The 2021 UCI World Tour season kicked off last week with the UAE Tour, a seven-stage race featuring crosswinds, sprint stages, an individual time trial, and two summit finishes. A star-studded line-up of classics riders, grand tour contenders, and cyclocross and time trial world champions took to the start for seven days of racing from the Persian Gulf to the heights of Jebel Hafeet. Among those names were Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates), Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), and American riders Sepp Kuss (Team Jumbo-Visma) and Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo).
On the queen stage finishing atop Jebel Hafeet, Kuss attacked the GC favorites until just Yates and Pogačar were left on his wheel. And again on stage 5, Kuss climbed with the best, while his teammate Jonas Vingegaard rode away to an impressive stage victory. Lurking quietly in the background, Powless rode a strong and calculated race from start to finish, coming away with fifth on GC, and earning his best-ever stage race result in the WorldTour.
But first, there were the crosswinds.
Desert winds ripped from right to left as the flag dropped at the beginning of the 2021 UAE Tour. The peloton split into several echelons in the first 10km, led by Ineos-Grenadiers and Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and leaving GC contenders like Kuss and Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo) behind. Time trial world champion Filippo Ganna was a driving force at the front of the race, averaging nearly 400w and 60kph in the opening 25 kilometers of the stage.
Ganna – echelons in stage 1:
Average Power: 387w (4.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 424w (5.2w/kg)
Average Speed: 59.7kph (37.1mph)
Making the split in the first 7km:
Average Power: 481w (5.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 541w (6.6w/kg)
Average Speed: 64.7kph (40.2mph)
With speeds so ridiculously high, it wasn’t surprising to see many of the lighter climbers left behind at the beginning of the stage; but even then, 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar made it into the front echelon alongside Ganna. The race came back together after a change of direction — and perhaps the realization that there was still over 130km and six days of racing to go — but it wasn’t long before the field split again under the pressure applied by Deceuninck-Quick-Step following an intermediate sprint.
Pogačar again made the front split, this time with the likes of Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers), Powless, and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), and it was the Dutchman who came out on top, winning the reduced bunch sprint ahead of David Dekker (Jumbo-Visma) who would go on to have a wonderful WorldTour debut during the rest of the UAE Tour.
Stage 2 was set to reshape the GC yet again with a 13km ITT around Al Hudayriat Island. The pan-flat parcours made for lightning-fast intermediate splits, and unsurprisingly, World Champion Filippo Ganna came out on top, blitzing the course in 13 minutes and 56 seconds at an average speed of 56kph.
Powless confirmed his GC potential by finishing 31st on the stage, and within 30 seconds of the top GC contenders such as Pogačar and João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).
Powless – stage 2 ITT:
Average Power: 405w (6.1w/kg)
Average Speed: 51.5kph (32mph)
Individual time trials offer a unique opportunity for us to examine a rider’s power to CdA ratio, as opposed to their power-to-weight ratio alone which helps determine results on major climbs. In basic terms: CdA, or coefficient of drag times frontal area quantifies how “aero” a cyclist is. Given a constant power output such as 400w, the lower a rider’s CdA, the faster they will go. Because time trials are all about speed, the rider who produces the most watts doesn’t always win; rather, it’s the fastest rider who wins — the rider who can put out a high number of watts while also maintaining an incredibly aerodynamic position. Watts + aero = speed.
In the stage 2 time trial, there were hardly any turns or elevation changes, so it was almost like doing a TT in a wind tunnel. If we look at EF Education-Nippo rider Stefan Bissegger’s effort — Bissegger finished in second with a time of 14:10 — we can see that he did significantly more raw watts than Powless, at a much higher average speed, but with a power-to-weight ratio significantly lower than his American teammate. Both riders rode at an incredibly consistent power output, so pacing was an insignificant factor.
Bissegger – stage 2 ITT:
Average Power: 445w (5.8w/kg)
Average Speed: 55kph (34.2mph)
While Bissegger seems to be much more aero than Powless, we see the opposite in Sepp Kuss, who finished in 87th place in a time of 15:36 while averaging nearly the same power-to-weight ratio as Bissegger.
Kuss – stage 2 ITT:
Average Power: 350w (5.7w/kg)
Average Speed: 50kph (31.1mph)
Despite his world-class power-to-weight ratio, speed on a time trial bike is not Kuss’ forte. But the Coloradan wouldn’t have to wait long for the race to head into the mountains where he would put his legs to the test against some of the best climbers in the world.
