UAE Team Emirates are sending a strong squad to Paris-Nice for what is arguably the first major European stage race of the year.
The event is nicknamed the Race to the Sun, as it runs in the first half of March, typically starting in cold and wintry conditions in the French capital before reaching the spring sunshine on the Cote d’Azur by the end of the week.
This eight-day long slog from the outskirts of France’s capital city to the Mediterranean shores is as diverse as it is debilitating – its route peppered with pitfalls and exposed to the unpredictable weather that is so often a factor during the early parts of the season.
To tackle the challenge, UAE Team Emirates will send a seasoned squad of riders including General Classification contender and former Italian national champion, Fabio Aru.
The 2018 Colombian national champion, Sergio Henao, also has his eyes firmly fixed on a podium place in the climbers stages and will be supported by Diego Ulissi who favours the lumpy terrain in these races. Henao, 31, was a winner of this event two years ago while riding for Team Sky.
For the sprint stages, Norwegian powerhouse Alexander Kristoff will lead the charge after showing his early season form at the UAE Tour. The team will be backed up by Marco Marcato, Rory Sutherland and Sven Erik Bystrom – a rangy rider whose breakaway capabilities were showcased to the world in 2018 when he narrowly missed out on a stage win at the Vuelta a Espana.
Here’s our seven-man squad for the “Race to the Sun”☀️ #ParisNice 🇫🇷:@FabioAru1 🇮🇹@sebystrom 🇳🇴@sergiohenaoofic 🇨🇴@Kristoff87 🇳🇴@MarcatoMarco 🇮🇹@rorysutherland1 🇦🇺@DiegoUlissi 🇮🇹— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 7 March 2019
📝Preview: https://t.co/WvvG28TwL5#UAETeamEmirates #RideTogether #YearOfTolerance pic.twitter.com/g8aPGp47QV
The team will be guided by a trio of sports directors including Simone Pedrazzini, Neil Stephens and Paolo Trialongo.
Team manager Joxean Fernández Matxin said: “We’ll be at Paris-Nice with Henao, already an overall winner. It’s his first European race of 2019 after he began in the tour of Colombia.
“Diego Ulissi, who rode well in the UAE Tour, will ride at his side and Fabio Aru will compete without pressure to perform in the classification. The team is balanced. We can count on a good group of riders to support. Kristoff will aim for the first three stages that suit sprinters.”
The race begins in the Yvelines region for the 10th year in a row, with a flat opener around Saint-Geramin-en-Laye that will provide Kristoff with an early opportunity to take to the podium.
The second and third stages, to Bellegarde and Moulins, respectively, will also favour the fast men, although the flat and exposed terrain opens up the race to a continuous risk of echelons.
The terrain becomes slightly more rugged on Stage 4 from Vichy to Pelussin, with four climbs in the final 60km, including the short but steep Cote de Condrieu. The category two Cote de Chavanay is just 10km from the finish and offers an obvious springboard for late attacks.
Stage 5 introduces the individual time trial which will take place in Barbentane and – as always – will define the state of play ahead of the race’s mountainous finale. While the 25.5km route includes a climb to the abbey of St Michel de Frigolet around the mid-point, it will still favour the specialists.
The following day’s stage to Brignoles has a rolling route that lends itself to long range attackers before a closing weekend that brings the race onto far more challenging roads. Stage 7 from Nice to the Col de Turini is 181.5km in length and features six climbs, with a big focus on the final two ascents as the race enters the Alps.
The category one Cote de Pelasque (5.7km at 6.2 per cent) is followed by the Col de Turini. At 14.9km in length with an average gradient of 7.3 per cent, it will be a stage that highlights the form of the GC riders at this early point in the season.
The first-ever Haute Route event in the Middle East has been celebrated as a success after delivering a challenging three-day experience in the mountains of Oman.
Haute Route Oman broke new ground when it won a place on the international cycling calendar, attracting more than 290 registered riders from 26 countries. It presented the peloton with a trio of daunting stages on a 238km course through the heart of Oman’s dramatic and scenic Al Hajar mountain range.
The iconic Jebel Akhdar – the Green Mountain – and a 3,000m-plus climb averaging 10.3% was at the heart of stage one, followed on day two by the only slightly less daunting ‘Hoota Climb’ to the 2,000m summit of Jebel Haat and its awe-inspiring panoramic views. Stage three on the final day offered a deceptively short 9.4km time trial finale, but came with a sting in its tail in the shape of a relentless series of steep switchbacks and short, sharp climbs to the finish.
Taking on the challenge for the first time was Haute Route Oman Ambassador Jenson Button, the 2009 F1 world champion racing driver, a keen cyclist who is also co-founder of the Léger cycle clothing brand who were official event partners.
