Elia Viviani took control of the Abu Dhabi Tour as he won Stage 2 in a sprint finish ahead of Danny van Poppel and Pascal Ackermann on Thursday.
The win moved Quick-Step Floors rider Viviani to the top of the General Classification, tied on time with now-second-ranked Alexander Kristoff, with the UAE Team Emirates rider finishing seventh, as LottoNL-Jumbo rider Van Poppel moved into third at four seconds adrift.
Italian Viviani and Norwegian Kristoff did well to get in on the enthralling finale following a chaotic stage dominated by windy conditions.
After the initial breakaway group had been caught, three separate groups formed in echelons to combat fierce crosswinds, with Viviani and Kristoff struggling in testing conditions in the third group.
But both stormed back into contention inside the final 20km, with winner Viviani praising the work of his Quick-Step colleagues.
“I need to break the ice on the first day of a stage race. Usually, I don’t win the first sprint. It’s been the case again but I was very confident today,” said the 2016 Olympic track champion.
“Also in the echelons, I felt strong and I was willing to pull. We had Julian Alaphilippe and Enric Mas in the front group. It was good for our GC but we also wanted to win the stage, so I asked the guys to wait for me and close the gap.
“When we regrouped with 20km to go, I said we put all our efforts into the last corner. Young Alvaro Hodeg is unbelievable in his preparation for my sprint.
“Michael Morkov is always in the right place and I trust Fabio Sabatini 100 per cent for the lead out. With such a team, it was easy for me to finish it off.”
A five-man break group dominated the first half of the race, from Yas Island to Yas Beach (148km), but they were caught again at the feed zone.
Movistar and Katusha-Alpecin took advantage of crosswinds to rip the race wide open, dropping not only race leader Kristoff and Viviani but several GC candidates.
But, after a furious chase, the race finally came back together within the final kilometers, leading to the expected mass sprint finish.
On the podium Viviani was rewarded with the race leader’s red jersey, as well as the points leader’s green jersey.
European champion Kristoff, meanwhile, said: “Today I didn’t have the same power as I had yesterday. There were other guys passing me and Viviani was very fast, but I was happy to fight for a good position today.
“The team put me in a positive position and I was in the mix with the other riders. We have another race tomorrow to try and grab a win in what should be a good day for the sprinters.”
Caleb Ewan is in the early stages of his career, but he’s already enjoyed a rollercoaster ride of an introduction to the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The 23-year-old Australian, who only turned professional in 2014, crashed out on the first stage of last year’s event in Abu Dhabi and was then caught on the line by Marcel Kittel on Stage 2 after raising his arms in celebration too early.
That stunt left him distraught despite seeing him gain possession of the best young rider’s white jersey, but a year on he claims his race in the UAE capital 12 months ago taught him a lot.
“Last year I crashed on the first stage with 5km to go so I’m off to a better start this year,” said the Mitchelton-Scott man who was again given the white jersey on Wednesday after claiming third place on the opening stage behind winner Alexander Kristoff and Andrea Guardini.
“I learnt a lot from last year, obviously the main thing was to not celebrate too early. It’s not the most important race but in other ways it is.
“To beat some of the other big sprinters here is a bonus. You have them all here where you can afford to experiment and stuff it up a little bit maybe, it’s a good thing.”
Analysis of the rider data from the @Abu_Dhabi_Tour Stage 1 final sprint which involved @TeamUAEAbuDhabi's @Kristoff87, @MitcheltonSCOTT's @CalebEwan and @quickstepteam's @eliaviviani #RideToAbuDhabi #roadcycling #procycling #uciworldtour pic.twitter.com/b52QnHhypg— Velon CC (@VelonCC) February 21, 2018
The Sydney native feels victory eluded him as he started his sprint a little too early, but he was pleased to compete against and beat some of the best sprinters in the field, with Elia Viviani, Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel all finishing behind him.
“I’m happy with my sprints. It’s good signs for the next few stages,” added the youngster.
“We’re probably not going to get a sprint field this good until the Tour de France. You can watch videos but there’s nothing like racing them and we won’t get a field this good so it’s good to race here and it would be even better to get a stage win here.”