Stage 3 finished atop Jebel Hafeet, the hardest climb in the UAE Tour, and what is often the GC decider after just three days of racing. The climb is 10.6km at an average of 6.8 percent, but with undulating gradients and a flat finish, Jebel Hafeet includes a number of steep kilometers that help split the group to bits.
Unlike the epic mountain stages that we see in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, the majority of the queen stage of the UAE Tour was pan flat and ridiculously easy — we’re talking, “local group ride easy.” For the first 150km of stage 3, Kuss and Powless averaged less than 200w for three and a half hours. There were a few nervous moments when the field threatened to split in the crosswinds, but these were few and far between. By the time they reached the bottom of the final climb, most of the field was fresh as a daisy.
Kuss – first 150km of stage 3:
Average Power: 163w (2.7w/kg)
Powless – first 150km of stage 3:
Average Power: 157w (2.4w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 123bpm
While Jebel Hafeet was set to be a nearly 25-minute climbing test, it’s often overlooked how hard the run-in to these final climbs can be. With 10km to go until the bottom of Jebel Hafeet, every team tries to move forward and take control at the front, putting their GC leader in the first 20 wheels at the bottom of the climb. This battle is a lot harder than it looks, and it can take a huge toll on the riders’ legs even before the road starts to climb.
Both Kuss and Powless were riding at over 300w on the run-in to Jebel Hafeet, with plenty of spikes over 700w and 800w, just to maintain their position near the front of the bunch.
Kuss – last 10km before Jebel Hafeet:
Average Power: 349w (5.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 380w (6.2w/kg)
UAE-Team Emirates took control at the front of the peloton on the lower slopes of Jebel Hafeet, mowing down the remnants of the breakaway, with their leader Pogačar in-tow. Ineos moved to the front after the first 4km of climbing, trying to set up their leader, Adam Yates, for an attack. When the attacks finally came, it was Yates, Kuss, and Pogačar leading the charge on the steepest section of Jebel Hafeet — 2km at an average of 8.8 percent. Powless was among a chase group of five, digging deep to hang on to the wheels of the leading trio.
With 4.5km to go, Kuss threw down an attack of his own, and only Yates and Pogačar were able to follow.
Kuss – steepest 2km of Jebel Hafeet:
Average Power: 433w (7.1w/kg)
Kuss – attack with 4.5km to go:
Average Power: 683w (11.2w/kg)
After yet another acceleration from Yates and Pogačar, Kuss lost the wheel and began drifting back to the chase group containing Powless, Almeida, and a few others. The level of performance at these races was incredibly high, and we can see it most clearly in this moment — even at 5.9w/kg, Kuss was losing tons of time to the leaders, and was ultimately swept up and dropped by the chase group before the finish.
Kuss – final 4km of Jebel Hafeet:
Average Power: 360w (5.9w/kg)
Powless – final 4km of Jebel Hafeet:
Average Power: 383w (5.8w/kg)
In the end, Pogačar beat Yates in the final sprint to take the win atop Jebel Hafeet, and cement his reputation as the best climber and stage racer in the world. Powless finished 7th on the stage, having climbed Jebel Hafeet at around 6.2w/kg — a number of power meter dropouts skew his average wattage up the climb.
While Kuss looked strong on the final climb, putting in digs against the reigning Tour de France champion, the American lost touch with a few kilometers to go and ultimately drifted to 11th on the stage, 1:09 behind Pogačar. Despite the disappointing result, Kuss’ performance is up there with the best: 6.3w/kg for nearly 30 minutes.
Kuss – Jebel Hafeet climb:
Average Power: 387w (6.3w/kg)
Perhaps it was the repeated attacks, the desert heat, or the tough run-in that took the sting out of the American’s legs — 6w/kg for 10 minutes is quite the “warm-up” for a 10.5km climbing test. But, in early-season February it was impossible to say where each rider’s form was at the time. What we do know is that Ganna and Pogačar are flying; but the performances of Kuss and Powless stand out even more, especially to American fans. Perhaps the UAE Tour was just one of many stepping stones in the careers of the former LottoNL-Jumbo teammates.
Riders Strava files: