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.”
The Emirates is gearing up for the inaugural UAE Tour – the only Middle East event on the UCI’s WorldTour calendar – which will welcome some of the sport’s top cyclists when it gets under way in Abu Dhabi on February 24.
The Tour – which sees the Abu Dhabi Tour and Dubai Tour combine into one week-long event – will boast an enviable line-up of cycling’s top superstars as all 18 UCI WorldTour teams have committed their best riders to the race, which will visit all seven emirates.
Here, we look at the key talking points.
FROOME IN THE UAE
By nearly every available metric, Chris Froome’s status as one of the greatest racers of all time is firmly assured.
The 33-year-old clinched his fourth Grand Tour title at the Giro d’Italia in May and followed it up with second place at the Tour de France two months later, finishing behind teammate Geraint Thomas.
But with the Welshman also proving he is capable of winning Grand Tours, Team Sky face a dilemma in who fills the lead rider position for 2019.
And with less than five months until cycling’s showpiece event rolls into Brussels for the opening stage, Froome has plenty of time to show his mettle as he eyes a record-equalling fifth title.
The various high-cadence climbs on offer around the Emirates next week will suit his attributes, and coupled with the soaring climbs at Jebel Hafeet and the Hajar Mountains, should steer him in the right direction ahead of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya next month.
Riders like Alejandro Valverde and Tim Dumoulin may be ahead of the Briton in their respective training programmes for the year, but there is every reason to put Froome as a No1 favourite for the red jersey.
VIVIANI CAN BE EVEN BETTER IN 2019
The Italian looked a class apart last season with 18 stage wins, and based on his form in Australia last month, appears to have started the new year where he left off.
What made his early season form all the more impressive was the fact he crashed out in the Tour Down Under Classic in Adelaide and was able to respond two days later with a glorious style of sprinting to zip past Max Walscheid on the finish line for a maiden stage victory of the year on stage one of Tour Down Under.
At the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road race three weeks ago, Viviani recorded another win, holding off rival Caleb Ewan for an outstanding win.
Last year’s most successful rider may have turned 30 this month, but with Fernando Gaviria now at UAE Team Emirates, it’s going to be fascinating to watch the Verona man battle against the world’s best as the season progresses.
The Deceuninck-Quick Step team lead out train is one of the strongest in the business, and with more time together, Viviani is sure to be a force.
FIRST CHANCE FOR UAE FANS TO SEE GAVIRIA
Gaviria has been touted as a future classics star, even though he has yet to make a significant impact in the popular Belgian one-day races.
The 24-year-old, who switched from Team-Quick Step in October, enjoyed two stage wins at the Tour de France in July and possesses the power, pace, timing and intelligence to be a key name in the sport for years to come.
With two stage wins already to his name this season in Argentina, Gaviria was then forced to withdraw from his home Tour of Colombia last week due to a respiratory infection.
If he can return to full fitness for Sunday’s opening stage in Abu Dhabi, it will be the perfect chance for UAE fans to see their new signing race alongside another fan favourite Alexander Kristoff.
The Norwegian is one of the high-pedigree classics riders and will forge a iron-like partnership with Gaviria for the Emirati formation this season.
An exciting campaign awaits with UAE possessing two of the most gifted sprinters in the peloton.
NEW EXCITING ROUTE
The UAE Tour’s seven stages will embrace all seven Emirates and is sure to capture the imagination of cycling fans around the country next week.
The first three stages will be hosted by Abu Dhabi, the fourth by Dubai, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah, the fifth stage crosses Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah.
The sixth is in Ajman, Umm al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah, while the final stage sees a return to the streets of Dubai, finishing up at City Walk.
Although marquee cycling races have taken place in the Emirates in the past, it is hoped that the UAE Tour will continue to represent a new chapter for cycling in the region and add to the growing list of sporting events currently taking place throughout the year.
Furthermore, it’s a major boost for cycling in the Gulf to host a World Tour event of it’s calibre and adds to the exciting races that already take place in Oman.
The 2019 UAE Tour begins in Abu Dhabi on Sunday with a time-trial race before finishing at Dubai City Walk on March 2.
Here we look at six riders set to shine.
CHRIS FROOME (England)
Team: Team Sky
The five-time Grand Tour winner will compete in the UAE for the first time next week as he slowly builds up his preparations for the Tour de France in July. The 33-year-old Englishman is keen to deliver success in order to help Team Sky secure new sponsorship, with the broadcaster’s decision to end its investment in cycling after 2019 leaving the outfit with an uncertain future. A positive display in the Hajar mountains will surely boost positivity for Froome after he struggled during his season opener at the Tour of Colombia last week.
RICHIE PORTE (Australia)
The Australian enjoyed another strong start to the season, with a sixth successive victory on the Willunga Hill stage of the Tour Down Under last month. The 34-year-old will be hoping to continue his solid form in the UAE with his key focus being the Tour de France later this year. The Tasmanian rider certainly has the skills to win a Grand Tour, being both an outstanding climber and strong time triallist, but injuries have restricted his progress in previous years. Now, with Trek-Segafrdo, perhaps a new team, new coach, new programme and new motivation could guide him in the right direction.
TOM DUMOULIN (Holland)
Team: Team Sunweb
The Dutchman showed his class and racing instinct when finishing second in both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France last year. Aside from stage wins at both Grand Tour events, he came fourth in the UCI Road World Championships and Deutschland Tour. Confidence and ability is never an issue with Dumoulin but 2019 needs to be the year where he steps up another level again. The volume and severity of the climbs in the Emirates makes him the best outside Froome, but he also has the pace to claim stage wins in the time-trial on Sunday and, who knows, maybe contend overall.
ALEJANDRO VALVERDE (Spain)
Team: Team Movistar
The evergreen Murcia man won every week-long stage race he entered in 2018, with victory at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, Abu Dhabi Tour, Volta a Catalunya and La Route d’Occitanie. But it was his World Championship triumph in October that proved extra special as he ended a 15-year wait for the coveted rainbow jersey. While many cyclists would be a fading force at 38, Valverde continues to look strong on the climbs and should be in contention at some stage in the UAE next week, especially in the mountains where he reigned supreme in Jebel Hafeet at last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour.
ELIA VIVIANI (Italy)
One of the stars of 2018, Viviani sealed a sizzling 18 stage victories – including four at the Giro d’Italia, the Italian road race national championship, the Cyclassics Hamburg and three stage wins at the Vuelta a Esapana. In fact, his 18 wins were 24 per cent of the stunning 73 stage wins racked up by Deceuninck–Quick-Step last season. Returning to the Emirates this week, the 30-year-old Verona native will be backed up by the experienced Philippe Gilbert and Fabio Sabatini, so expect him to shine on stages two, five and seven.
FERNANDO GAVIRIA (Colombia)
Team: Team UAE Emirates
Although he was forced to withdraw from the recent Tour of Colombia due to illness, Gaviria should be one of the leading lights on show at UAE Team Emirates’ home race. With two stage wins from the 2018 Tour de France as well as winning the 2017 Giro d’Italia green jersey, plenty is expected from the supremely talented 24-year-old. And with the slow demise of Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish, the Colombian should clinch at least one stage win in Dubai or Abu Dhabi depending on how dominant Viviani is on the roads.