Yousif Mirza is adamant UAE Team Emirates can reach the summit of professional cycling this season and win a Grand Tour event.
The Emirates-based team enjoyed a solid debut campaign on the UCI WorldTour in 2017, finishing 12th out of the 18 teams, having been added to the roster along with Bahrain-Merida, who claimed 14th place.
The team, set-up from the ashes of professional cycling veterans Lampre-Merida, boasted 2013 world champion Rui Costa among its ranks last year, as well as Louis Meintjes who claimed eighth-place in the General Classification at the Tour de France for a second successive year.
This year, the team added reigning European champion Alexander Kristoff as well as 2015 Giro d’Italia champion Fabio Aru, not to mention 2013 Volta a Catalunya and Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, Dan Martin.
And even though South Africa’s Meintjes has left to join Team Dimension Data, based in his homeland, Mirza believes UAE Team Emirates are assembling a roster capable of winning one of the big three races – Le Tour, Giro or the Vuelta a Espana – this year.
“You can feel and see that the team is improving. We have brought some strong riders for the GC of a Grand Tour and our goal is to win a Grand Tour this season,” the Emirati stated defiantly after helping his team to a podium place at his home race, the Dubai Tour, where Team UAE finished third in the group standings behind BMC and Katusha-Aplecin.
“It is something the whole team, riders and staff feel is achievable.”
The likes of Chris Froome at Team Sky, Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb, BMC’s Richie Porte, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali are likely to be the main protagonists for Grand Tour glory in 2018, but with Aru now as a team-mate, Mirza feels the second-year team are much stronger than a year ago.
“We have added Fabio and Alex and I think now our chances to win a Grand Tour are enhanced, why not,” he said. “You can see what we have and that we can compare ourselves with other teams.”
Even if the 29-year-old does not get the chance to make his Grand Tour debut and be a part of the teams heading to Italy, France and Spain later in the year, Mirza insists he and the whole squad would cherish Grand Tour glory.
“I want to represent my team and my country. And even if I am not part of the team that goes to a Grand Tour, it will be enough for me if I see the flag of my country on top,” he added.
“It is my dream to see my flag on the TV from when I was a kid. It happened last season and I think it will happen more this season.”
Mirza himself feels a year on board a team at cycling’s elite level has moved him on as a rider. And he played a big part of Kristoff’s support team in Abu Dhabi that saw the Norwegian narrowly miss out on a podium place.
📸 Do you remember all the best moments of 🇦🇪#DubaiTour this week?— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 10 February 2018
Check out the full photo Gallery on our website➡️:https://t.co/7yhp3d0FzS #UAETeamEmirates
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The 30-year-old earned four top 10 finishes on his debut for the team in Dubai, crossing the line in fourth place twice and seventh place twice – with a crash on the final bend of Stage 5 on Saturday ruining his chances of another, and a possible podium, as he had to settle for 58th and ninth overall.
Italian youngster Filippo Ganna, meanwhile, started the season on a bright note with a third-place finish at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina, another indication to Mirza that the UAE are moving in the right direction.
“After competing in Argentina and here in Dubai, I have really noticed the improvement in riding from the team,” he added.
“The quality of riding and our morale is very high and that means we’ll fight during the season to achieve top results.”
The 2018 Dubai Tour ended in style on Saturday with Elia Viviani sprinting to victory in the fifth and final stage.
Let’s relive it through this year’s “Dubai Alphabet”:
A for Astana: A team known for specializing in the Grand Tours’ overall classifications, Astana unveiled their new Classics-oriented style of racing with their Danish recruit Magnus Cort Nielsen, second in the Dubai Tour overall (and Best Young Rider), and with Riccardo Minali third in Stage 2 and a constant presence at the front in the attacking parts of the race.
B for Blue Jersey: the General Classification jersey, sponsored by Commercial Bank of Dubai, was worn by two riders, Dylan Groenewegen of Lotto NL-Jumbo, and Elia Viviani of Quick Step-Floors.
C for Castelli: 558 jackets, 1174 polo shirts, 408 pairs of pants and 680 hats provided for the officials – plus, of course, the 20 jerseys for the leaders of the Dubai Tour’s four classifications.
D for Dubai Sports Channel: The host broadcaster provided full live coverage of each and every stage on both Dubai Sports Channel 1 (in Arabic) and Dubai Sports Channel 2 (in English), with race, pre-race and post-race shows totalling 24 hours.
E for Emirates: The Points Classification was won by Elia Viviani of Quick-Step Floors, leader of the Red Jersey Classification sponsored by Emirates. It was also worn by Dylan Groenewegen of Lotto NL-Jumbo.
