Mathieu Van der Poel celebrates after crossing the finish line to win the first stage of the UAE Tour on Sunday. Reuters
Gulf Today, Staff Reporter
Mathieu van der Poel warned that he’d be racing the UAE Tour in support of his Alpecin-Fenix team-mates but he found himself at ease in the echelons on Stage 1 – the ADNOC Stage – a day that was marked by an unexpected scenario.
Van der Poel, who combines road racing with cyclo-cross, edged ahead of fellow Dutchman David Dekker in the last 50 metres while Chris Froome sat comfortably in the peloton in his first race for new team Israel Start-Up Nation as the first major race of the season got under way in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Danish rider Michael Morkov was third in the 176-kilometre stage from Al Dhafra to Al Mirfa.
Among the pre-race GC favourites, Adam Yates, Tadej Pogacar and Joao Almeida made the decisive 23-man front group, the latter taking six seconds of time bonuses by winning the two intermediate sprints during the stage. Top sprinters Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria were also up at the front but Van der Poel was the strongest at the finish despite recently switching (with no respite) from the cyclo-cross world championship to World Tour road racing, both events being held in a sandy environment with a beach-side finish however.
“It was really unexpected to be honest but it was windy from the beginning onwards. I was immediately in the first echelon and I felt good. But then, with the headwind, we regrouped with the peloton and the bunch split again after the intermediate sprint. I was able to catch the first group and it was very hard racing until the finish line,” said Van der Poel.
“It was good to have team-mates in the front group, especially Gianni [Vermeersch) who helped me a lot at the end because Roy was dropped a little bit before. Gianni did an amazing job again covering moves in the finale.
“I still felt really good for the sprint. I knew I just had to start sprinting when I thought it was the right moment to go. The hard racing was good for me for the sprint. Normally there were a few guys faster than me but the heat made it a very hard race as well. That gave me confidence that I could go for the sprint, which wasn’t the plan before. I didn’t expect such a stage and such a result at all,” he added.
The UAE Team Emirates’ star and GC favourite Pogacar finished fifth after a frantic, crosswind-affected opening stage of the UAE Tour.
Pogacar now finds himself well placed in the general classification in fifth place, just 8’’ behind race leader Van der Poel.
What was supposed to be a sprint stage, was turned upside down by cross winds and echelons meaning that only Pogacar, Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) and Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quickstep) avoided losing time on the GC.
The stage originally promised to be a relatively straightforward transition back into top level racing for the riders, thanks to a flat parcours and no category climbs but strong winds on the exposed roads made for a frantic day of racing from the outset.
After a brief period of downtime after the first split, four sizable groups were strewn out across the road in picturesque formations. The front group included four UAE Team Emirates’ riders: Gaviria, Max Richeze, Mikkel Bjerg and Pogacar as the team dug deep to protect the Slovenian from the winds and ensure he didn’t lose ground on his GC rivals.
The peloton, with a number of big-name sprinters and GC contenders, finished over eight minutes behind stage winner Van der Poel, meaning Pogacar picked up valuable time ahead of his challengers and emerged as one of three early favourites for the GC.
Pogacar said: “It was a really hard stage with the wind, but in the end our team did a super good job with four guys in the front group. Sadly, we missed the stage win, but I think we showed that we are strong and up for the fight. We were there at the front and we’ve set ourselves up well for the next few days.”
Attention now turns to Stage 2 as Pogacar and his rivals look to fight for every second in the 13km individual time trial at Al Hudayriat Island.
The riders face a 13-kilometre time trial around Al Hudayriyat Island. This race was cut short last year by a Covid-19 outbreak among the teams, making it one of the first international sports events to feel the effects of the pandemic.
Stringent measures are in place this year to prevent a recurrence, with staff and riders staying in separate hotels.
The UAE Team Emirates have launched a ‘Champions Challenge’ to encourage residents of all ages to pick up their bikes, get outside and start cycling and recording their activity over the next two weeks.
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