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New format brings new challenges at UAE Tour

Exploring all seven Emirates brings new climbs and spectacular scenery, but also long transfers and basic post-race facilities.

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JEBEL JAIS, United Arab Emirates (VN) — After pedaling across the finish line atop this 6,500-foot windswept mountain, pro riders faced a challenge of a completely different variety. They had to clean the dust and grime from their bodies, change into street clothes, and then drive the two hours back to the team hotel in Dubai.

A quick stroll along the team cars revealed pro riders in various states of undress; some scrubbed at themselves with washcloths while others waited outside the few portable showers that organizers had transported up the hulking climb. In Europe, teams travel in tour busses equipped with shower facilities and lounging chairs; here at the UAE Tour, the riders squeezed into rental vans.

“You’re getting changed naked in front of people you don’t know on a daily basis,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). “Obviously we can’t have our team cars like we do in Europe so you make do with what you’ve got.”

The barebones accoutrements are a trade-off of the increased ambition of organizers and race ownership. This inaugural UAE Tour rose from the combined resources of the old tours of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two largest Emirates, or kingdoms, of this Middle East country. Both races loosely followed a hub-and-spoke model, with stages starting and finishing close to either Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The model kept driving transfers short; it also kept the races from venturing deep into the country’s interior, or into the Hajjar mountain range on the northern border with Oman.

By contrast, the UAE Tour has reached much deeper into the countryside than either of its predecessors. The race was funded by the combined governments of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah, and the race’s stated mission was to bring the race to all seven Emirates. Race operators RCS, which also produce the Giro d’Italia, set out to create a miniature grand tour model, with one team time trial and no fewer than two mountaintop finishes.

That big thinking produced dramatic finishes atop the Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais climbs. It also required the riders to occasionally undress in parking lots, and drive several hours each day. Riders and management stayed first in Abu Dhabi, and then in downtown Dubai. During some stages, riders’ beds were located several hours from the action.

“We are aware that maybe it was one transfer too much this year,” said Enrico Fili, CEO of RCS Dubai. “The history of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Tour is where you stay in one place and move from there, transfer of no more than one hour. Having a more complex race means more challenges to maintain that same level of relaxation.”

The race was officially launched in late April 2018 as a join event funded by Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Fili said RCS began the process of choosing road routes this past June, and performed final site inspections in October and November. A few of the stages presented organization hurdles, namely Friday’s stage to Jebel Jais. The Jebel Hafeet climb on stage 3 has a sizable hotel several kilometers from the summit. By contrast, the Jebel Jais climb has a military zone on top; the last sizable parking lot is several kilometers from the finish. So, organizers had to haul tents, showers, and temporary structures to the top of a 20km climb.

Further changes occurred during the summer when the Emirate of Sharjah decided to join Dubai and Abu Dhabi to fund the race. The inclusion of Sharjah impacted the Jebel Jais stage; the stage started in downtown Sharjah, located north of Dubai. Starting the stage in Sharjah’s downtown required more than an hour’s drive to the start, and then a two hours drive back to Dubai from the finish.

“The distance to start the race in Dubai was simply too far,” Fili said. “The idea was always to promote [Jebel Jais] because it is a great tourist destination.”

Conversations with riders elicited two distinct and opposing opinions: Some felt the conditions were simply too extreme, while others saw them as worth the tradeoff for a more diverse race. Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), said the transfers were worth having for the two summit finishes.

“It’s kind of normal. If you want to race along the whole country then there is no other possibility,” Kwiatkowski said. “It’s nice to stay in the same hotel and not change hotels every day, but you pay the price.”

Jay Thomson of Dimension Data said he felt the transfers were similar to ones at the Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. While the old format saw riders often leave and finish close to the race hotel in Dubai, the new format was acceptable, Thomson said.

“You can’t call it a tour of the UAE if you’re just riding around Dubai,” Thomson said. “Of course, you sit longer in the car, and some guys don’t like it and they will complain about it. But how many races these days allow you to ride to and from the hotel?”

Other riders felt that lack of creature comforts impacted their recovery from each day’s stage. Throughout the 2019 UAE Tour the peloton was blasted by sandy desert winds. Racing speeds were high, even on the sprint stages, and the combination of wind and speed created a painful event for February.

Fili said the race plans to address the hurdles in the offseason. Officials with RCS and the Emirati government praised the event, and said it would definitely return in 2019.

“We can optimize things in the future,” Fili said. “We have this feedback and we will do something about it.”