Turns out there’s no such thing as an easy day in the WorldTour.
The top-tier race calendar started in style at the UAE Tour on Sunday as a day of fearsome crosswind racing erupted the race and left many of the peloton’s VIPs swinging out the back from the very first kilometer of the stage.
“No one expected the race to be like that,” João Almeida said after the frantic dash through the desert.
With strong coastal winds battering across the pan-flat desert outside of Abu Dhabi, the race split from almost the moment the flag dropped. No sooner had the race regrouped and drawn breath an hour later, Quick-Step positioned its Portuguese talent Almeida for the intermediate sprint in an early grab for time bonuses, and then kept the turbos firing as the winds whipped up again.
For those in the right time at the right place, the opening stage in the Emirates made for a 26-man time trial to hold off the masses of echelons behind. The group, which included Almeida and a raft of his Quick-Step teammates, race-winner Mathieu van der Poel, Nielson Powless, Tadej Pogačar and Adam Yates combined to crush a chase effort as the race repeatedly split and re-formed behind.
Top-tier sprinters including Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Sam Bennet, Caleb Ewan, and Pascal Ackermann were among those flailing behind as they watched their chances of an early-season score romp up the road.
“It was a very dynamic and fast start to the race,” said Ackermann’s Bora-Hansgrohe sport director Enrico Poitschke. “When everything regrouped in the first headwind section, we didn’t expect another early move. But the group formed at the intermediate sprint and at that time we simply have been out of position because we didn’t go for the seconds.”
Ok, this is art 😍 pic.twitter.com/Lotlwogr91
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) February 21, 2021
Early coup for the GC favorites
Almeida, Pogačar, and defending champion Yates – the three top contenders for GC honors – found themselves putting minutes into their rivals after what had started out as a bid for seconds in the intermediate sprint escalated into a mass of spiraling echelons.
David Dekker, the Jumbo-Visma rookie who punched into second-place in his very first day in the WorldTour, said that the random assortment of riders in the front cohort was what made it work.
“The cooperation in the front group was very good,” said the young Dutchman. “I think it was mainly because it was a mix of sprinters and GC riders and also because there were teams that were represented with more than two riders.”
With the pressure on Pogačar to take a home-team win, UAE Team Emirates was one of the teams that came out tops from the day, with both its Slovenian leader and sprinter Fernando Gaviria in the front group.
“It was a really hard stage with the wind, but in the end, our team did a super good job with four guys in the front group,” Pogačar said after the stage. “Sadly we missed the stage win but I think we showed that we are strong and up for the fight.”
Though Gaviria and Elia Viviani – the only two thoroughbred sprinters in the first echelon – were outkicked by van der Poel in the final, UAE Team Emirates will have come out smiling nonetheless. With pre-race contenders Sepp Kuss and Vincenzo Nibali now over eight minutes down on classification, the next six days will make for a three-horse race between Almeida, Yates, and Pogačar.
“We were there at the front and we’ve set ourselves up well for the next few days,” Pogačar said.
“Winning the UAE Tour isn’t that easy but some GC contenders are now over four minutes down,” Almeida said. “Tadej Pogačar and Adam Yates are obviously in good shape because you need good legs to make the front group in a race like this. Those time bonuses could end up being very important, as the UAE Tour is the kind of race where every second counts.”
A 13km time trial Monday will offer an opportunity to take seconds at most. The two grinding summit finishes of stage 3 and stage 5 will be the deciders in showing who’s strongest of the lead trio – unless the wind blows up again.
The wind blew hard from kilometer zero and Ineos Grenadiers forced the first split in the opening kilometer.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step forced the decisive set of echelons at the intermediate sprint, protecting GC captain Almeida but leaving sprinter Bennett behind.
All but 26 of the peloton lost out as the strong front echelon motored into the horizon.
Nibali was one of the GC contenders caught out, with Coloradan Kuss also out the back.
“Nothing like a windy day in the desert to blow out those cobwebs,” Chris Froome joked on Twitter after being thrown into the frying pan in his first race with Israel Sart-Up Nation.
No snoozy start to the 2021 WorldTour.
Powless was the one EF-Nippo rider in the front group and animated the final 10km with a series of attacks and counters.
Van der Poel started the day on leadout duty and ended it with a stage win and the race leader’s jersey.