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Chris Froome, Sepp Kuss, a sprinter showdown: Three things to follow at the UAE Tour

Is Chris Froome still a contender? Is Sam Bennett still the fastest man in the bunch? And will Sepp Kuss continue climbing to the top of the peloton?

The WorldTour season kickstarts at the UAE Tour on Sunday as the Emirates welcomes a stellar startlist looking to set their seasons rolling the right way.

Tadej Pogačar , Chris Froome, Mathieu van der Poel, Sepp Kuss, Sam Bennett and Caleb Ewan headline a start sheet for the weeklong race that would make a grand tour jealous. But despite the wealth of talent set to toe the sandy startline outside of Abu Dhabi, there are three big stories to keep an eye on which will set the tone for the rest of the season to come.

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From the return of Froome to the rise of Kuss and the battle for sprint supremacy, the Emirati event makes for the opening chapter of a year-long racing story.

Here are the three threads that you need to follow at the UAE Tour:

All eyes on Chris Froome and Tadej Pogačar in build to Tour de France

Froome will be at the center of the spotlight in his ISN debut. Photo: Veloimages for Israel Start-Up Nation

Also read: Chris Froome makes high-profile season debut at UAE Tour

Two Tour de France stars at opposite ends of their careers, both with eyes on another yellow jersey in 2021. Pogačar and Froome are both starting their seasons this week as they build toward two much-hyped returns to the French Tour. The pair are at opposite ends of the career spectrum, and the pressures and expectations on them are equally disparate.

For defending Tour champ Pogačar, nothing less than victory this week will be a disappointment. For Froome, anything more than mediocrity will be a success.

The 35-year-old Froome makes his debut in Israel Start-Up Nation colors Sunday as he pedals into the final phase of his career.

Froome recently said that his shattered leg is finally back to strength some 20 months after his career-changing injury, and the next step is to get race-speed into his legs as he pedals his way toward the Tour. Froome’s new team is putting no expectations on its new focal point this week.

“It remains to be seen how Froome’s body reacts to competition,” team sport direct Eric Van Lancker told Het Laatste Nieuws. “He certainly will not smash everything in the UAE Tour. We’re not putting any pressure on him.”

Last year, Froome made a similar attempted comeback from injury in the Emirates when riding with Team Ineos, and was left swinging off the back. The 35-year-old and his team isn’t hoping for much, but they sure won’t want a repeat of his experience at last year’s UAE Tour either.

For Pogačar, it will be a more “straightforward” task of keeping the momentum moving. The 22-year-old placed first and second in the two mountaintop finishes of last year’s race, finishing second overall behind Adam Yates. UAE-Emirates is sending a top-quality team to support the Slovenian, and he’s red-hot favorite for the win.

The world is going to be watching Pogačar very closely in 2021 as it looks to see whether his yellow jersey was a one-off or a glimpse into a future of grand tour dominance. The 22-year-old will want to set the tone for the year to come in front of expectant home-team fans and backers.

Sepp Kuss to set wheels rolling on a season of big ambition

Kuss was the climbing revelation of 2020 and has been handed a wider role in 2021. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Also read: Sepp Kuss on GC leadership: ‘I feel ready for that step up’

Kuss makes his season debut at the UAE Tour this week, heading up a fresh-faced Jumbo-Visma squad alongside the Australian talent Chris Harper. The dunes of the Emirates will mark the start of a season of increased responsibility for the 26-year-old, who is set to take leadership of his team at the Volta a Catalunya next month before co-leading Jumbo-Visma at the Vuelta a España.

Speaking to VeloNews this week, the altitude-adapted climbing sensation indicated that he’s not looking for classification wins in the UAE, but is eagerly eyeing the two grinding summit finishes of stage 3 and stage 5.

Having marked himself as a thoroughbred mountain goat in 2020, the long steady climbs to Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais will see Kuss in his element this week, and he will be a closely marked man. It will make for a new experience for the Coloradan, who spent much of 2020 riding free of personal ambition in the services of Primož Roglič.

“I just want to get the season started at the UAE,” Kuss told VeloNews on Thursday. “There will be nothing crazy, expectation-wise – I just want to see what see what’s possible.”

Though Kuss is tamping down any pressure for his week at The UAE Tour, the race will give him a taste of what’s to come after a breakout 2020 – an increase in responsibility and expectations, and much-increased attention from his climbing rivals.

Is Sam Bennett still the man to beat?

Stage 10 of the 2020 Tour de France
Bennett will go up against Ewan, Viviani and more in a stacked sprint field. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard – Pool/Getty Images

Also read: Tour de Hoody: A sprinters’ reprieve in first week of 2021 Tour de France

The UAE Tour will make for a showdown between the winningest fast finishers of 2020 with Bennett, Ewan, Pascal Ackermann and Giacomo Nizzolo all on the flight to the Emirates. Add Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani into the mix, and the UAE Tour makes for a veritable world championships of sprinters, with French supremo Arnaud Démare the only notable absentee.

Having won the green jersey of the Tour de France and taken seven victories through 2020, Bennett will be the man to beat in the four fast finishes of the Emirates.

Bennett took his landmark green jersey in what was his debut season with Quick-Step, and so had only enjoyed limited exposure to the services of veteran leadout man Michael Mørkøv, who has now become his go-to race partner. Mørkøv believes the pair will be even better now that they have had more time racing and training together.

“You have to take into account that Sam was also with the team for his first year last year,” Mørkøv told VeloNews last week. “By the time we started to race at the Tour we still had to understand each other a bit better. So we kind of developed together – it was a extremely good experience and we can take a lot of confidence with us from that Tour de France last year.”

Bennett will have four opportunities to reassert his position at the center of the sprinter spectrum in the UAE as heads toward a green jersey defense this summer. Sprinters thrive on confidence, and with a sprint-heavy Tour on tap this summer, Bennett will have to fight equally ambitious rivals such as Ewan and Ackermann for every inch in the Emirates in the quest for early season momentum and bragging rights.

Who to watch

GC guys:

  • Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
  • Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation)
  • Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers)
  • Vincenzo Nibali (Trek Segafredo)
  • João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
  • Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo)
  • Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team)
  • Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma)

Fast finishers:

  • Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal)
  • Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
  • Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe)
  • Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates)
  • Elia Viviani (Cofidis)
  • Giacomo Nizzolo (Team Qhubeka Assos)

Also:

  • Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers)
  • Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)