Luke Rowe won’t have turned many heads at the Abu Dhabi Tour – finishes of 96th, 102nd and 135th in the Emirates hardly scream headline news.
But it is the Welshman’s presence in the UAE capital itself that is newsworthy. The Team Sky rider lined up for the Tour’s Stage 1 on Wednesday just six months since suffering 25 different fractures to his right leg after jumping into a shallow section of water while white-water rafting on his brother Matt’s stag do in Prague.
He had a metal rod inserted into his leg during surgery and doctors initially advised him that he was facing a lengthy absence out of the sport – if he ever rode again at all.
But the 27-year-old Cardiff native wasn’t having any of that, although he admits saddling up in Abu Dhabi this week was beyond his wildest dreams – he had initially slated his return for the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast in April.
“It’s so far ahead of schedule, I shouldn’t be here really,” Rowe said at the finish line of Stage 3 on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche on Friday.
“It’s basically half the recovery time. But not only am I back, but I’m going alright too. It was a straightforward day. Another day in the bag which is nice.”
The prognosis looked bleak, but by November he was back aboard his bike. In December he linked up with Team Sky at a training camp. And by January he confirmed his readiness to return to action, and settled upon the Abu Dhabi Tour as the starting point for his 2018 campaign.
Rowe admitted he had the best care and support during and after his ordeal, but that he wouldn’t have returned so soon without plenty of will and hard work.
“It’s a mix of everything as to why I’m back so soon,” he said.
“I’ve had the best of the best. Everything around me has been the best of the best, the staff, equipment, but the most important thing is you’ve got to put the work in. Your body isn’t going to heal itself, you have to help it, so it’s a mix. I haven’t really done anything special to be here.”
Just touched down in Abu Dhabi. Looking forward to pinning a number on months before I thought it would be possible, mega 👌🏻 https://t.co/LsmGAPLIyN— Luke Rowe (@LukeRowe1990) 19 February 2018
Going forward Rowe could find himself among Sky’s cobbled Classics team. He led the group over previous seasons alongside Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon.
In 2017, he placed sixth in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and third in third in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the early Belgian Classics, which take place this weekend.
In 2016, he was sixth in the Tour of Flanders. However, he is not yet calling up the team to reserve a spot for him on the roster. In fact, his schedule right now extends only as far as the final day of the Tour on Sunday.
After three stages of the Abu Dhabi Tour, sprint king Elia Viviani leads the way, although that is all set to change with Stage 4’s time trial and Stage 5’s mountainous ascent of Jebel Hafeet to come.
The sprinters have dominated things so far, but the likes of Fabio Aru, Alejandro Valverde and Tom Dumoulin are primed and ready to attack in order to gain overall victory.
Here, we pick out a few talking points after three days of racing.
Say goodbye to the sprinters
It’s been three fascinating sprint finishes to open the Abu Dhabi Tour, but Saturday is where things get really interesting with the introduction for the first time of a time trial to the race. Team Sunweb were celebrating victory with Phil Bauhaus on Stage 3, and expect them to be in the mix for victory again with time trial specialist Tom Dumoulin set to be one of riders taking centre stage.
Also keep an eye on Team Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings, BMC’s Rohan Dennis and LottoNL-Jumbo’s Danny van Poppel.
He’s not going to be challenging for Abu Dhabi Tour honours, but the fact Luke Rowe is even in Abu Dhabi is a remarkable feat. The Team Sky rider broke his leg in 25 places when he jumped into shallow water while white-water rafting on his brother’s stag party in Prague last August.
He was expected to be out for a year but miraculously lined up on the start line for Wednesday’s Stage 1. And while 96th, 102nd and 135th finishes won’t make the headlines, the Welshman will just be ecstatic to be back in the thick of the action.
Speaking at the Dubai Tour earlier this month, Elia Viviani claimed he didn’t feel he was quite at the level of Mark Cavendish or Marcel Kittel. And while the Italian is undoubtedly alongside the duo as one of the world’s best sprinters, he hasn’t got the wins to show for it.