And while Ewan can be content with third, he says it proves you have to be at your best when competing against the best.
He added: “The finish line always looks much closer than it is. So, when I went it felt like it was right there.
“I settled into my sprint then realised after a few seconds I went a little early. And in a sprint field like this you really need to nail your sprint. All the best sprinters are here so I had to nail the timing.”
Team Dimension Data riders and chiefs were left fuming after star sprinter Mark Cavendish was forced to abandon the Abu Dhabi Tour after he was hit by an official race vehicle – prior to Wednesday’s first stage even starting.
The 32-year-old Brit was floored, along with three other riders, when the race director’s vehicle appeared to brake suddenly in font of them in the neutralised zone.
The Manx Missile rejoined the peloton but was forced to the side of the road after just 5km and pulled out. He was immediately taken to hospital suffering from concussion and whiplash, but a serious neck injury was avoided.
Dimension Data confirmed Cavendish fell on the same shoulder he fractured in the heavy crash with Peter Sagan which forced him to abandon the 2017 Tour de France on Stage 4.
Teammate Mekseb Debesay, Team Sky’s Leonardo Basso and Alessandro Tonelli (Bardiani CSF) were also caught up in the low-speed crash but all three managed to finish the race.
Dimension Data colleague Mark Renshaw said the incident didn’t look good for race organisers, with Cavendish the Tour’s ambassador.
“I can’t say if it’s his (race director’s) fault or not. I hope it isn’t because he’s the ambassador for the race so it wouldn’t look very good to take out your face of the race,” said the Australian, post-race.
“I don’t know what happened. I didn’t see it. But I spoke to him straight after, he came back into the bunch and I asked him if he was ok and he said his head and neck were really sore.
“It must be bad if he stopped the race because he’s one of the hardest guys I know.”
And Renshaw also rued the incident as it wrecks the team’s plans for the rest of the Tour.
He added: “It’s a massive blow for us because we came here to win one of these three stages and now we can’t really do much until the time trial and Steve Cummings and then the uphill finish.”
Renshaw claimed the incident in the neutralised zone prior to a race starting was not uncommon, saying: “I think the neutral zone’s probably one of the most dangerous areas. Guys not concentrating, cars close to the bunch, guys moving up and down, so it’s dangerous.”
But his comments were in stark contrast to the team’s sports director, Roger Hammond, who said: “No, it’s not common, it’s really rare, otherwise we’d know about them.
“We wouldn’t be talking about it. That’s why we’re here. S*** happens, we can’t beat around the bush, it’s not good.
“Nobody really knows what happened. There’s loads of rumours coming from the peloton. The most important thing was picking him up off the road and getting him assessed.”
🇦🇪 #AbuDhabiTour Injury Update— Team Dimension Data (@TeamDiData) February 21, 2018
"@MarkCavendish sustained a concussion and a whiplash injury after his crash today. Due to the concussion, we were not willing to risk rider safety and the call was made for Mark to stop the race." - Dr. @Aid326
Details: https://t.co/W2VcOJ9U9O pic.twitter.com/oe6Xo378ym
Hammond said Dimension Data were awaiting confirmation on the extent of Cavendish’s injuries, with the Manxman scheduled to next compete in Italy at the Tirreno–Adriatico from March 7-13 and Milan–San Remo on March 17.
“I got a message at 10km to go saying they’d had scans and an X-Ray, they’re just waiting for the diagnosis,” added Englishman Hammond of his compatriot.
“Concussion and whiplash, that’s what the doctor said, or thought it was. We’re waiting for confirmation. I wouldn’t be surprised as he sent me through a picture of him in a neck brace, so we’re obviously worried about that. It needs to be confirmed.”
UAE Team Emirates’ sprinter Alexander Kristoff went on to win Stage 1 in Madinat Zayed and said Cavendish’s fall and subsequent withdrawal was a shame for the race.
“I think the car in front braked and he was perhaps fixing something on his bike at the same time,” said the Norwegian. “He got hit quite hard. I heard he was ok but had a headache and his vision was blurred so it’s a pity. He cannot really do anything.”