The competitive field produced three different winners across the three stages, with Swiss rider Guillaume Bourgeois, Nol van Loon from the Netherlands, and Australia’s Adrian White taking the honours on respective days. A determined Bourgeois established enough of a lead with his first day victory to hold off the challenge from White, who finished only 1 minute and 27 seconds adrift after almost six hours of racing, and a consistent Thomas Berger from France who took the final place on the overall podium.
A delighted Bourgeois said: “It was pretty hard. It is my first time in Oman and it is a good race to start the season and I am happy as always – it’s amazing with a beautiful landscape, pretty cool.” Jenson Button also enjoyed the event, saying: ““It has been a really, really good experience, it’s been definitely tough but that’s what we do it for, we like to push ourselves, and to do it in a country with such beauty and hospitality has been terrific. The hills are so steep here and you are working so hard, but once you get up there, you look around and it makes it all worthwhile.”
The women’s race was a clearer cut affair, with British cyclist Helen Sharp winning all three stages to finish more than 20 minutes clear of China’s Stella Chen He, and the Netherlands’ Lispeth Gruppen taking third. “It’s been epic, absolutely amazing,” said Sharp. “Tough, but it always is with a Haute Route, that’s what you expect, it is what it is supposed to be. Great people, great scenery, a great country and sunshine.”
Riders can pre-register for Haute Route Oman 2020 and receive priority booking before entries officially open at hauteroute.org
The 30-year-old caught fire in 2018, his debut with Quick-Step Floors (now Deceuninck-Quick-Step), surging to 18 calendar wins after leaving the shadows of Team Sky to become a leading light at the Belgian outfit.
Verona native Viviani doubled his previous best tally last year, surpassing his nine wins from 2017, but now says the goal is topping 100 – although he joked that a precious triumph at Milan-San Remo at the end of the month could see him bring the curtain down prematurely on his 2019 campaign.
“I think it’s 71. Some say 70, some say 71. 71 is official I think,” Viviani told Sport360 after claiming fifth place on Stage 7 of the inaugural UAE Tour at Dubai’s City Walk on Saturday – a result that saw him take home the green points jersey.
Officially, it’s 71 wins, but some records don’t count his maiden triumph as a professional – a Stage 8 victory at the Vuelta A Cuba in February 2010.
But Viviani only cares about where the next victory is coming from. He added: “I don’t count this. The goal is probably 100 but at the moment we focus to win as much as we can and then we will see.”
Viviani had earlier triumphed on Stage 5 at Khor Fakkan on Thursday and was second behind UAE Team Emirates rider Fernando Gaviria – a Quick-Step colleague last year – on Stage 2.
Emulating his stunning 2018 may seem a tall task, but Viviani has started 2019 in resplendent fashion – adding his UAE victory to his Stage 1 win at the Tour Down Under and Great Ocean Road Race glory.
And he feels there could be even more to come from him this year. “We have already three WorldTour wins so I think it doesn’t count how many wins I do, the important thing is to win important races,” added Viviani, who now heads to Tirreno-Adriatico from March 13-19 before attempting to win a coveted maiden Milan-San Remo title.
“I think if I win San-Remo I could end the season there,” said Viviani, who has finished ninth and 19th in the previous two races.
He was disappointed not to leave the Emirates with a second win, but comforted himself with the green jersey. And it was another fine showing from Viviani in the UAE, where he has always performed well.
He won Stage 2 of the 2015 Dubai Tour and would follow that up with two wins at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour later that year. Another Stage 2 win in Dubai followed in 2017 and 2018, as well as a second stage win and the overall title in Dubai last year.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely,” added Viviani when asked if he likes racing here.
“I like to race here, to start the season really well in Australia and then come here already in good condition. I always like to win, never mind where but I think this week we went really close.
“One time with Fernando the first day and then the second stage, then we win the other sprint. Then today another sprint and fifth place so we are always there.
“I think we just keep going like that with the guys, doing an amazing job. We need to accept it’s always a good battle with the best sprinters in the world. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We need to never lose the confidence.”
Of failing to grasp a second win of the week, he added: “Disappointment, because when we can win it’s always good to take that.
“But we were too far back on the final corner. When I see (UAE Team Emirates’ Alexander) Kristoff start the sprint, I understand we are already late and I said to Michael (Morkov) straight away ‘go, go, go’ on the left side, but when I see Gaviria head to head with (Bora-Hansgroe rider and stage winner Sam) Bennett I have the feeling I need to sprint just for the placement.
“So, disappointed for that, happy for the points jersey. It was a really nice week, next week we start to focus for Tirreno, the last step before the classics which is the biggest goal of the season. We are at a good point.”