Dutch cyclist Dylan Groenewegen (LottonL-Jumbo) won the first stage of the Dubai Tour on Tuesday, edging out Dane Magnus Cort Nielsen and Italian Elia Viviani to don the blue leader's jersey.
Groenewegen pulled away from Cort Nielsen (Astana Pro) and Viviani (Quickstep-Floors) in the final sprint of stage one of the fifth Dubai Tour, a 167km ride across the Gulf city that ended on the man made islands of Palm Jumeirah.
The second stage of the Dubai Tour starts on Wednesday, on 190km of flat road between Dubai and the neighbouring emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, a route that again will favour sprinters.
Nicolas Roche admits he doesn’t know what to expect at the Dubai Tour but said he will treat the race as important preparation for the Giro D’Italia.
The BMC Racing Team rider will be competing for the first time in the Emirate when the fifth edition of the race begins on Tuesday.
As a mountain specialist, it’s highly unlikely he will challenge the likes of two-time champion Marcel Kittel and former winner Mark Cavendish for the title but the Irishman insists the five-stage race will help him prepare for more demanding events in 2018, especially the Giro in May.
“I’m in unknown territory as I haven’t really tested myself yet,” the 33-year-old told Sport360 in an interview organised by TAG Heuer, one of the team’s sponsors and official timekeeper of the Dubai Tour.
“I’m pretty uncertain about what I can achieve. I think this race will be very important building up for the next races. Even if I do finish, I think it will be a little short for me as it’s a race that suits sprinters. But the aim is to get better and get speed and help build up for the next races.
“For me, it’s the first one that I’ll be competing in the Dubai Tour. I’m quite excited to get going. I finished quite late last year. My condition is not at the peak yet but it will be nice to get going and start racing. The main goal for the first half of the season that I’m aiming for is the Giro,” he added.
Roche has two stage wins on the Grand Tour in his career, both coming at the Vuelta a Espana in 2013 and 2017. Although the Dubai Tour mainly has flat stages, Roche says there is a lot to learn.
“There’s a strong field and it’s not just sprinters competing but a lot of climbers as well,” he said. “It’s important to work on those reflexes for the climbs and get into a different side of racing.”
Yousif Mirza believes racing professionally for UAE Team Emirates has improved him as a cyclist by as much as 40 per cent.
The Ras Al Khaimah native has ridden a real rollercoaster over the last three years, having been the first Emirati cyclist to compete in the Olympics when he entered the road race at the Rio 2016 Games.
Having tasted life briefly as a professional in 2009, Mirza joined the elite ranks once more with Al Nasr Pro Cycling Team–Dubai for 2016 before they disbanded at the end of the campaign.
But the 29-year-old received his proper big break after being plucked by UAE Team Emirates – formerly Lampre-Merida – for 2017 and thereby becoming the first Emirati to ride for a UCI WorldTour team.
“If it was up to me I’d say I’ve improved by 40 per cent from three years ago. I can feel this,” said Mirza, a four-time defending UAE National Road Race champion, having won from 2014-17.
“I started cycling when I was nine years old. I love this sport and it’s been like step by step with planning and training hard until I reached a WorldTour team in 2017. There’s been a lot of work to me reaching my goal, I’ve made my parents proud.”
Mirza rode alongside Rui Costa and Louis Meintjes last season as the UAE finished 12th of 18 teams in the standings.
Costa, the 2013 world champion, remains, while Meintjes has moved on. But UAE Team Emirates is even more star-studded for 2018 with the arrival of 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru, a Giro d’Italia runner-up the same year, from Astana.
Also coming on board are reigning European road race champion Alexander Kristoff and two-time Grand Tour stage winner Dan Martin from Katusha-Alpecin and Etixx–Quick-Step respectively.
And Mirza insists he is ready to learn from his new teammates and improve further.
“What I expect is bigger and better, always,” said Mirza, talking about his future ambitions.
“When you are riding with a Vuelta a Espana winner I’m very honoured and proud and very happy to be with them. I learnt a lot from them last year and I want also more and more until I am full.”
Mirza is part of UAE Team Emirates’ six-man squad taking part in the Dubai Tour which begins on Tuesday, back on home soil as recently as Sunday after being part of the team competing at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina last month.
Colleague Filippo Ganna, who won the Young Rider category and was third overall in Argentina, will also be part of the team in Dubai.
Mirza, who is also a reserve for the Abu Dhabi Tour taking place at the end of the month, was part of a team delegation who spoke to enthralled schoolchildren at GEMS American Academy in Khalifa City on Sunday.
And Mirza added: “It’s fantastic to be on this team. We start the season with the Tour of Dubai and Tour of Abu Dhabi and it’s good to share this with my teammates.
“It’s my second season on the team and I’m proud to be here with many champions around me. It’s a good experience for me representing my country as a local rider and I hope to always do well for my team and country.”
Mirza, weighing in at a slight 59kg, revealed he’s actually lost 3kgs over the winter in preparation for 2018. It’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make in order to improve yet again this season.
“On the WorldTour everything is different,” he said. “We do everything professionally, there is nowhere to hide, you can’t be lazy or take rest, you have to be 120 per cent at all times.
“I’ve been off the bike for two weeks at the end of the season, then I start the gym and light training before meeting in training camp in Italy or Europe.
“At the beginning of December I started training for six weeks before San Juan. And we did well with Ganna winning the U-23 jersey. We supported him and we are supporting each other.”
Although success globally is the main aim for the Emirates-backed team, another goal is encouraging the next generation to take up the sport.
Every child at GEMS who attended on Sunday was given a replica UAE Team Emirates jersey and invited to join the team who were planning to take part in Daman’s ActiveLife TrainYAS initiative on Sunday night, whereby Abu Dhabi residents can cycle, run or walk around the capital’s Formula One track at Yas Marina Circuit.
And planting the seed for the younger generation is something particularly close to Mirza’s heart.
“I’m really feeling proud to see these kids, that they like cycling. I can feel it growing really, really fast in the UAE,” he said when asked how special it was to receive such a huge welcome from the kids.
Mirza knows all about being a local rider and what it’s like to be a local kid inspired to take up the sport.
“Two or three years ago it was nothing but with this team we try to develop cycling in the UAE. I hope to be a role model for them and for a lot of them to be champions in the future,” he added.