F for Five Editions: The Dubai Tour celebrated its fifth anniversary in style: superb weather, big show from the riders and, during the first stage, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, attending the race.
G for Guests: 104 VIP guests followed the Dubai Tour from the VIP cars that were supplied by the official partner, Audi Al Nabooda.
H for Hatta: Hatta has become the perfect venue for a thrilling finale with everything to be won or lost in the last 100 meters of an uphill stretch to the dam. This year the Dubai Tour’s Queen stage registered the win of the Italian Sonny Colbrelli of the Bahrain–Merida Pro Cycling Team.
I for Intermediate Sprint Classification: The UAE Flag Jersey, sponsored by the Dubai Health Authority, ended up on the shoulders of Frenchman Quentin Valognes who broke away on two occasions, despite being a sprinter for Team Novo Nordisk, a unique team made up of diabetic cyclists only.
J for Journalists: 198 members of the media attended the Dubai Tour, comprising 150 journalists and 48 photographers, representing 88 international and national media outlets.
K for Km: The riders of the fifth Dubai Tour covered 841km at the average speed of 44.025km/h.
L for Likes: 95,000 on Facebook, 13,100 on Twitter and 11,300 on Instagram, +19% compared with the 2017 edition by the start of stage 5.
M for Meraas: The City Walk area hosted the final sprint for the second year consecutively and, again, was a great show. A big crowd was pumped up by a favorite local radio celebrity, Kris Fade, and was rewarded by the thrilling sprint won by Elia Viviani.
N for News: During the five days of the Dubai Tour, more than 500 articles have been published each day covering the Dubai Tour across worldwide media. The increased exposure in media outlets from some of the world’s most populated countries – such as China, India and Brazil – is noteworthy.
O for Official Timekeeper: Brandon McNulty of Rally Cycling received the #dontcrackunderpressure prize offered by Tag Heuer, the Dubai Tour’s official timekeeper.
P for Peloton: 111 riders started the Dubai Tour on February 6th. 105 completed all five stages. The General classification by teams was won by BMC Racing Team. Their seven riders completed the five stages in 57 hours, 18 minutes and 30 seconds.
Q for Quick-Step Floors: The Belgian outfit has reached the impressive proportion of 80% of overall victories in the Dubai Tour – with four victories out of five – Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel (twice) and Elia Viviani having achieving the overall win, in consecutive years, for the same sponsor.
R for Rookie: The fifth Dubai Tour will be remembered for the cruel end to the breakaway of the USA’s 19-year-old Brandon McNulty who got swallowed by the peloton in the last 50 meters of Stage 4. Jacob Hennessy is another name to remember: the 21-year-old British sprinter finished sixth on Stage 1 and was the last escape artist reined in on the last stage along with his Australian team-mate from Mitchelton-BikeExchange Robert Stannard who was the youngest competitor at the age of 19.
S for Skydive: The Dubai Tour Fan Village, hosted by Skydive Dubai, was a big success and registered large attendance numbers every day from Tuesday till Saturday. Thanks to the large public seating area and the food trucks provided by ‘Last Exit’, the teams’ and sponsors’ paddocks with a wide range of activities both to watch and participate in, and the radio shows of Dubai Eye 103.8 and Tag 91.1.
T for Television: The Dubai Tour was shown in 192 countries, 9 more territories compared with 2017 (+4.9%).
U for UAE: Six Emirates were involved in the 2018 Dubai Tour’s route: Ajman, Sharjah, Umm-Al-Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and, of course, Dubai.
V for Viviani: Elia Viviani hasn’t ‘just’ won two stages and the overall classification of the 2018 Dubai Tour… he also enchanted media and fans with his smart and informative comments and interview, making himself an excellent ambassador for the event.
W for Win: Only eight riders have recorded victories here in Dubai, since 2014. The record holder is still the German Marcel Kittel with eight wins, followed by the Italian Elia Viviani (4), Mark Cavendish (GBR) with 3, the German John Degenkolb with 2, then Taylor Phinney (USA), Juan Antonio Lobato (ESP), Dylan Groenewegen (NED) and Sonny Colbrelli (ITA) with one each.
X for Xue: Xue Fuwen was one of the attackers in the Mitchelton-BikeExchange team in the Chinese-registered squad’s first participation in the Dubai Tour. The team features an interesting mix of young talents including Australian and Chinese prospects, one of them being Kazakhstan-born Nazaerbieke Bieken, who is an Asian mountain biking champion.
