Defending Abu Dhabi Tour champion Rui Costa revealed he “pushed himself to the limit” in a bid to retain the title he famously won a year ago.
The Portuguese secured a memorable victory on home soil for UAE Team Emirates on Jebel Hafeet 12 months ago – the Stage 3 win last February setting up glory at the Yas Marina Circuit a day later on the team’s debut campaign as a UCI WorldTour side.
This time, Costa, Fabio Aru and Diego Ulissi all battled for victory on Stage 5 on Sunday, but ultimately fell short although Ulissi and Costa both finished inside the top 10 as Alejandro Valverde took home the crown.
Costa, 31, finished ninth on Sunday, 55 seconds behind Valverde, with Italy’s Ulissi eighth and Aru 16th.
It meant a second top 10 finish in a row for Costa, coming eighth in the GC with Ulissi seventh.
Costa, the 2013 world road race champion, said: “We put in a lot of effort in the first part of the climb, and in the final part we pushed it to the limit to secure a top 10 place.
“We knew it would be a really challenging stage at Jebel Hafeet, but we saw it as an opportunity to benchmark my condition against the other riders.
“It was great to ride again in Abu Dhabi, see the support of our home fans and we look forward to a long and successful season with the team.”
Ulissi, 28, added: “I had a better day. The final climb was really hard, as we knew. I haven’t raced since Australia and I only managed a short training camp before Abu Dhabi.
“Maybe, in comparison to some other riders, I missed some rhythm. But I am quite satisfied, especially to get a top 10 finish in the final stage and in the overall GC.”
And even though climber Aru missed out on a win on his UAE debut, the 2015 Vuelta a Espana champion can be satisfied with his bow after joining from Astana, claiming 13th place overall. “It was my first race of year and I missed rhythm. But that was an important test and I’m satisfied.”
The team’s riders will now depart for Europe ahead of an action-packed March calendar that includes the Strade Bianche (March 3), Paris-Nice (March 4-11) and Tirreno-Adriatico (March 7-13).
He may be approaching 40 but the marvel that is Alejandro Valverde proved he remains one of the best cyclists in the world by powering to victory at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The Spaniard is just two months shy of his 38th birthday but showed all the experience collected from his 16-year professional career as he put in a vintage display to win Stage 5 on Jebel Hafeet and with it take the overall GC victory.
The mountainous finale seemed tailor made for the Movistar man and he got the Hollywood ending he desired.
After positioning himself among the leading group at the base of the 10.8km summit, he stayed in pursuit as Bora-Hansgrohe rider Davide Formolo made the initial move before breaking away to catch Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez with four kilometres remaining and holding off the challenge of the 24-year-old Colombian – 13 years his junior.
Even more remarkable was the fact victory extended Valverde’s impressive start to 2018 – having returned in January only five months after breaking his knee cap on the Tour de France’s opening stage on July 1.
Delight in Abu Dhabi follows on from victory at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and top five finishes at the Vuelta a Murcia (second), Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana (third) and Trofeo Lloseta-Andratx (fourth).
And with Valverde showing no signs of ageing, he’s determined to carry on for as long as possible.
“There’s no secret to winning at this age,” said No101, who chalked up the 101st victory of his storied career.
“My physical condition. I love my work, it’s what I do but it’s my passion and if I continue winning I will continue riding. I’m really happy with what I’m doing and with my team. I know I’m a rider that gets big wins and am always there.
“I feel as strong as I was last year. I started in Majorca and then in Valencia I knew I was in good shape.”
It’s a career that’s been punctuated as much by controversy as it has by glory. Valverde was suspended for two years in 2010 after being found guilty of blood doping at the 2008 Tour de France.
And asked if his return was sweeter then or now, he replied: “It was different. 2012 was beautiful when I came back to win Vuelta a Andalucia (his first victory in nearly three years) but probably this year has been more beautiful.
“2012 is really far away. I think about today and the future. I’m happy with what I’m doing.”
