Twelve months ago the UAE Team Emirates project ascended its highest peak with a stunning performance at the 2018 Tour de France. The team’s eight-man line-up for the 2019 – and 106th overall – edition suggests they are returning, with the aim to scale even greater heights.
Daniel Martin claimed UAE Team Emirates’ maiden stage win at Le Tour 12 months ago, riding to glory on day six from Brest to Mur-de-Bretagne – on his way to a superb overall finish of eighth, while he also claimed the Combativity award. Alexander Kristoff repeated the feat when he took victory on the final, iconic Stage 21, riding to success along the famed Champs-Elysees.
Grand Tour success had been tasted in their maiden campaign a year earlier, Jan Polanc winning Stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia and Matej Mohoric taking Stage 7 at the Vuelta a Espana.
But there is of course something so special about winning at the Grande Boucle, whether it be a stage, the race itself, or just completing the gruelling 21-day, 3,460km slog.
During their fledgling existence, UAE Team Emirates have largely developed at their own pace, left alone by the giants of the sport to grow and find their feet.
Now in their third season, however, there is much more attention on them and – helped or hindered by last year’s success – the team will not be flying under the radar coming into Le Tour, which gets under way in Brussels on Saturday.
Part of the elite UCI WorldTour since coming into existence in 2017, it is this year that the UAE have truly started to show that they belong, with 21 victories picked up throughout the 2019 season so far.
Their total win figure stood at 19 for 2017 – an impressive tally for their maiden outing. Disappointingly though, that dropped to just 12 wins during a frustrating 2018.
As happy as he was with a stage win at Le Tour a year ago, former European champion Kristoff admitted: “I kind of saved my season with the stage win at the Champs-Elysees”.
The overall performance in France kind of salvaged the team’s year too. But they have enjoyed a phenomenal 2019 so far. It will already go down as their most successful year. And they come into the second Grand Tour of the year in fine fettle, with nine victories from their last 14 events since mid-May.
They legitimately could be the most stacked team at the race. Their General Classification hopes will be led by Irishman Martin – who has placed in the top 10 in each of the past three editions, including sixth in 2017.
The 32-year-old is in red-hot form too, placing second overall at the Tour of the Basque Country and eighth at the recent Criterium du Dauphine.
Fernando Gaviria – who won two stages at Le Tour last year as a Quick-Step rider – has been left out of the squad, as the Colombian continues to struggle with a knee injury.
Gaviria abandoned the Giro in the opening week of May following a knee problem and has not raced since. But his absence is diminished by a more than an able replacement in Kristoff, who will assume lead sprint duties.
The Norwegian comes into Le Tour on the back of victories at Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Norway and GP du canton d’Argovie.
💛 🇫🇷 We're excited to announce our #TDF2019 @LeTour lineup:@FabioAru1 🇮🇹@sebystrom 🇳🇴@RuiCostaCyclist 🇵🇹@sergiohenaoofic 🇨🇴@Kristoff87 🇳🇴@VSLaengen 🇳🇴@DanMartin86 🇮🇪@JasperPhilipsen 🇧🇪— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 27 June 2019
📝>: https://t.co/sIf2ZpB6jG #UAETeamEmirates #RideTogether #YearOfTolerance pic.twitter.com/CdXK95H0p9
He will be backed up by emerging Belgian star Jasper Philipsen. The 21-year-old was a stage winner at the Tour Down Under in January and has been consistently well-placed in recent sprints.
Fabio Aru, the 2015 Vuelta champion and a two-time podium finisher at the Giro, admits he harbours no GC ambitions but he has earned his place in the squad following a 21st overall finish at the Tour de Suisse last month.
It’s been a difficult start to life at the UAE team for the Italian star – he missed the Giro this year after being diagnosed with a constriction of the iliac artery in his left leg – but with him in the ranks, there is no doubt the UAE are stronger and possess additional star power.
The heavy hitters continue in the form of three-time Tour stage winner Rui Costa and former Team Sky (now Ineos) rider Sergio Henao, who finished 12th overall in 2016 while helping Chris Froome to victory.
Kristoff’s fellow Norwegians Vegard Stake Laengen and Sven Erik Bystrom complete a formidable line-up.
There will of course be challenges from all sides to contend with.
Movistar look strong with Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa – seventh 12 months ago – all capable of leading the Spanish team to glory.
Jumbo-Visma’s experienced duo of Steven Kruijswijk and Dylan Groenewegen will be searching for overall and stage victories respectively. But the team are without talisman Primoz Roglic who’s enjoyed a fine 12 months and finished fourth last year, just pushed off the podium by Froome.
