Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
The UAE Tour will surely pack a punch this week having attracted an All-Star field, but some notable absences and extenuating circumstances among the sprint contingent means determining a hierarchy before racing fully resumes in Europe will be difficult.
Traditionally the seven-stage race across the Emirates is considered among sprinters a mini-Tour de France. It doesn’t carry the same weight obviously but getting your name on the board when you’re racing against the best of the best there if nothing else serves as a psychological advantage over the competition.
A win – or wins – in the desert creates momentum, which internally can become contagious and externally formidable. Generally, it establishes a pecking order that resonates from thereon.
Right at the start of the 2020 season, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the established guard was obvious. Mark Cavendish had made way for Marcel Kittel and then followed an entirely new generation, not just one rider that was head and shoulders above the rest but many who viewed each other equally.
However, competition during the pandemic has taken more twists and turns than anyone perhaps anticipated.
The names that had been dominating the pointy ends of bunch sprints – Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen, Fernando Gaviria, Sam Bennett and so forth – last year wrangled with or were coming back from impediments that either affected their form or ability to make the start line of major meets.
Ewan, determined to win stages at all three Grand Tours and so stake his claim as the world’s best sprinter with quality over quantity triumphs last season- crashed out of the Tour de France while racing for the win on stage three. He tried but could not come back from breaking his collarbone there in time for the Vuelta a España and finished the season mentally exhausted, albeit with an eye to already making tweaks to his lead-out for the 2022 campaign.
An innocuous bump turned into a costly knee injury for Bennett, who as a result was 12 months after winning two stages and the green jersey sidelined from the Tour during which time, he faced a barrage of abuse from former team manager Patrick Lefevere.
Gaviria missed a stack of racing in 2020 after testing positive to COVID-19 twice. He got a full season of competition in his legs last year, which showed at the Tour of Oman earlier this month where he won two stages, firmly arriving back in the winner’s circle and feeling not just good about himself but his UAE Emirates team.
The Colombian was on course for a solid performance at the UAE Tour, an important event especially to his employer, but days ago it was announced that’d he tested positive to COVID-19, again, and so would not start. The 27-year-old has been replaced by heavyweight and new teammate Pascal Ackermann. How the pair manage their great expectations on the same squad remains to be seen but off-contract Gaviria is placing emphasis on the Giro d’Italia.
Bennett will make his season debut reunited with Bora-hansgrohe at the UAE Tour but has downplayed his chances of early success there, more outwardly focused on gelling with teammates and building on his own endurance after months of no racing.
“We’ll get some nice opportunities to test that [sprint train] out. It’d be shit not to be strong enough to really make use of those lead-outs because I know the guys are flying but it’s important to put into practice,” the Irishman said.
Cavendish is desperate after his spectacular comeback from the brink of lonely retirement to prove he is a force to be reckoned with, and in the Emirates will have the support of none other than Michael Morkov.
Sprinters generally are driven by negative reinforcement. Their innate need to be the best is propelled by a fear of needing the prove their last performance wasn’t a fluke. That is perhaps particularly true of Cavendish whose record-equalling stage haul with the benchmark sprint team at the Tour last year was sans competition from the aforementioned.
Then there is Groenewegen, who last year focused on coming back from a racing ban due to his involvement in a crash with Fabio Jakobsen in 2020.
He’s undergone change since then was as well, transferring during the off-season to BikeExchange-Jayco following a long tenure at Jumbo-Visma.
The only consistent thing about the sprint landscape recently is that it’s been inconsistent, like musical chairs.
Although many sprinters have wins on the board already this season it’s hard to determine how they stack up against each other right now.
“It’s quite an exciting time for sprinting. I don’t think I’ve seen as many sprinters capable of winning bike races,” Sam Bennett told La Course En Tete prior to the start of the race.
“What’s funny is like last year those top sprinters were set from the season before and the start of the year. Towards the end of the season, it seemed to be another batch of sprinters that were at the top level and now I feel like it’s all mixed up again.
That is reflected in the UAE Tour field. Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) and Cees Bol (Team DSM) might not be household names yet but they’re knocking on the door.
Added to Gaviria’s absence is that of Ewan. Notably, the Australian is competing at the Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var instead.
Bennett isn’t the only rider who will be adjusting to either new or old but new surroundings in the UAE either. Elia Viviani, who has cemented his return to Ineos Grenadiers with one win, is set to start.
Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) will also be in the mix.
Several pure sprinters have wins on the board -Ewan (two), Groenewegen (three), Viviani (one), Gaviria (two), Cavendish (one) – but status is still up for grabs.
Normally that would be a takeaway from the UAE Tour yet this season it looks as though the fight for it will be harder and longer.