It is of huge significance for a team just starting its second year of professional competition that UAE Team Emirates managed to acquire the services of Fabio Aru for 2018.
The 27-year-old Italian is one of the most talented professionals in the peloton – having won the Vuelta a Espana in 2015, the same year he claimed the white jersey for best young rider at the Giro d’Italia in his homeland, finishing second overall.
That came 12 months after he claimed a maiden Grand Tour podium place – third – at the same race. His Stage 5 triumph at the Tour de France last year completed a clean sweep of stage victories at Grand Tours – the three races are referred to as cycling’s Triple Crown – of which Aru now has six in total.
Yet despite his achievement from Vittel to La Planche des Belles Filles last July, as well as becoming Italy’s road race champion in June, something didn’t feel right for the then Astana rider.
He’d been at the Kazakhstan-backed team for six years but hadn’t kicked on from his glorious 2015 – despite managing to oust compatriot Vincenzo Nibali as Astana’s jewel in the crown.
UAE Team Emirates finished a credible 12th out of 18 teams on debut in last season’s UCI WorldTour, while Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida – the other newcomers – finished 14th.
Team officials have spoken this week of harbouring lofty ambitions to finish inside the top seven this year and be one of cycling’s leading teams by 2020. And that is the sort of ambition which attracted Aru.
“The project here at UAE Team Emirates matches my ambitions and my view of cycling, the motivations I have are huge,” said the Sardinian.
“It was the right moment for this move. I know the team has a lot of ambition.
“I feel I made a good decision joining. I thought a lot before making this decision and I’m convinced my choice is the best for helping achieve my future goals.
“I spent six years at Astana and I decided I needed to start a new chapter of my cycling career. I thank all the people who worked with me, they all were great and important for helping develop my cycling.”
Aru will saddle up for his UAE Team Emirates debut at the Abu Dhabi Tour, starting on Wednesday. And even though he admits the Giro is “special” for any Italian cyclist, he has designs on all three Grand Tour races, although perhaps not all this season.
“Together with the team’s technical staff and management, also taking into account the goals of the team’s sponsors, we’re studying the courses of the Grand Tours and we’ll wait for the Vuelta a Espana route to be announced,” he said of his aims for 2018.
“Then we’ll choose the programme which could fulfill our goals and ambitions. The Giro d’Italia is something special for an Italian rider, however in France (last year), I felt how prestigious the Tour de France is as a world sports event.
“We are not in hurry for making a definitive choice. I can’t wait to start the new season. I believe I can win some of these big Tours. I hope to be able to do that. I believe the team is a good team and well structured.”
There were some stellar moments for UAE Team Emirates on their professional bow last season. Portugal’s Rui Costa rode to an impressive win on home soil at the Abu Dhabi Tour 12 months ago.
South African Louis Meintjes – who has since moved to Mark Cavendish’s Team Dimension Data – recorded a second successive eighth-place finish at Le Tour.
Slovenia’s Matej Mohoric, who’s joined Nibali in Bahrain, claimed victory on the Vuelta’s Stage 7.
And with Aru’s arrival, promise of further success has also been ushered in, with the arrival of reigning European champion Alexander Kristoff as well as Dan Martin, who has Le Tour and Vuelta stage victories.
And, having witnessed the team’s first steps last year, Aru was encouraged by what he saw.
“The quality of our roster, which was already good in the 2017, has improved even more,” said Aru, who beat Diego Ulissi – now a UAE team-mate – to his first national road race title in Ivrea, near Turin last season.
“This means that we can aim to be protagonist in the main races this season. But first of all, it will be important to have the right attitude for trying to race and trying to give enthusiasm to the fans.
“Looking at the first year of UAE Team Emirates, I can say I immediately perceived the team project was very good, well managed and that the team had a very positive image.”
But he played down suggestions that his nationality will be of benefit to him settling in his new environment.
UAE Team Emirates were born out of the ashes of Lampre-Merida, who had well-established roots in pro cycling going back to the early 1990s. Almost all the staff are Italian as are 12 of the team’s 26 riders.
“There was a large group of Italian riders and staff members at Astana too, so this won’t be a big change for me,” he added.
“I like to work with everybody, the nationally is not a key element, it’s important that everybody works with passion and try to achieve the top goals together as a team.”
