare chance for him to lead the team and he must still be motivated after his mid-season transfer. He showed good form in Il Lombardia where he worked for Chaves and if he has kept training hard, he should be strong in this race. Last year he showed how good he can be at this time of the year and we won’t be surprised to see him excel in this Abu Dhabi.


Last year Janez Brajkovic did his best race of the season here and he would love to do well again. He has got the chance with the Nasr Dubai team as his Unitedhealthcare squad is absent. He hasn’t shown much this year but in the US, he has indicated that he is still competitive. He solved a heart problem in May and he hasn’t raced much since then. There is a chance that this could allow him to return to his former level and so the potential is big. He hasn’t raced since September so his form is completely up in the air but we expect him to be very motivated for this race so he could very well be riding at a high level.


One of the big question marks is Ben Hermans. The Belgian was amazing at the Vuelta where he proved how much he has improved his climbing. Unfortunately, he failed to carry the good form into the Italian classics where he was far from his best and he was clearly tired at Il Lombardia. It will be a bit of a surprise if he has managed to turn things around for this race but if he has stayed motivated, he can’t be ruled out.


Winner Anacona is definitely one of the best climbers in the race but he hasn’t shown any kind of form since the Tour. He hasn’t raced since Il Lombardia though so he has had time to improve. It’s a good chance for him to go for a personal result and so he may actually be motivated. Unfortunately, he usually needs to race pretty much to get into peak condition so we doubt that he will be at his best.


Lampre-Merida will be working for Ulissi but they have another two cards to play. Jan Polanc is very inconsistent and hasn’t reached his best form in 2016. However, his stage win in last year’s Giro shows how strong he is when he is on form so everything depends on what kind of motivation he has had in October.


The second youngster in the team is stagiaire Edward Ravasi who was second in the Tour de l’Avenir. He has mostly been working for the team in his first few outings in the Lampre colours but this could be a chance for him to go for a personal result. This should be enough of motivation to stay in condition so he could very well turn out to be the surprise of the race.


Matteo Busato has had a bit of a breakthrough in 2016 and he has proved that he can do pretty well in the mountains even though he is not a real climber. Unfortunately, he didn’t really find his best form for the late-season classics so his form is very uncertain. However, that may also have served as a motivation to keep training for this race so if his form is good, he should be able to do well here.


Dayer Quintana won his first race of the year in San Luis and would love to win the final race too. The Colombian is a decent climber but he is not good enough to win in the big races in Europe. However, this race could be a good opportunity for him. As it is the case for everyone else, his form is a very big question mark but he should be very motivated.


Finally, we will point to Trek stagiaire Jacopo Mosca. He proved his talent with a top 10 in the Tour of Britain and this showed that he has the class to challenge the very best. Of course the climb in Abu Dhabi is a real mountain and so a completely different affair and it remains to be seen how he can handle this kind of terrain. There are no GC riders in the Trek team so he should be free to take his own chances and if he has the form he had in September, he should do well again.


***** Alberto Contador

**** Diego Ulissi, Vincenzo Nibali

*** Nicolas Roche, Tanel Kangert, Andrey Amador, Carlos Verona, Jesper Hansen

** Ben Hermans, Winner Anacona, Jan Polanc, Edward Ravasi, Matteo Busato, Dayer Quintana, Jacopo Mosca

* Michal Kwiatkowski, Davide Rebellin, Jelle Vanendert, Julien Bernard, Carlos Betancur, Sander Armee, Sergey Firsanov, Jan Hirt, Artem Nych



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