A year ago UAE Team Emirates’ future looked like a painter’s blank canvas; there was no real sense of expectation, yet the creative possibilities seemed endless.
Splashes of colour were added to the barren white space over the course of a debut 2017 campaign which showed much promise – a picture-book finish at the team’s home race of the Abu Dhabi Tour was achieved when Rui Costa painted the race in the colours of the team’s red, white, black and green with an impressive victory – just three months after forming.
Costa has been joined this season by a cast of decorated stars of cycling – 2015 Vuelta a Espana champion and two-time Giro d’Italia runner-up Fabio Aru and reigning European road race champion Alexander Kristoff.
With artists Carlo Saronni and Mauro Gianetti delicately guiding the brush strokes behind the scenes, the Italian-run outfit are slowly beginning to form the basis of a masterpiece Michelangelo would be proud of.
Costa very much provided the colour last season. Not only did the Portuguese win in Abu Dhabi he did so decked in the rainbow jersey’s green, yellow, black, red and blue from his 2013 World Championships road race victory.
He shone alongside teammate Louis Meintjes, who finished a superb eighth at the Tour de France for the second year in succession.
And while the diminutive South African has moved on to Mark Cavendish’s Team Dimension Data, it is clear Costa will have competition.
He was part of Kristoff’s support cast as the Norwegian claimed a win on Stage 6 at the Tour of Oman on Monday – a maiden victory for his new team – although the 31-year-old Costa claimed 10th in the General Classification as Kristoff finished 47th.
And while it’s easy to predict Costa being pushed aside to accommodate riders of such allure in Aru and Kristoff, the cycling season is structured in such a way that there are plenty of races and success to share around.
While 2017 was full of encouraging signs – especially in Grand Tour terms as Meintjes claimed eighth at Le Tour while Slovenian Matej Mohoric won a stage at the Vuelta – there is a real desire to make further inroads into the cycling elite this year.
With quality added to the ranks, Gianetti said this week: “When we go to the Giro and the Vuelta, we will be at another level with riders fighting for the GC.”
So who will be main man in Abu Dhabi? It could realistically be either of the three.
Aru has already said his main objective this year will be the Giro – where he claimed the best young rider jersey and second place overall in 2015; he was third the previous year.
Abu Dhabi will be his competitive debut for his new team, so he is likely some weeks away from peak fitness.
Kristoff has been leading the team during the season’s Gulf swing, winning the final stage in Oman, while he was impressive in the Emirates two weeks ago when he claimed four top 10 stage finishes on his way to ninth place in the GC at the Dubai Tour.
He may seem the most obvious choice.
Yet the fact Costa outshone the European champion overall in Oman means he could very likely carry the team’s hopes, while he will surely be desperate to retain the trophy he worked so hard to win 12 months ago.
Costa perhaps put it best when he said on Monday: “The pressure was just on my shoulders a lot before and now I can share this pressure with several riders. If I’m front, my team-mates will work with me and if they’re in front, I’ll work with them.”
And while some will see the task of massaging the egos of three big hitters as a conundrum for team manager Saronni and consultant Gianetti, ultimately it’s a nice headache to have for UAE Team Emirates as they look to build on a 12th place finish on the UCI WorldTour last year.
The fact they face issues over which rider to throw their full support behind is merely a by-product of ambition.
Gianetti – a former rider who competed for Switzerland at the 2000 Olympics, and a famed director sportif for many years – also spoke this week about the desire for the team to finish this season inside the top seven, while aiming to become one of cycling’s best by 2020.
Saronni – whose father Giuseppe is the team’s general manager and won two Giros during a storied career – likewise has pedigree in the sport.
For both, cycling is in the blood. They were shrewd in identifying an opportunity to bring a professional team to the Middle East when new Chinese backing for Saronni Senior’s Lampre-Merida fell through in late 2016.
Emirates were brought on board and the team has since soared to great heights. With these two at the controls and the likes of Aru, Costa and Kristoff at their disposal – the sky seems the limit for UAE Team Emirates.
With hopes high that further miles can be made on the road to success this year, is there any better place to showcase what the future holds than an impressive display here in Abu Dhabi this week?
Who are you most looking forward to seeing in Abu Dhabi?
We’ve rounded up the top cyclists to keep a close eye on.
The first stage begins on Wednesday with the climax to the race ending on Sunday at Jebel Hafeet.
Team: UAE Team Emirates
2017 result in Abu Dhabi: 8th
The Italian will compete in his first race for his new team since signing from Astana in October. At 27, the Sardinia native has won a Vuelta, stood on the Giro podium twice and clinched a stage on last year’s Tour de France. Aru will want to improve on his 8th place showing in the capital last year and impress on debut for his new team. Don’t rule out a podium finish on Sunday.
Team: Team Sunweb
2017 result in Abu Dhabi: 3rd
It will be fascinating to see what form Dumoulin brings into this season after impressing during his Giro d’Italia and World individual time trial wins last season. The Dutchman is predominantly a time-triallist, but can also climb effectively, and has been tipped as a star of Grand Tours over the next five years. With a podium finish in Abu Dhabi last year, the 27-year-old will have big ambitions returning to the UAE.
Team: Movistar Team
2017 result in Abu Dhabi: DNP
The veteran Spaniard had a stunning 2017 campaign, winning the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, La Fleche Wallone, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta a Andalucia. At 37 he is far from a fading force. A broken knee cap ruled him out for half of last season, but the Movistar man looks back to his best after sealing victory at the Tour of Valencia two weeks ago.
Team: Quick-Step Floors
2017 result in Abu Dhabi: 134rd
The 2016 Olympic champion won nine races last year after his Giro d’Italia snub by Team Sky. Now with Quick-Step Floors, a key season lies ahead for the Italian and he’s already opened his account with an early season win at the Dubai Tour. At 29, Viviani has the chance to be the marquee man on a team that will offer more support than his previous employers.
2017 result in Abu Dhabi: 87th
The German has been arguably the best sprinter in the world over the past two seasons but is still finding his feet with his new Katusha-Alpecin team. After a successful 2017 campaign which included five Tour de France stage wins, the Arnstadt native will be bidding to seal stage wins in the capital, especially after a disappointing Dubai Tour.
One way to look at the strengthened UAE Team Emirates roster is to assume a slide down the totem pole for Costa, but the Portuguese cyclist views the revamped side as a benefit to him – both as a challenge and in the form of help.
“For sure I’m really motivated. I’m motivated to push myself at the top, like I’ve always done, but for sure this year because my team-mates are really strong,” Costa told Sport360°.
“But it’s better for me because you never know in the race, sometimes you crash or whatever reason, having two leaders and leaders who can win several stages in races this season, there’s less stress for everybody. The pressure was just on my shoulders a lot before and now I have to share this pressure with several riders.”
Costa will also have a tougher time defending his title in Abu Dhabi due to his relative lack of fitness and the addition of a time trial on the fourth stage.
“I’m not in the same shape or same condition as last year because I was sick for one week when I came back from Australia and I lost several days of training,” Costa said. “After Oman, I’m going up and for sure until the penultimate stage, the time trial, I think I can do a good race. If I’m front, my team-mates will work with me and if they’re in front, I’ll work with them.”