Abu Dhabi Tour: Nibali excited to join Bahrain-Merida, Contador targets 2017 TDF

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Pedal power: Abu Dhabi Tour riders pose on the Corniche.

For the second year in a row, the Abu Dhabi Tour will act as the season finale for a host of the world’s top cycling outfits, who will be looking to wrap up 2016 on a high note, closing out the year under the lights of the spectacular Yas Marina Circuit during the final stage on Sunday.

For some, the capital showpiece will see them compete alongside their team-mates for the last time before moving on to new squads next year, which could make this race particularly emotional.

At least that is expected to be the case for the likes of Grand Tour legends Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador, although the latter has implied otherwise.

Nibali bids farewell to his Astana team this weekend after four years of riding for the Kazakh outfit.

The 31-year-old Sicilian joins Bahrain-Merida next season, where he will be at the centre of team founder HH Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s vision for the new Kingdom-based project.

“I am very happy to be here in Abu Dhabi. It’s the last race for me with Astana and my mind is already thinking about next year with Bahrain-Merida,” Nibali told reporters on Wednesday at the Abu Dhabi Tour riders’ press conference at the St. Regis Hotel.

“Last year I met Sheikh Nasser and I’m very proud to be part of this team because I believe in this new project. I’d like to be the protagonist, or chief, of this team and it’s a great new adventure for me.

“I like the great passion of Sheikh Nasser and the investment he is making in the sport and in creating this team.”

Looking ahead: Vincenzo Nibali.

Looking ahead: Vincenzo Nibali.

This is Nibali’s second Abu Dhabi outing, having competed in the inaugural edition last year. The race features three sprint stages and one with a summit finish up Jebel Hafeet, located in Al Ain with parts of it on the borders with Oman.

The climb is 11km long with gradients that peak at 11 per cent in the final three kilometres. It is a finish Nibali would normally salivate over but considering it is the end of the season and how hot the weather is in Abu Dhabi, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion can be forgiven if he is not too confident about his chances on Saturday’s queen stage.

“I like Abu Dhabi, I like the race and I like the location but the conditions are tough. The climb is very hard and the time is very hot so it’s not easy,” said Nibali, who one of just six riders to have won all three Grand Tours.

Not a fond goodbye

Another rider who has accomplished that remarkable feat is Contador, who will be competing in the UAE for the first time this week.

Like Nibali, the Spaniard is also joining a new team next year, Trek-Segafredo, but he does not seem emotional about saying goodbye to the soon-to-be disbanded Tinkoff marque.

When asked by Sport360 if this could prove an emotional race for him as he bids farewell to Tinkoff, Contador deflected and said: “It’s a new race for me, that’s why it’s special.”

Contador’s relationship with team owner Oleg Tinkov appears to have soured after the Russian criticised him in an interview with Cyclingnews earlier this month, in which he described the rider as a “limping duck” and said he “should stop riding”.

The 33-year-old, who had been with the team since 2011 and throughout his career has won two Tour de France crowns, two Giro d’Italia titles and three at the Vuelta a Espana, reflected on the tough moments he experienced in 2016 and prefers to look ahead to next year rather than dwell on the past.

“I think I had different moments during the season, I’m happy with the first part of the season because my performance was very high, one of the highest in all my career, and that changed my vision for the future and I took the decision of continuing, also together with the support of the people,” said Contador, who contemplated retirement earlier this season but changed his mind.

“I’m not happy with the result in the Tour de France, I trained very hard for this race and in the end I had to go out in the first few days. I tried to continue but I wasn’t in a condition to fight for the victory. In the Vuelta, also it wasn’t the best memory for me. It’s my home race and that’s why it’s special to me. The objective was never to fight for the podium, it was to fight for the win.”

He believes things will be different with Trek-Segafredo.

“I think that the objectives will be more clear in the different races. I think it’s hard to have a very good team around you in all races. I think you need to have a programme that will (guarantee) you’ll have a team at 100 per cent in the Tour (de France). I think next year we’ll look at everything for the overall (classification) and that’s crucial,” added the Spaniard, confirming he is targeting the Tour next year.

The route of the Tour was unveiled on Tuesday and while Contador hasn’t analyzed it properly yet, he is excited about it.

“I didn’t look at the profiles yet, but it’s not bad that they have one flat time trial of 50 or 55km, I like that it’s short and that makes the race more open until the final. We’ll try to take all the opportunities that we have in the race,” he said.

Proud ambassador

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Tour ambassador Mark Cavendish says he’ll be targeting some stage wins on his debut at the event. The British sprinter, who missed out on the action in the UAE capital last year while nursing a shoulder injury, is particularly keen to race on Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.

Cavendish is coming off a second-place finish at the World Championships in Doha last Sunday, where he was bested by repeat champion Peter Sagan.

“I’m never satisfied unless I win but I lost to Peter Sagan, he’s a worthy world champion. I know I’ve got good form so obviously it would have been nice to have the rainbow jersey but will have to wait for another time,” said Cavendish, who took his Tour de France tally of stage wins to 30 this year before winning Omnium silver on the track at the Olympics.

Asked if he still had hunger for more next season with Team Dimension Data, he said: “Absolutely. I’m loving my riding this year, I’m loving Team Dimension Data, I love what the team is about so it’s really put a lot of meaning into my riding.”

In its second edition, the Abu Dhabi Tour (October 20-23) has been upgraded from 2.1 to 2.HC and next year, it joins top-flight status as a WorldTour event kicking off the season in February.

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