Team Sunweb, meanwhile, will forge ahead without their star man Tom Dumoulin, who suffered a set-back recovering from the knee injury that ended his Giro.
Ineos, who have delivered six of the last seven Tour champions (and three different riders), will be the team to beat, although they don’t have injured Froome, while defending champion Geraint Thomas was shaken up by his own crash at the Tour de Suisse and is not in the best of form.
The 2019 edition appears to be wide open. And judging by their bold line-up, it appears UAE Team Emirates are fully aware of this.
History was made high up in the French Alps a year ago. Twelve months on they are faced with a mountainous task yet again. But one that could also yield more towering rewards.
This year’s Tour de France begins on July 6 in Belgium.
Here, we take a look at the key talking points ahead of the race.
How is Geraint Thomas faring?
Defending champion Geraint Thomas has been named as joint leader alongside rising star Egan Bernal as Team Ineos – previously known as Team Sky – bid for a seventh Tour de France title in eight years.
Bernal, 22, was one of Thomas’ support riders in 2018. But he comes into this edition as many people’s favourite for the yellow jersey after a stunning season so far.
The Colombian, who won the Tour de Suisse last month, also triumphed in Paris-Nice in March and finished third in Volta a Catalunya a fortnight later. He is a menace on the climbs and if victory does not come for him this season, then no doubt, he’ll be a Tour champion in the not too distant future.
Thomas has been in the wars since crashing out in Switzerland. The Welshman may be short on racing this season, which could make his defence of the maillot jeune more difficult, but experience and some freshness could help him when tackling the gruelling peaks of the Cols de Vars, Izoard and Galibier on week three.
Who are the main challengers?
In Froome’s absence and Thomas’s lack of spark, the race feels wide open.
With this, confidence will grow in respective riders who will be ready to raise their game.
Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Jakob Fuglsang, Adam Yates and more will up the temperature knowing that one key favourite is missing and the other is low on preparation.
Quintana, a past winner of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, has been repeatedly earmarked as a favourite since 2013, but the question remains if the ship has sailed for the 29-year-old. He finished 12th in 2017 and 10th in 2018.
For Fuglsang, the Dane is heading into his ninth Tour but never finished in the top-five. But at 34-year-old, he is having the best year of his career, winning Liege–Bastogne–Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine – a prime tester for the Tour.
Backed by one of the strongest Astana teams in recent years, Fuglsang should be a threat.
It is now 34 years since Bernard Hinault roared into the streets of Paris to lift the coveted Tour de France title.
Yet, in the years since, French riders seem incapable of winning cycling’s biggest prize.
And whether French riders have a shot at ending the nation’s lengthy losing streak this year remains to be seen.
Froome’s absence will only increase hope that Romain Bardet – the most likely candidate – or Thibaut Pinot can end that wait.
Bardet may carry the burden more than his compatriot, with his podium finishes in the last three years showing he has the skills, mind and general class to mount a challenge on the yellow jersey.
Similarly, Pinot could be a real force. The mountainous routes will suit him and the stage six summit finish in La Planche des Belles Filles is part of his daily training ride.
He lives just 35 minutes away in Melisey. However, general consistency in team and individual time trialling may dent his overall hopes.
France has produced some superb riders in recent years, but to have no winner since Hinault may just be down to pure unluckiness and the depth of talent being stronger than ever.
Sagan for green?
Three-time world champion Peter Sagan can be a class apart on his day and has won the points classification in six of his last seven Tours.
With seven sprints expected in the 2019 edition, the Slovenian is expected to be a force around the roads of France.
Dylan Groenewegen, Cabel Ewan and Elia Viviani may clinch stage wins, but Sagan’s ability to stay in the race during the mountain stages adds to his prospects of retaining the green shirt.
The 29-year-old excels with pressure, and although anonymous for much of the season so far, can turn it on when needed against stellar opposition.
Questions remain about his form on and off the road with many believing his appetite is beginning to wane.
Michael Matthews may be Sagan’s closest challenger in the battle for green, but this will be the perfect stage for Sagan to prove this diagnosis wrong about his lack of motivation.
Chris Froome hoped to be winning a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title this July, but must instead watch on from a rehabilitation unit in Monaco after suffering a string of injuries in a horror crash.
Without him, the Tour feels wide open. Geraint Thomas may return as defending champion but he suffered his own spill at the Tour de Suisse in the build-up, a reminder that the Welshman’s Tour history has been littered with crashes prior to last year.
