Alexander Kristoff provided UAE Team Emirates with the perfect start to the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The Norwegian European champion won the 189-kilometre opening Al Fahim stage from Madinat Zayed to Adnoc School in a thrilling bunch finish on Wednesday.
Kristoff edged out Andrea Guardini of Bardiani-CSF and Mitchelton-Scott rider Caleb Ewan to cross the line in four hours, 48 minutes and 24 seconds. Elia Viviani, winner of the Dubai Tour, had to settle for fourth ahead of Briton Dan McLay of EF-Drapac.
“In the final (sprint), I lost my rhythm and I lost lead-out man Roberto Ferrari, but then I found Caleb Ewan in the end and I know he’s fast,” Kristoff said.
“He started to really go for the sprint but I was in the draft and then managed to come round and hold on in the headwind all the way to the line.
“It’s a great win for me and the team, on home ground. It takes the pressure off now and it’s a really nice feeling. I’m really proud to get the win, my second win of the season. It’s a great feeling to start off like this in a new team.”
Stage 1 panned out according to the strategy predicted by Rui Costa, the UAE Team Emirates leader and defending champion of the Abu Dhabi Tour, when he spoke to The National at the pre-race conference on Tuesday.
“The first three stages of the race suit Alexander and we are all going to support him to win the sprint stages,” the Portuguese rider had said.
Kristoff, who won the final stage of the Tour of Oman five days ago, demonstrated the confidence his teammates had in him as he powered his way to victory.
“I want to thank all my teammates for helping me to achieve this result,” he said. “I felt good in Dubai, I came close to winning, I felt good again in the hills in Oman but I had to wait for the last stage of Oman to win my first race of the season.
“I wanted to make a three week block of racing in the Middle East because I’m usually good after a Grand Tour. It’s part of my build up to the classics.
“Normally, a race like today with tailwind and headwind but very few crosswinds it's not easy for me to beat all the pure sprinters but the slightly uphill end suited me.
“I’m delighted to ride with the Red Jersey tomorrow. I’ll have another two chances for a bunch sprint finish but the GC is more important for the team. However, the time trial makes it more difficult for us to win the Abu Dhabi Tour this year but we’ll try.”
Ewan, 23, felt he launched his sprint too early but explained he was forced into going early.
“I didn’t want to hesitate against the headwind because I’d lose all my speed,” the Australian said. “It was probably about 50m earlier than I hoped to have gone but I just had to hit out and try to hold on. It was a little bit too long for me. I’ll come for revenge tomorrow. I feel very good. I must not repeat the same little mistake again.”
Earlier in the day, Team Dimension Data suffered a huge blow before the official start of the race when their lead rider, Mark Cavendish, had to withdraw from the race following a crash at the neutral zone.
Cavendish initially re-joined the main field, but pulled out five kilometres later.