The cycling world will be fixated on the UAE next week when the biggest UCI World Tour event of the season so far gets under way on Sunday.
The inaugural UAE Tour, which was launched after the Dubai Tour and Abu Dhabi Tour merged, will welcome all 18 World Tour teams – and two second-tier Pro Continental teams – with a plethora of top-class riders set to compete across the Emirates.
However, no team will be drawing more attention than the one representing the host nation. UAE Team Emirates – originally named Team UAE-Abu Dhabi before the airline joined as title sponsor – was launched in January 2017, taking over from Italian team Lampre.
The goals were clear: build a team capable of competing for cycling’s biggest prizes while using the platform to promote the sport in the UAE.
The debut season began in perfect style with Portugal’s former world champion, Rui Costa, winning the Abu Dhabi Tour in the race’s first edition as a UCI World Tour event. Other notable achievements followed, including grand tour stage wins at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.
An encouraging year then made way for a breakthrough 2018. More established and following the recruitment of elite riders like Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff, UAE Team Emirates made themselves heard, particularly at the Tour de France where Martin and Kristoff were stage winners. Martin finished eighth in the general classification and was named the tour’s most combative rider.
After another successful off-season of recruitment, headlined by the arrival of Colombian sprint star Fernando Gaviria, means 2019 brought with it greater ambitions and bigger expectations. It started well enough after UAE Team Emirates secured the team classification title at the season-opening Tour Down Under.
Now it is time for the home tour, and the team have made it clear just how important success in this race is by naming a star-studded line-up, with Martin, Gaviria, Kristoff, and Costa joined by Italians Diego Ulissi and Oliviero Troia, and Norway’s Vegard Stake Laengen.
“I’m truly happy to race this new event,” Irishman Martin said. “It’s a beautiful nation and for the first time we can take it all in in a week-long race.
“Clearly for our team this race has significance and we are going try to win at all costs. We have a group of strong riders coming to race, which tells you something about how important it is for us.
“We are going to try win every way to make an aggressive race with the hope of reaching the top of the classification.”
UAE Tour 2019: Stage-by-stage guide
Beginning on Sunday with a team time trial at Al Hudayriat Island in Abu Dhabi, the UAE Tour will cover each of the seven emirates before ending on March 2 at Dubai’s City Walk. Totalling 1,090 kilometres, the race features three sprint stages, two mountain stages – at Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais – and one medium mountain stage at Hatta Dam.
“Our goal is to win,” Costa said, echoing the sentiments of teammate Martin. “We have three leaders for the overall classification and tactically, we can play ourselves well. It’s always great to ride on the home roads of our sponsor, it gives a certain motivation.
“I have good memories of 2017 when I was able to win the Abu Dhabi Tour.”
Ambitious, motivated and with a balance of sprinters and endurance riders, UAE Team Emirates will hope to mount challenges on all stages.
Gaviria will have the chance to impress his new employers, and will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Kristoff and Costa by winning a stage in the UAE in his debut season with the team. After two stage wins in his first race at Vuelta a San Juan, the 24-year-old Colombian is aiming to be in good condition after illness halted his Tour Colombia campaign.
“I’m motivated and focused on this home race,” Gaviria said. “This year I began strongly in Argentina, but I was a little big suffering from a cold in Colombia, so I had to pull out after two stages.
“I hope to have recovered 100 per cent to be able to aim for a stage win, which would surely please the sponsors and our management.”
After two seasons of sharp upward trajectory, UAE Team Emirates will be aware that contending in the grand tours of 2019 will be the true measure of their progress. However, a strong showing at the UAE Tour will lay down a marker and provide further evidence of their credentials at the top-tier of world cycling.