Madinat Zayed // Watch out for the sprinters. Always watch out for the sprinters.
That was the message going into the second edition of the Abu Dhabi Tour.
As strong a sprinting field as you can imagine had assembled for the four-stage race and one day out from the first stage, most eyes were on the likes of Mark Cavendish and Elia Viviani.
The pair have had a bristling rivalry through the season, most notably at the Olympics, where a Cavendish crash brought Viviani down as well, except the latter got up and went on to win gold. That rivalry, it was a fair estimation, would be the headline here.
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In the event, it was neither who won out on a warm, blustery day in Madinat Zayed. Both were in it until the very end of a bunch sprint finish.
It was, instead, a man who later conceded that he does not consider himself a pure sprinter, who won it. Those with a passing interest in cycling may not have heard of Giacomo Nizzolo, but the Trek-Segafredo rider has pedigree.
This stage win, in three hours, 15 minutes, was his seventh win of a hugely successful season and he is a two-time winner of the points classification at the Giro d’Italia.
To add to the incongruity, on Sunday in Doha, it was the gap he left for Peter Sagan that ultimately helped Sagan beat Cavendish in a finish for gold at the world championships. Nizzolo himself finished fifth.
“It means a lot especially after Sunday,” Nizzolo said. “I came here to see what can happen.
“So when I take a stage it is already an extra victory. To start like this is the best way.”
The sprint was an apposite way to end an engrossing stage, and one – with temperatures lower than last year – that went at a healthy pace.
Ultimately Nizzolo held off late challenges from John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) and Cavendish (Team Dimension Data), but it only came to that at the very death, with less than 200m to go.
“I asked my team to put me in a good situation, a good position with 1 kilometre to go,” Nizzolo said. “I knew there was a corner at 1.2 kilometres and a roundabout at 700 metres.
“At the roundabout I was well placed and from there I managed by myself the situation. I jumped out and started the sprint around 200 metres.”
The sprint began later than many had expected. For much of the race, a four-man breakaway led the peloton – Michael Matthews, Jens Keukleire, Gatis Smukulis and Dion Smith.
The quartet built up a lead of over two minutes with 46km left of the 147km-stage.
But it was not until the last 7km that the peloton caught up with them; at one stage it was not unlikely that the breakaway might lead until the very end.
Most of the eyes were on Cavendish, the Tour’s brand ambassador and competing here for the first time after missing the first edition last year with an injury.
For much of the stage, he did precisely what was expected and he sped up as the end came in sight. But among the final curves, he lost his teammates and could not forge a way through.
“That was all right, I was just too far back at the last corner,” he said. “By the time I tried to move up there was riders all over the road so I had to pedal behind them. Not their fault, my fault I was too far behind.”
That was all the incentive Nizzolo needed.
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