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Riders pedal into the unknown on UAE’s tallest climb

The UAE Tour's penultimate stage features a 20-kilometer ascent of the Jebel Jais mountain, a climb the pro peloton has never raced before.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (VN) — How will Friday’s UAE Tour stage conclude atop Jebel Jais, the hulking mountain making its pro cycling debut?

Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Pro cycling’s guessing game ramps up whenever a race tackles an entirely new climb. So, it should come as no surprise that the peloton spent much of Thursday prognosticating about Friday’s summit finish at Jebel Jais, the tallest mountain in the UAE. The road up Jebel Jais was completed in 2017 and has recently become a riding destination.

The 180km stage 6 begins with 135 pan-flat kilometers, before turning onto a slight incline for 25 or so kilometers. The climb to Jebel Jais begins, in earnest, with 20km to go.

“Actually it’s a long climb, but I think the biggest group will be three guys,” said Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe). I think it will be one rider perhaps because when the gap is small, people will attack to try and get time.”

Indeed, when VeloNews asked riders to predict how Friday’s stage would end, we were greeted by multiple different answers. Some riders, like Formolo, anticipate a solo finisher atop the climb, due to the relatively close spacing of riders on the general classification. Right now Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) leads Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by just 21 seconds, with the top six riders separated by just one minute.

Other riders believe a small group of six or more riders may come to the line together.

“I do not anticipate a bunch sprint but it could be a small group,” Roglic told VeloNews. “It is hard to know because we have never done this climb before.”

That scenario is entirely likely. At 20.6km in length, the Jebel Jais climb is extremely long, even for an Alpine climb from the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France. Yet it is much more gradual compared to those climbs cyclists often see in the Alps or Pyrenees. The Jebel Jais averages just 5.4 percent over the entirety of its 1,113-meter (3,651-foot) ascent.

By contrast, Italy’s Stelvio climb is 25km with a 5 percent average and climbs 5,500 feet. France’s l’Alpe d’Huez is much steeper, averaging 8.1 percent over 13.6km, with an elevation gain of 6,100 feet.

Jebel Jais features nine switchbacks and ascends the ridge of the Jebel Jais mountain. Along the way, the road passes the world’s longest zip line, and other tourist attractions.

“The problem is that the climb is not too steep so it will depend on the wind,” said Bauke Mollema. “If the wind is not a little headwind it could be a big group until the last 2km, and then it gets a little steeper. Then, it will explode but it is different between the first 10-20 riders won’t be huge.”

Every rider VeloNews spoke to said the gusting winds that have battered the peloton throughout the UAE Tour could determine the racing dynamics on Jebel Jais. Since the road is so shallow, drafting will likely come into play on the climb. Swirling winds could negate attacks and keep the group together, thus producing a sprint from a small group for the stage win. And since the climb is long, the drafting could force riders to stick together, rather than attacking to victory.

Of course, all of these scenarios forget about one fact: People are tired. Valverde will likely be hunting for a stage victory, if not the overall. Roglic, who thus far has been the strongest, will be racing to defend his lead. Should Roglic, or someone else, be markedly stronger than the bunch, the race could very easily finish with a solo rider. Thus far, everyone believes their respective leader could be that rider.

“It’s also the sixth day of racing so that can be a big difference for riders,” said Wilco Kelderman. “It could be about which way the wind is standing. And that will be a surprise.”