Once up the grueling Jebel Hafeet ascent is enough for most riders, but Valverde revealed he took it on three times earlier in the week in order to test his legs and pick spots from which to attack. And the man known as the Bullet revealed that triggered his win.
“I was here since Friday, I did the climb on Friday and twice on Saturday so I knew it already,” said the Las Lumbreras native.
“I studied the places where I might try to attack. I also came here early to adapt to the climate and small time change.
“And it was a really good idea to do that as it helped me win the stage. I knew exactly what I needed to do to attack. It’s a really important win for me and the team and our motivation.”
Overnight leader Rohan Dennis put up a good fight on the final stage in a bid to remain in charge, with the Australian determined to shake his tag as a time trial specialist as he targets the Giro d’Italia GC later this year.
Otra más!!!— J.V. García Acosta (@jvgarciaacosta) 25 February 2018
The BMC Racing rider, who had started the day 14 seconds ahead and 24 in front of Valverde, dropped halfway up the climb but still did admirably to claim 23rd place on the stage and ninth overall.
By the finish, the leading duo had around 15 seconds on the chasers and, as they approached the final bend, Valverde used all his experience to sweep by Lopez on the inside to cross the line for this third stage win of the year, and overall victory ahead of Team Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman and Lopez.
Consolation for Lopez came with third overall and earning the white jersey for the best young rider, and he said: “The podium and the white jersey make it a good result for me.
“As always, I’ve had a great team to try and get the victory. But Alejandro Valverde is a great champion. Already to arrive with him up this climb is an achievement. To beat him in a sprint is almost impossible for me. So I’m happy with what I got in Abu Dhabi.”
The Australian is looking to transform himself from time trial specialist to all-round cyclist as he eyes future Grand Tour success – and his bid got off to an encouraging start as he finished ninth overall as cycling’s Middle East swing drew to a close.
He had to watch as Alejandro Valverde erased a 24-second gap coming into the Tour’s finale, but Dennis did himself and the red jersey proud as he finished 23rd on the arduous ascent up Jebel Hafeet – finishing only 1min 43secs adrift of veteran Valverde and only 1min 29secs behind him in the overall standings.
“I can be proud. I did everything I possibly could and the team was excellent, leading me into any crosswinds in every corner and I couldn’t be happier with what they did to deliver me onto the climb. And I think I did the red jersey proud,” said BMC’s Dennis, 27.
“All round I’m happy, I would have been happier with a better result but all round the mental battle of keeping going and not stopping when you’re dropped (off the peloton), it’s what we’re working on at the moment and it’s the important thing.”
And with where he’s trying to get to in the sport, as well as defending the lead, Dennis said the only strategy was to pour every last ounce of effort into the final ascent, even as he began to drop down the rankings as the climbing specialists launched their attacks.
“My legs, I just didn’t have it today,” added the man who blitzed the field to win the Stage 4 time trial in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
“They just started riding away from me. We decided if that happened, Damiano (Caruso) and Brent (Bookwalter) would pace me as long as possible and minimise the time loss. It didn’t work but it’s all good practice.
“I had to respond to what was going on, that was the best way. You know what you can do when you’re fresh but it’s always an unknown after you’ve done 188km with crosswinds, so I just had to go by how I felt.”
One of the men Dennis will be hoping to draw inspiration from on his new voyage is winner Valverde, and the Spaniard was the man Dennis identified as the biggest threat to his bid for glory ahead of the final day.
“When he looked back at one stage I wasn’t feeling too good and he wasn’t even breathing,” joked the Adelaide native.
“I picked the right guy to pinpoint as the favourite. Hats off to him, he’s a classy rider and deserved to win.”
But his 23rd place on the stage showed Dennis he is not far away from making his dreams of becoming a GC contender a reality.
“I think I’m in good company, it’s good to know I’m not completely behind them,” he added.
“I am within the range of where I need to be in February. I said it’d be a good test of where I need to get to and we’ve got a few things to do.”