Yes, you should watch the UAE Tour this year

It's not the cycling world's favourite race but the 2021 edition could be worth a look.

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Ok, let’s be honest: the UAE Tour isn’t a race you tune in to for stunning vistas or to see die-hard fans screaming support from the side of the road (to say nothing of things like, I dunno, press freedoms or women’s rights). But hey, if you’re a fan of bike racing, this year’s edition might just be worth watching.

Allow me to explain.

The men’s WorldTour season would normally have started in January with the Santos Tour Down Under, but things are a little different this year. COVID meant the TDU didn’t happen in its usual form (the race that replaced it was great, incidentally), and Cadel’s Race was cancelled. Instead it’s the seven-stage UAE Tour that will kick off the 2021 men’s WorldTour season, starting this Sunday.

Here’s a few reasons why you should tune in.

It’s our first proper look at many of the big-name GC riders.

It’s not just the Aussie races that were cancelled in January; the Vuelta a San Juan was scuppered by coronavirus too. The week-long Argentinian race is where many of the top GC men go to kick off their season. Instead, it’s at the UAE Tour that they’ll first get to show themselves.

Picturesque.

Sure, it’s not like there’s been no racing in 2021 – we’ve had Etoile de Besseges and the Tour de la Provence – but the UAE Tour is longer than either of those races, with a stronger field, and with a parcours more suited to the Grand Tour GC favourites.

It will be interesting to see who’s come out of the off-season strongly, who might even be peaking a little too early, and who’s a long way from where they need to be.

There’s a strong GC contingent to make things interesting.

Defending champion Adam Yates is racing in what is his first outing for new team Ineos Grenadiers. Reigning Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) will be there too. He was second overall at the UAE Tour last year and won a stage. He’s always great to watch and will surely feature when the road goes up.

Pogacar on his way to a stage win at last year’s race … on the second summit finish on the same climb.

Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Rigo Uran (EF Education First-Nippo) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will all be in attendance as well and they too should feature prominently in the GC days.

Speaking of GC days, there’s only two at this year’s race but they’re both significant. Stage 3 finishes atop Jebel Hafeet, a 10.6 km climb at 6.8%. Then there’s stage 5 which ends up Jebel Jais, 21.5 km at 5.4%. These are proper climbs for proper GC contenders, and they should play host to some intriguing battles. 

On the subject of GC contenders …

It’s Chris Froome’s first race with his new team.

It was the biggest transfer story of the past year and now we finally get to see Chris Froome race for Israel Start-Up Nation. It’s hard to know how much to expect. It’s Froome’s first race since the Vuelta last year (where he barely scraped inside the top 100) and he’s now with a noticeably weaker team.

Will he have the support he needs? Has he finally recovered enough from his 2019 crash at the Dauphine to mix it with the GC men mentioned above? The Tour de France is months away but if Froome’s going to be a contender there, he’ll probably want to be at least close to the front on the climbs, for his own confidence if nothing else. (For reference, Froome won the similarly hilly Tour of Oman at a similar time of year in 2013 before going on to win the Tour).

What sort of form will Froome be in at the UAE Tour?

Speaking of riders on new teams, Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) is one I’ll be keeping an eye on. He might be riding for Wout Poels and Damiano Caruso but he could well be in the mix himself. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Haig gets on at his new team this season after five-plus years at GreenEdge. Will he get more GC opportunities? We might get a sense of that in the UAE.

Basically all of the best sprinters will be there.

Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos) – that’s most of the best sprinters in the sport. They’ll get plenty of opportunities in the UAE too: of the seven stages, four are ripe for the fastmen.

Who’s going to come out of the gates strongly and establish themselves as the premier sprinter this season? Most of the riders above haven’t raced yet in 2021. Nizzolo has though, and he’s already got a sprint win on the board (at the Clasica de Almeria). Normally you wouldn’t put him on quite the same level as the likes of Bennett or Ewan, but maybe this is his year?

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is racing.

Enough said, really. But let’s add a little more anyway.

The recently re-crowned CX world champion is an excitement machine and while he’s unlikely to feature on the GC days, he certainly could mix it with the sprinters in the four fast finishes. 

He might be eyeing off the 13 km, pan-flat time trial on stage 2 as well. This is the first time trial in the UAE Tour’s short history and it could suit Van der Poel pretty well.

If the Dutchman can be close in the sprint finish on stage 1, it’s not crazy to imagine him in the leader’s jersey after the time trial.

Van der Poel’s more at home climbing stairs than big mountains, but we might see him in action on the flatter days.

Van der Poel’s biggest obstacle will be the time-trial monster himself, world champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos). Ganna somehow has two wins for the year already, both of them at Etoile de Besseges. The first was a late solo move from the break on stage 4, the second was in the individual time trial a day later. He’ll be the man to beat in the UAE Tour time trial for sure (likewise in virtually any time trial he starts this year) and should wear the leader’s jersey if he wins.

The startlist promises further excitement too.

Marc Hirschi will be there, in his first outing for UAE-Team Emirates. Flat days and big mountain-top finishes aren’t really his jam, but hopefully we see him try something, or at least riding the front for Pogacar.

Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) impressed mightily last season and seems to be on a great trajectory. He might well lead the Dutch team in the UAE and if he climbs like he’s capable of, we’ll be seeing plenty of him up front.

Kuss winning a stage of last year’s Dauphine.

Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) of maglia rosa fame will be there too. After his heroics at last year’s Giro he’ll be one to keep an eye on. And let’s not forget the Colombian uber-talent Sergio Higuita (EF Education First-Nippo).

You can find a full startlist for the 2021 UAE Tour over at ProCyclingStats.

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So how do you actually go about watching the UAE Tour? Your best bet is probably Eurosport or the GCN+ app or website, all of which will have daily live coverage from the race.

Let’s just hope this year’s race is actually completed in its entirety

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