One stage remains before the fifth edition of the Dubai Tour comes to an end, and yet we’ve already been treated to a thrilling event that has featured a little bit of everything.
Stage four from Skydive Dubai to Hatta Dam, a unique course on the Tour, fittingly saw a nail-biting finish as American Brandon McNulty was caught in the final metres before Sonny Colbrelli claimed the win.
Here are three takeaways and observations from the day:
A NEW KING WILL BE CROWNED
No offence to Marcel Kittel, but the German sprint star’s domination in the past two editions sapped some of the excitement and unpredictability from the Tour.
It can be enjoyable to watch an athlete fire on all cylinders and be on top of their game, but the drama of the Tour being wide open on the final day is simply more entertaining.
Sure, Elia Viviani will be tough to beat as he enters the sprint-friendly last stage in the blue jersey, but with the way Magnus Cort Nielsen and Sonny Colbrelli have consistently performed – they trail Viviani by two and four seconds, respectively – the general classification title isn’t a given.
Regardless of which of the three pull it off, it will be good to have a fresh face holding up the Circle of Stars trophy, with Kittel and Mark Cavendish – winner of the 2015 edition – both out of the running.
NO HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE
Stage wins have eluded the local side as Alexander Kristoff, despite being in the mix on each of the four days, has come up just short with finishes of fourth, seventh, seventh and fourth.
As the European champion searches for his first win with his new outfit, so too are UAE Team Emirates on the year, having failed to register a victory since the turn of the calendar.
Expectations have rightly been raised, but it would be harsh to say the Tour is a failure for them if they don’t notch at least one stage win. Mirza has shown plenty of promise, while Kristoff has looked as advertised.
“My team mates were fantastic leading me to the approach of #HattaDam, my legs were fairly good, but maybe the final few meters were too heavy for me”. Said @Kristoff87 after the stage 4 🇦🇪#DubaiTour .— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) February 9, 2018
BEAUTY OF HATTA
As unforgiving as it is, stage four is considered to be the favourite by many of the riders in the Tour.
And it’s obvious why. You just don’t see many finishes like the one at Hatta Dam in the world of cycling, with its steep ascent pushing the riders to their limits.
It’s uniqueness as a course is matched by its beauty as a location. If the riders have any breath left by the time they reach the top of the summit, it’s surely taken away by the breathtaking view of blue water and mountains.
And it’s that type of individuality that helps the Dubai Tour earn its place in the cycling calendar.
It was hard not to feel heartbroken for Brandon McNulty as he came agonisingly close to pulling off a stunning upset on stage four of the Dubai Tour before Sonny Colbrelli conquered the Hatta Dam to snatch victory.
He wasn’t the one celebrating atop the podium in the end, but 19-year-old McNulty stole the spotlight in the picturesque race that was decided in the closing moments on the steep ascent up to the finish line.
After separating himself from the peloton and then the remaining survivors of the breakaway with 12 kilometres to go, the Rally Cycling rider kept enough of a distance over the oncoming charge that it appeared as if he might actually do the unthinkable.
But McNulty’s attack took its toll on the uphill finish, where tired legs could no longer fend off the flurry of riders, and just 50 metres from the line, the American was caught.
It wasn’t the ending McNulty wanted, but he took a glass-half-full view in the aftermath of his brave trek.
“I still put myself out there, I showed how strong I was. I’m still happy,” said the US under-23 national champion. “Getting caught with 50 metres to go is nothing to complain about for someone my age, I guess.”
As often is the case with riders in the breakaway, they eventually get chased down in a predictable manner. Painfully for McNulty, however, he actually believed a win was in the bag after holding a 29-second lead by the time he reached the red flag (1km remaining).
“With 100m to go, I was shaking my head like ‘did I just do this?’ Then with 40m to go, I was behind everyone,” he said.
What was going through his mind when the other riders passed him? “Oh s***. I don’t think there’s any other way to put it.”
Instead, it was Colbrelli who had enough in the tank to scale the Hatta Dam – which at its steepest point features a 17-per-cent gradient.
The Bahrain-Merida rider revealed he had suffered a mechanical issue earlier in the race and was effusive in his thanks to the team.
“I really wanted to repay my team for the excellent work they had done for me since the very beginning of the Dubai Tour,” said the Italian. “Vincenzo Nibali has had a decisive role in the finale today. It’s great to have him along. He’s the first who’s ready to disrupt the plans of the pure sprinters and I hope the work he’s doing here will help him reach his goals this year.
“I had a mechanical problem with 20km to go. But I chose to keep the same bike and ride on the 53 gear until the end but it was very difficult to finish it off. The last 50m were never ending.”
It was Colbrelli’s first breakthrough this season, but he had been consistently lurking through the first three stages of the Tour – finishing in the top 10 each time.
His victory now gives him a chance to capture the Circle of Stars trophy as he trails general classification leader Viviani by four seconds heading into the final day.
Viviani could have all but cemented the title with a win in Hatta, but the Quick-Step Floors rider kept hold of the blue jersey while rivals such as Dylan Groenewegen, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish couldn’t capitalise.
The other man posing a threat to the Olympic gold medalist on the final stage is Cort Nielsen, who trails Viviani by just two seconds.
Currently in the white jersey for best young rider, Cort Nielsen is also in contention for the GC crown thanks to two second-place finishes on the opening stage and in Hatta.
The Astana rider know he has his work cut out as the Tour returns to a flat course, which heavily favours Viviani.
“We’ll see now,” said Cort Nielsen. “Viviani is not an easy guy to steal from. It’s not like we just do a bonus sprint and I take it. But for sure we need to try something.”
The Emirati rider finished the race from Skydive Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah in 107th place again, but his work was done well before the finish line as he banked seven intermediate sprint points
Mirza won the first intermediate sprint and then remained in the mix among a breakaway group that also included the UAE National Team’s Mohammed Al Mansoori.
Both were eventually caught by the peloton down the stretch, but Mirza – who admitted to riding more cautiously to avoid another crash – did well to rebound from a disappointing start on day one.
“I’m happy I succeeded in fulfilling the teams expectations for today. The SD were keen for me to join the breakaway and I focused all my attention on that target.” @yousifmirza shows attacking prowess in stage 2 #DubaiTour🇦🇪.— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) February 7, 2018
“Yesterday I tried, but the race was controlled by the good teams. I tried again today and I went in the breakaway and I was happy to be in the breakaway,” the UAE national champion said. “I tried my best to take some bonus points for the team and I did it with the first sprint and in the second sprint I took third. So it was a good bonus for the team.”
Mirza’s team-mates, meanwhile, were again in the thick of the action at the end as Alexander Kristoff followed up his fifth-place finish with seventh on Stage 2.
The Norwegian was one of several riders that went for the bunch sprint finish, only to be out-paced by winner Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).
“It was a bit too early on the front,” Kristoff said. “Unfortunately I had John’s wheel, because he was also too far. If he went for a long one, I think I would have had the perfect position. Unfortunately for me, he was also too far and I just tried to keep the speed, but I knew it was too far.”
The wide road in Ras Al Khaimah made for another exciting finish, although this time there was less danger with the riders not nearly as crowded.
“It felt a bit cleaner, but there was many sprinter teams here, so it’s always a lot of fighting for position,” Kristoff said. “But yeah, it was a bit cleaner today.”