Y for Young: The Best Young Rider – the White Jersey, sponsored by RTA (Roads and Transport Authority), was held throughout this year’s Dubai Tour by Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (Team Lotto NL – Jumbo), Belgium’s Nathan van Hooydonck (BMC Racing Team) and eventually won by Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana Pro Team).
Z for Zayed: Because 2018 marks 100 years since the birth of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE, who passed away in 2004.
That Elia Viviani – already considered one of the planet’s most elite sprinters – has set himself the goal of becoming one of the best, says everything about the Italian’s burning ambition.
Then again, despite a decorated career that includes an Olympic gold medal, when he lines up his awards and achievements next to those of fellow sprint kings Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, perhaps the Quick-Step Floors rider still feels he has some ground to make up before he becomes the true golden boy.
Despite the 29-year-old’s burgeoning reputation, there was some truth behind the words uttered at his press conference following his Dubai Tour victory on Saturday, when he modestly admitted he still doesn’t consider himself among the best.
“I really want to win more than I win until now. I’m not a poor sprinter but I think I need to win bigger races to feel like a really big champion in cycling,” Viviani responded when one journalist scoffed at the suggestion he wasn’t already among the world’s best.
Viviani was sat yards from the finish line where minutes earlier he had plundered his second stage victory of the weekend, the Dubai Tour champion’s trophy resting in front of him.
He was being humble. But also honest. After all, both Kittel and Cavendish’s list of major accomplishments are plentiful, especially when stacked up against his own.
Manx Missile Cavendish has rocketed to a roaring 30 individual stage wins over the last decade at the most prestigious road race on earth – the Tour de France – where he trails the mercurial Eddy Merckx by just four victories. He also won the points classification at Le Tour in 2011.
From that decade he sits a scarcely believable joint third in total Grand Tour stage wins, alongside Italy’s Alessandro Petacchi; both men have 48. Belgian great Merckx predictably tops the list with 64, with another Italian, Mario Cipollini, second on 57.
Cavendish also has form at the other two Grand Tours, winning 15 stages at the Giro d’Italia from 2008-13 and three at the Vuelta a Espana (all in 2010).
Kittel’s penchant for the big stage is no less impressive. The German is 20th on the Grand Tour’s most successful riders list with 19 victories – 14 stage wins at the Tour de France, four at the Giro and one at the Vuelta. His flair for the famous French race puts him sixth for most Le Tour triumphs.
Viviani’s combined Grand Tour stage victories? Just one. A solitary victory on Stage 2 at his home race of the Giro in 2015.
So there was definitely a healthy combination of realism and desire when Viviani spoke of aiming to become “one of the best in the world and maybe one of the best Italian riders”.
In addition to climbing closer to Kittel and Cavendish, iconic compatriots Petacchi and Cipollini are likely in his thoughts too.
And the best way to get closer is by beating the best, as Viviani consistently did during the five days in Dubai. Victory on Stage 2 and 5, third on Stage 1 and sixth on Stage 3 and 4. Stage 3 was the only time he finished lower than the deadly duo, with Cavendish first and Kittel third.
At the start of the new season, there is a sense of change in the air. Viviani’s victory in Dubai halted a three-peat attempt from Kittel, while Cavendish – who he beat to omnium gold in Rio – was champion here in 2015.
The Englishman may be the more successful rider of the three, but Kittel – now with Katusha-Alpecin – has undoubtedly been sultan of the sand, winning eight stages (of 21 total in the Dubai Tour’s five editions) and two overall titles during three appearances here.
That Quick-Step – for whom Cavendish won here three years ago – allowed Kittel to leave during the off-season is telling.
The giant German had essentially been let go due to the emergence of young Colombian, Fernando Gaviria, which jeopardised Kittel’s spot in the team’s Tour de France line-up.
Viviani, while as big a name as his two rivals, perhaps does not possess the alpha male persona of Kittel or Cavendish.
The affable Isola della Scala native is a bona fide world class talent but without the ego. Both Kittel and Cavendish have reputations for being fierce competitors and moody characters.
With Viviani, Quick-Step know they have a superstar rider in their stable, but one more content not being the team’s most high-profile sprinter, happy to play second fiddle to the exciting Gaviria, a man six years his junior.
It’s a role he’s accustomed to. After all, during three years at Team Sky, he lived in the shadow of Chris Froome.
Just because he is content, however, does not mean Viviani is cowering. He is now at a sprint-orientated team considered the best in the business.
Perhaps he is more calculated than you think and just crouched, set to pounce on his best year yet.