Behind him is a long queue of hopefuls, not least his own team-mate Egan Bernal, eager to exploit a rare opportunity.
Geraint Thomas (Wales)
Geraint Thomas’ 2018 Tour victory was unquestionably a surprise. As much as the Welshman himself talked up his form prior to the race, the shock was evident on his own face after the stage 20 time trial in Espelette confirmed the result. Thomas was able to go into the Tour as second fiddle to Chris Froome, with the pressure and the expectation elsewhere. But that will not happen again. Froome’s horror crash at the Criterium du Dauphine means he is recovering elsewhere, while the number one is pinned to Thomas’ back in Brussels. How a rider who has had an unfortunate history of mishaps in this race prior to last July is able to handle the extra pressure and scrutiny remains to be seen. After the celebrations from last year extended late into 2018, Thomas had a slow start to the season, making his form tough to judge even before a crash ended his Tour de Suisse early. The favourite he may be, but Thomas is far from a lock. Still, just as they did 12 months ago, Team Ineos are in the fortunate position of having an outstanding Plan B. Egan Bernal’s win in Switzerland has elevated the 22-year-old Colombian to the status of second favourite. He has promised to support Thomas should the Welshman be stronger, but will be waiting in the wings if the opportunity comes his way.
Romain Bardet (French)
Team: AG2R La-Mondiale
“This year or never!” screamed the front page of L’Equipe a little under a fortnight before the start of the 2019 Tour. Desperation for a first home win since Bernard Hinault in 1985 is becoming extreme in France. One man seems to carry the burden more than most, though you can hardly tell it by looking at the cool exterior of the 28-year-old Romain Bardet. Two podium finishes in the last three years show he has the calibre, but carrying the weight of expectation cannot be easy, and we can only imagine how much the scrutiny would ramp up should he actually pull on the yellow jersey. Tour organisers are no longer being subtle about trying to engineer a route designed to favour French riders, and by having the Bastille Day stage finish in Bardet’s home town this year they are laying it on really quite thick.
Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark)
Fuglsang has shown outstanding form in stage races so far this year to put himself in the conversation in what looks to be – in the absence of Froome – an open Tour. The Dane finished third at Tirreno-Adriatico, fourth in the Tour of the Basque Country and then won the Criterium du Dauphine. Fuglsang has won the Dauphine once before, in 2017, and followed it up by moving as high as fifth at the Tour before a crash brought a premature end to his race. He has decent calibre then, but the veteran rider has a less impressive record over three weeks. He finished seventh in the 2013 Tour, but that is his only top 10 finish in 12 Grand Tour starts. At 34, is it too late for Fuglsang to win a big one?
Richie Porte (Australia)
Whatever the chances of a future French win are, it might be this year or never for Richie Porte, who at 34 is running out of chances to turn a fine stage-race career into a Grand Tour-winning one. His high point of a fifth-placed finish is now three years in the memory, while the Tasmanian’s dismal record of illness, injury and misfortune continues. Last year he did not even make it to the feared cobbles on stage nine before hitting the deck and breaking his collarbone. An open Tour is exactly what Porte needs but in order to take advantage he will have to stay out of trouble, and that is much easier said than done.
Adam Yates (England)
Yates came to the 2018 Tour with high hopes. Having finished fourth and won the young riders’ classification in 2016, his eyes were firmly set on the podium. But though things began well enough, the Lancastrian quickly faded when the race moved into the Alps and lost heaps of time to slide completely out of contention on his way to an eventual 29th place. Yates blamed dehydration for the collapse in form, and vowed to use it as a learning experience. Given the way his twin brother Simon learned from mistakes made in the 2018 Giro d’Italia to bounce back and win La Vuelta later that year, perhaps then we should pay some serious attention. Yates showed strong form in the Criterium du Dauphine, wearing the yellow jersey for a day and finishing the final stage eight seconds in arrears before being hit by illness which should prove only a minor setback.
Nairo Quintana (Colombia)
Last year proved a disappointing one for Quintana, who had to settle for 10th place at the Tour de France and eighth at La Vuelta – the first year in which he failed to take a podium place at a Grand Tour since 2013. Indeed, he has failed to seriously challenge since the 2017 Giro, when he was pipped to victory on the final stage by Tom Dumoulin. Still, at 29 the Colombian is far too young to dismiss, particularly in a year when the Tour features so many climbs at high altitude and so few kilometres. If there was a year for a pure climber to win it, this is it. Quintana has surely taken note.