ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates β€” (VN) Those early-season races across sandy, wind-swept Middle East countries are designed for the sprinters, right?

Not any more.

This year a handful of Tour de France stars have traveled to Abu Dhabi to start the seven-stage UAE Tour, the new WorldTour event that was created last fall when the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Tours merged. The UAE Tour is designed with climbers, sprinters, and time trialists in mind. The race kicks off Sunday with a 16km team time trial in Abu Dhabi; subsequent stages hit all seven Emirates that comprise the country and feature flat, hilly, and mountainous terrain.

And the race’s penultimate day features a legitimate mountaintop climb.

Riders gathered in Abu Dhabi on Saturday for a pre-race press conference, and praised the organization for creating a route that caters to a multitude of riders.

“It was already important here before but now, with the Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour being united, it makes it an even more attractive event with two mountain stages and a demanding finale,” said Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who won the Abu Dhabi Tour in 2018.

Valverde will face off against other grand tour greats: Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema (both Trek-Segafredo), Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman (both Sunweb), Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), and American Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First) are all on the start list.

Noticeably absent is Chris Froome (Sky), who recently pulled out of the race citing fatigue from the Tour of Colombia 2.1 race.

Much of the pre-race buzz has centered on the race’s inclusion the climb to Jebel Jais on the race’s penultimate stage. The Abu Dhabi Tour regularly included the punchy finish to Hatta Dam, as well as the summit finish to Jebel Hafeet, both of which are included in this year’s route.

The Jebel Jais climb is an entirely different beast; it is 20 km in length, and averages nearly 6 percent. A local cycling website says it climbs 1,400 total meters (4,600 feet), however the race program does not include the total elevation gain for the segment used by the race. While Jebel Jais may lack the super-steep ramps of similar climbs in Spain or Portugal, the climb’s length makes it a proper test of early-season fitness.

“I don’t think that anyone has seen the climb, so it’s difficult to say, but it’s 20k at a six per cent average so that’s a proper Alpine finish so there will be some fireworks,” said Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).

Organizers hope that the varied terrain and new spot on the calendar β€” the race falls just 10 weeks before the Giro d’Italia β€” will further entrench the new UAE Tour as the top race in the Middle East. In an interview several days before the event, Aref Al Awani, secretary general of Abu Dhabi Sports Council and chairman of the local organizing committee, told Emirati news website thenational.ae that he hopes the event can become the region’s version of a Grand Tour.

“It’s true the UAE Tour is embarking on the first year but this event already has the … signs of becoming a new jewel in the crown on its own rights in the UCI calendar of events,” Al Awani said.