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Think the UAE Tour is a training race? Think again

WorldTour riders don't come to UAE to work on their suntans. They head to the Middle East to race hard in an event that is increasingly important.

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KHOR FAKKAN, United Arab Emirates (VN) — The WorldTour peloton is licking its wounds after five furious stages here at the UAE Tour. Intense desert winds and blowing sand have battered the peloton on each day. The group has raced up two uphill finishes. And the time trial specialists, heavy classics riders, and GC favorites have, day after day, whipped the racing pace to warp speed.

“The level here is very high. The riders are on top level and they are here to perform,” said Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo). “It’s not like in the past when some guys would use races like this to train for the Giro or the Tour. Those days I think are gone.”

Pro cycling fans often think of February races as training events; riders compete in Spain’s Ruta del Sol and Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve in part to boost their fitness prior to bigger goals in the season. That’s not the case with the UAE Tour. VeloNews spoke with multiple pro riders and team trainers, and all of them emphatically said that the race — which was formerly split between the Dubai and Abu Dhabi tours — is an individual race with its own prestige and not a weeklong training block in the desert.

“Everyone is here to perform and race,” said Peter Kennaugh (Bora-Hansgrohe). “Every team has an objective for each stage because they want to win.”

Why is the UAE Tour separate from events that traditionally prepare riders for bigger races? The race’s spot on the calendar is extremely close to the first block of major racing, and the tour’s bevy of WorldTour points increases the incentive to win. And finally, the UAE Tour’s extremely distinct stages separates it from the preparation cycle.

“It’s a WorldTour race, and every WorldTour race is a one that riders want to win,” said Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb). “It means a lot to win here.”

UAE Tour
Top riders like Caleb Ewan turn themselves inside-out to win a stage at UAE Tour. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Too late and too early

A decade ago riders often used January and February to ease into the season with warm-up races in Spain and the Southern Hemisphere. Even the first editions of the Amgen Tour of California saw ProTour riders arrive on varying levels of form.

“You had maybe 10 or 20 guys capable of winning and everybody else was just easing into the season,” Kennaugh said. “I think the way it was is gone.”

The UAE Tour’s place on the calendar actually places it outside of the schedule for traditional early season preparation races. It’s too late in the calendar for classics riders to polish their form prior to the big one-day events. And it’s too early in the year for Giro d’Italia and Tour de France riders to surf the event’s fitness boost into either race.

“I’m not using this as any type of preparation because [Strade-Bianche] is next weekend and the [Milano-Sanremo] is right after that. It’s too late for that,” said Simon Clarke (EF Education First). It’s not like you can come here and just call it training, because there’s not much time left after this.”

Indeed, by February most riders in the peloton have already completed several months of training. These days WorldTour riders take short breaks in October, only to return to their training regimens by mid-November. They ramp up their mileage with training camps in December and January and kick off their seasons with events in Spain or the Southern Hemisphere by mid-January.

By late February, most riders already have racing days in their legs. And after February, the racing season allows few opportunities for major training blocks — Tour de France riders often complete training camps at elevation in May.

“We have to make all of the training in December and January and the first part of February because after that you are racing all the time and you have no chance to make anything back,” said Michael Albasini (Mitchelton-Scott). “You just recover between races and you cannot fix your shape anymore.”

A distinct challenge

The desert dishes out racing conditions that are distinct to the region. Gusting winds buffet the peloton, and blow sand into riders’ eyes and ears. The wide, flat roads allow the group to fan out. The temperatures soar. And the relatively flat terrain makes even the Flemish countryside seem lumpy.

The race’s very specific conditions and terrain remove it from training-race status, said Mattia Michelusi, the coach and team doctor for Dimension Data. No other WorldTour race is quite like it.

“You don’t do this race preparing for the Giro or the Tour because the parcours is so different from those races,” Michelusi said. “They will not see races like this for the rest of the year.”

Indeed, the races that are best for preparing riders for other events often feature similar terrain to the marquee event. A prestigious race itself, France’s Critérium du Dauphiné includes climbs that will be used in the Tour de France. Tirenno-Adriatico attracts Giro d’Italia riders due to its inclusion of punchy, chaotic climbs through Italy.

By contrast, the UAE Tour features two pan-flat windy stages; two hilly stages across the desert; and two mountaintop finishes. Both summit finishes are comprised largely of flat, fast racing, followed by the climb at the end.

Tuesday’s summit finish to Jebel Hafeet came after approximately 165km of flat. Heavy classics riders set a furious tempo into the base of the climb, where lighter climbers took over and began to sprint up the mountain. The hard pace up the climb’s first half distanced some top GC riders like Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).

A pan-flat stage finishing with a steep climb is not a profile that pro cycling often dishes out. The effort that riders endured on Tuesday may not be one they experience for the rest of the season.

“This is maybe not the typical profile. If you want to get ready for [Tirreno-Adriatico] I’m not sure this is the best preparation,” Mollema said. “You would need to do more climbing.”

UAE Tour
If you like crosswinds, you’ll love the UAE Tour. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Heavy hitters from across pro cycling

The race’s broad mixture of rider types also makes it an unusual challenge. Two summit finishes have attracted pure climbers like Davide Formolo and Emmanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), while the sprint stages mean fast finishers like Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates) and Elia Viviani (Deceninck-Quick Step) are also here.

A mix of climbers and sprinters is not unusual for an early season race. However, the inclusion of a team time trial on stage 1 attracted power riders like Tony Martin and Marcel Sieberg.

Inigo San Milan, the team trainer for UAE Team Emirates, believes the TTT is what has given the race its most distinct feel.

“The level is so high because of the TTT,” San Milan said. “I don’t think you’re going to find many races on the calendar with the horsepower you find here because the TTT has attracted that. And it makes the race very difficult.”

The UAE Tour’s evolving route may impact which riders show up each year to compete. This first-year route is likely to shift as course designers choose new roads to feature. Yet the race’s distinct feel and pain is likely to remain. And so long as the race holds WorldTour status, and falls in late February, it is destined to retain its distinct feel.

After all, racing into a sandstorm is hardly a fun way to start one’s season.

“This year everyone is fighting for position, kilometer after kilometer,” Kennaugh said. “That’s not how you ease into a season.”