Aru finished behind Costa – another man he now calls a team-mate – in Abu Dhabi last year. He was sixth, 48 seconds adrift of the Portuguese, on the grueling ascent of Jebel Hafeet.
The win saw the 2013 world champion leap Cavendish atop the standings and Costa clung to first place in the GC on the final Stage 4 at Yas Marina Circuit as Aru settled for seventh overall.
But he denied that memory and a general lack of competition at Astana last year has led to him now lining up alongside Costa.
He said: “No, I don’t think so. In Abu Dhabi last year, Rui proved to be the strongest, we must congratulate him for that victory. It’s great thinking that we’ll be in the same team in 2018.”
And he admits this weekend’s race takes on special significance for him as a new member of the Emirates’ backed team.
“It’s the race of the sponsor and the home race for the team,” Aru said, pointing to Abu Dhabi as the key race early on in his 2018 plans.
“The Abu Dhabi Tour will be my debut race in the 2018 season and I’ll once again try my best to win. This year I’ll have even higher motivation, given I am racing in the UAE Team Emirates colours.
“We are an awesome team. We have Alex who has just won a stage at the Tour of Oman. We have Rui who is the defending champion here, this team is strong and we’ve done really well here. We believe there will be lots of strong competitors but we believe we can have a good race.”
It is anyone’s guess as to the UAE strategy for Abu Dhabi, with big hitters Aru, Costa and Kristoff all in the side. Aru revealed there is no set strategy for who will be the man pushing for GC honours, but he insists everyone will work together.
He said: “My main goal is to get results. So depending on the strategic situation of each race, if I am helping Rui because he is in a good condition to win the race, no problem for me. We have options and we will see how the race unfolds.
“I trained really well over the off-season but it’s the first race of the season so we will see what shape I’m in and what I can do for the team. I’m really curious to find out what shape I’m in this week.”
Rohan Dennis’ views on the Abu Dhabi Tour have gone from thoughts of dread to thoughts of victory after the introduction of a time trial stage which has left the Australian dreaming of UAE glory.
The only bells ringing in Dennis’ head a month ago were wedding ones, but the 27-year-old’s thoughts quickly turned to wanting to knock seven bells out of someone at his BMC Racing Team after they informed him there would be a change to his early-season schedule and he’d be lining up on the start line for his Abu Dhabi debut.
It meant that any honeymoon plans he and new bride Melissa Hopkins had envisaged were tossed aside – although the couple might well think of celebrating future anniversaries in the UAE capital should he ride to glory on Sunday.
But victory was the furthest thing from his mind when Dennis was told in January – while competing at the Santos Tour Down Under in his homeland – that he would be coming to the Middle East.
“At first no, I didn’t want to be racing in February,” said Dennis, who will be using Abu Dhabi as preparation for his ultimate goal of the Giro d’Italia, starting on May 5.
“I wasn’t supposed to be coming here. I found out during the Tour Down under, it was a bit of a shock. Obviously I was not in a good mood that day.
“I would have liked to know in December, but I got over it and we rearranged some stuff. Once I started to think about it, it was a good change.
“Once we took some racing out after Tirreno-Adriatico (March 7-13), it gave me a good block at home before the Tour de Romandie (April 24-29) and the Giro.
“It worked out really well once we figured out a plan around what’s going to be best to concentrate on the Giro and keep motivated for this period.”
Dennis is thankful wife Melissa – a former cyclist herself, she was a member of the Australian track pursuit team that finished fourth at the 2012 Summer Olympics – is so understanding of her new husband’s schedule.
Even before Abu Dhabi, Dennis revealed no honeymoon had been planned because it was a busy time of year for professional cyclists.
“We knew we weren’t having a honeymoon,” laughed Dennis when speaking at the Tour press conference at Yas Marina Circuit yesterday – Yas Island will be the scene for a 154km Stage 2 from Yas Mall to Yas Beach on Thursday.
“We knew there was no real set honeymoon. We had a pre-wedding honeymoon in October last year.
“We knew there was no way we could have one in February. It’s not feasible with our jobs. She used to ride too so she’s very understanding. It’s just one of those things you have to deal with in this sport.”
