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.
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