Manx Missile Cavendish has 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, and 48 in total at Grand Tours, while Kittel has 14 at Le Tour and 19 at Grand Tours. Viviani has just one. But while Kittel – who won a joint top 14 times last season – continues to struggle in the early part of 2018, Viviani is thriving, with five wins to his name. Keep this up and he could be in for a big year.
Time trial adds another dimension to Tour
The fourth edition of the race could really showcase the city, the UAE and Middle East as a thriving destination for the world’s best cyclists. The Tour this year introduced a fifth stage for the first time – the Dubai Tour has had five stages for the past two editions – but the sheer variety on offer for riders in Abu Dhabi offer up all kinds of possibilities.
With three sprint stages followed by a time trial and the mountain stage moving to the final day, it really is wide open as to who will be victorious, with the likes of reigning champion Rui Costa – who’s yet to enjoy the spotlight – set to come into his own.
Elia Viviani insists he will go “full gas” at Saturday’s time trial on Stage 4 of the Abu Dhabi Tour, even though the Italian sprinter’s hopes of still being in the red leader’s jersey come Sunday are out of his hands.
The 29-year-old comes into Saturday’s penultimate stage – a 12.6km circuit of Al Maryah and Al Reem Island – three seconds ahead of UAE Team Emirates’ Alexander Kristoff and Stage 3 winner Bauhaus (Team Sunweb).
“The goal was to win the stage but we finished fourth,” said Stage 2 victor Viviani.
“But this season I haven’t finished outside the top five in sprints. When you are like that the wins come. We already have five wins and we want to win always, but you can’t win always.
“It’s cool to be in the red jersey tomorrow. I do full gas for sure to respect the leader’s jersey. I am the leader, I need to do this.
“Plus we are in the first few weeks of the season so it all helps to build for the future and races coming up. The European season starts in the next few weeks and I want to be ready so tomorrow I go full gas.”
Stage 3 featured another flat day of racing with four riders escaping early. Marco Maronese (Bardiani CSF), Sergey Firsanov (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) and Sam Brand (Novo Nordisk), who enjoyed a maximum advantage of a little under three minutes.
As in previous days, the peloton enjoyed a relaxed start to the day before beginning to reel the break in with around 70km remaining.
From there the pace was controlled by a combination of the sprinters’ teams as the peloton rolled towards the bunch sprint at Big Flag, opposite Marina Mall.
The pace steadily ramped up through the final 10km without any one team being able to take control, before Movistar and Sunweb started to seize the front with three kilometres remaining.
Movistar’s bid to set up Jose Joaquin Rojas for the sprint was hijacked by Quick-Step who moved to the front in a bid to set up Viviani for a second successive triumph.
He was in perfect position but Bauhaus surged out of his wheel to throw his bike across the line as Marcel Kittel somehow found a route down the left-hand side of the road, coming fast but not fast enough to deny Bauhaus.
“It was a real battle on the line,” added Viviani.
“Saba (Fabio Sabatini) left me with 150m to go so it was a short sprint but with the headwind it’s never easy. It was a big show for the fans but I finished fourth, that’s it. The Germans did a good sprint.”
Viviani had earlier won one of the stage’s intermediate sprints, something the big names rarely get involved in, but the former Team Sky rider revealed he wants to maintain the green points jersey as it is expected the sprinters will fall off the pace with the time trial and Sunday’s ascent up Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain.
“It was a good opportunity to get points for the green jersey as we have the time trial tomorrow and then the climb so I really want to do the sprint for the green jersey at the end of the Tour and be the leader at the end of the stage,” added Viviani, who feels the time trial will be just a little too long for him to have a say.
“The 12km time trial will be a good way to get in better shape, but I think it’s maybe 3km too long to defend the jersey. Eight kilometres would be a good length to defend the jersey, I expect (Tom) Dumoulin or (Danny) Van Poppel will be favourites. I will try and end the weekend in the best way.”