On paper, two wins at a race considered the pinnacle of your chosen sport would constitute a pretty spectacular season.
But, for UAE Team Emirates, stage wins for Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff at the 2018 Tour de France was more a case of papering over the cracks.
Martin’s Stage 6 win from Brest to Mur-de-Bretagne was a watershed moment for the fledgling outfit – their maiden triumph at Le Tour.
It followed success at the other two Grand Tour races – the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana – in 2017 and was crowned by Kristoff’s victory on the final processional Stage 21 along the iconic Champs-Elysees.
But in their second season since investment from the Emirates saw the green, red, black and white of the UAE flag adorn uniforms so long associated with forgotten Italian giants Lampre, the team regressed, at least in terms of victories earned.
Sixteen were achieved in that exciting inaugural campaign three years ago – including those Giro and Vuelta wins for Jan Polanc and Matej Mohoric respectively.
Last year though, just nine were claimed, which led business manager Mauro Gianetti to demand more in 2019.
Rising Colombian sprint sensation Fernando Gaviria – he of two Tour de France stage wins himself last year – was signed in the off-season as a notice of intent for 2019 was served. Compatriot Sergio Henao was acquired from Team Sky. The duo, when added to Kristoff, Martin, Fabio Aru and Rui Costa, make up a team bursting with star quality.
Exciting Portuguese twins Ivo and Rui Oliveira, and promising duo Jasper Philipsen and Tadej Pogacar have also swelled the ranks in terms of youth, and the third season has already yielded early success with four wins achieved.
Gaviria, 24, won on debut at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina and added another victory on Stage 4, while 20-year-old Philipsen triumphed on Stage 5 at the Tour Down Under and Juan Sebastian Molano on Stage 3 at the Tour Colombia.
Four wins from nine events. To put that in context, it took until June last year and the GP du canton d’Argovie – UAE Team Emirates’ 31st engagement of a grueling year – to get to four wins.
Three years ago, simply joining the elite of cycling and being welcomed onto the UCI’s WorldTour circuit was an achievement. But Gianetti has long insisted that UAE Team Emirates have no intention of standing still and simply surviving – they want to be among the elite teams like Sky, Movistar, BMC and Quick-Step.
He believes the names added to their roster will help them get a little closer in 2019.
“Yes, it’s a sign of intent,” Gianetti tells Sport360. “A rider like Sergio for example is a rider that was in the best team in the world, but was with many other riders that have big personalities and maybe his chances were closed off.
“Maybe there was not an opportunity for him to be a leader himself or a leader in races. If he needs to help Dan or Fabio in the big tours he’s also a perfect man.
“A sprinter like Gaviria will be important for Kristoff, to have another sprinter in the team, to not have all the pressure on his shoulders. Gaviria will be our rider of the future but he’s (Kristoff) an amazing personality and rider but our team will improve more. To have two big sprinters will of course be a help to the team.”
Some might worry about too many egos being under one roof. After all, Gaviria left Quick-Step because even after they jettisoned Tour de France giant Marcel Kittel to Katusha-Alpecin ahead of last season, he was still playing second fiddle to Elia Viviani.
But 54-year-old Gianetti, himself a high calibre rider during his time, a previous winner of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold Race one-day classics, is only interested in improvement.
“Of course, Martin and Kristoff did well last year, but always we want to get better,” said the affable Swiss.
“Our team will and need to increase its performance because we have good support from our sponsor. We need to increase and improve because we already invest for next (this) season.
“We have invested a lot in young riders. Eight of the riders are young, only Henao is old at 31. The average age is 24. It’s a very clear signal for the future. (Juan Sebastian) Molano and Gaviria are 24, the Oliveira twins, (Jasper) Philipsen, Pogacar, Cristian (Camilo Munoz), all young people.
“This is a good signal for the future as we are looking to the future, to create a new team and improve performance and not just buy riders.”
Gianetti’s spirit and attitude is clearly infectious and shared by the riders. Even after his win in France, Kristoff admitted he was unhappy with his 2018, saying of his Stage 21 triumph in Paris: “I kind of saved my season with the stage win. Without this I would not be very happy.”
UAE cycling fans will get an up close and personal look at their new team when the home favourites head to the Emirates next week for the inaugural UAE Tour – the Abu Dhabi Tour and Dubai Tour have been amalgamated into an elongated, Emirates-wide event.
The exciting week-long extravaganza will visit all seven emirates and features a star-studded field – including four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, as well as Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Alejandro Valverde, Rohan Dennis, Elia Viviani and Kittel.
The pressure is on for the home team, although despite the upgraded status of the event to being the only WorldTour race in the Middle East, Gianetti insists the team have to look at the big picture.
“Of course it’s important. As the UAE team it’s very important, like the Giro is important for the Italian riders, the French riders the Tour de France and the Vuelta for Spanish riders,” he said.
“For us it’s important but of course we must think, we are doing 300 days racing a year. So we will be here, we will be a big, important team but we must not forget our goal is to be an important team during the entire season. We must keep the focus for 300 days, for the Giro, the Tour de France, the classics, so on.
“Of course, there is a special focus at the beginning of the season for the race in the UAE, especially for its enhanced status. It’s a very important race not only for us, for everyone.
“Like the Tour de Romandie, Tour of Basque Country, Paris-Nice, the UAE Tour is now at that level of importance because it represents not only the UAE but the whole Middle East and Asia. It’s special for us, but not only us. It will be a big battle to win this race.”
Know more about Sport360 Application