So, from getting married in Margaret River, a small town south of Perth in Western Australia known for its beaches and surfing, Dennis admits he’s been swept away by the thought of victory in Abu Dhabi – a race he labels as providing an opportunity to all types of riders.
“They didn’t know there was a time trial until January. They said I could win as there’s a time trial,” said Dennis of his swift change of plans.
“I think I can (win it). There’s other things to worry about. I’m sure there’s going to be some wind. The public loves it. It’s stressful for us but we have to do with it.
“That will be a factor, the time trial obviously and the climb. It’s an all round race, I just have to stay out of trouble until those last few stages.”
The Tour consists of three sprint stages in addition to the time trial and a climb too – the popular yet daunting Abu Dhabi Airports Stage, from Al Ain to Jebel Hafeet.
The stage is an ascent to the finish line at 1,025m above sea level, after 11km of climbing featuring maximum gradients of 11 per cent. It is also the longest stage at 199km, while the Stage 4 time trial on the penultimate day is a brisk 12.6km.
Dennis is hoping he might be in a position where he has performed well on that Al Maryah Island Stage and might be at the front with a bit of a gap between him and the likely contenders on the final day – someone like UAE Team Emirates rider and reigning champion Rui Costa who won on Jebel Hafeet last year.
“The time trial wasn’t going to be the decider if I won or not. There’s going to be some time taken out of the pure climbers with guys like (Tom) Dumoulin and myself as time trailers,” he said.
“It gives us a bit of a buffer but I think it isn’t going to work if I blow it on the climb. I’m not going to win. It’ll still be decided on the climb, it just gives someone like myself more of a chance.
“I would like to see myself not lose time and test my legs on the climb, and fingers crossed it ends well.”
After his Dubai Tour three-peat attempt eluded him at the start of the month, Marcel Kittel is hoping for better a little further down Sheikh Zayed Road at the Abu Dhabi Tour this weekend.
The giant German has dominated in Dubai in recent years, riding to success there in 2016 and 2017 and winning a miraculous eight stages of 21 total since the race was first held in 2014.
In reality he’s won eight of 17 stages as he didn’t compete in a forgettable 2015 campaign. Both of his wins came with Quick-Step Floors, who were toasting another victory in the desert 11 days ago when Elia Viviani claimed the title – Quick-Step’s fourth straight title in Dubai after Mark Cavendish also rode to victory wearing the famous blue and white in 2015.
Kittel – now with Katusha-Alpecin – also has fond memories of the UAE capital having won Stage 2 here a year ago. And he is hoping for better on his second showing in the Emirates this weekend.
“I have good memories of Abu Dhabi and I’m very motivated,” said the Arnstadt native.
“I feel the team had a good start in Dubai but we are hungry for more and want to do better. That is the ambition this week. We are not only focused on winning the sprints as we have Ilnur Zakarin in the General Classification and I think it will be an interesting race for us.”
Despite an overall GC finish of 17th in Dubai less than two weeks ago – his worst following his two victories and a sixth-place finish in 2014 – Kittel is not concerned by his slow start to the 2018 campaign.
“The overall feeling from Dubai was we showed really good team spirit,” he added.
“We know where our mistakes were, what we need to do better and what we need to work on better here and in the next weeks. In a way it was a good race for us. We were there but couldn’t get the victory. We’re in Abu Dhabi now and can do better.
“We finished the race with a meeting to talk about the week, that’s always important. And I think that’s good. You talk about what was good and what was bad and move on to the next race. Be confident and that’s the key so we took a lot of confidence out of Dubai.”
Asked if he has worked anything specific since Dubai, the man who has 19 Grand Tour stage wins – including 14 at the Tour de France – touched on the fact that he and his new team-mates are still getting to know one another.
“I think the most important point was to get a structure into our sprint and how we work together.
“We need to be more aware of what our plan is. It’s also something that takes time so we are not in a rush to push anything.”
And with Kittel keen to add more stage victories to his resume in the UAE capital and Russian rider Zakarin targeting the GC title, the German thinks the duo’s partnership can become profitable.
“I think so,” he said, responding to a question about aiming for the Tour de France later in the year.
“We are not really in sync yet. We don’t have a lot to do together in the race. We support each other of course and the team so it’s important to keep the team spirit.”