Whilst sprinting may be a consistent theme across the three Persian races, Dubai certainly stands out in terms of scenery albeit some man-made. Uniquely, each Dubai stage starts out from the same Marine club, branching off in different directions each day. Stage two finished in the beautiful artificial Palm Islands (Palm Jumeirah). Only after enjoying the aerial views will you begin to question exactly how Dubai went about creating an island. Then they was stage three which finished at the Hatta Dam after weaving through the sorts of landscape you might associate with the moon. But let’s get back to the cycling.
Although Cavendish was impressive, he did not have it easy in the opening two stages. He won the first, although second place Andrea Guardini required a photo finish to make sure. Cavendish was more certain, raising his arm in celebration, and the photo confirmed he was the clear victor. The final kilometres saw the usual mix of teams surface as both Etixx-Quick Step and Team Sky struggled to hold shape. Crucially, Cavendish stayed with the brilliant Mark Renshaw who launched him off the front as the sprint commenced. The misfiring trains had resulted in a long sprint for the line, but Cavendish showed good strength to hold off Italian’s Guardini and Elia Viviani. Astana’s Guardini swung round late and lunged his bike towards Cavendish but had to settle for second. With ten seconds available for the first man over the line, the Manxman took the overall lead.
Aside from the tunnel to Palm Jumeirah just before the finish, the second stage unfolded in familiar fashion. Astana, including Tour De France champion Vincenzo Nibali, were the first sprint train to hit the front, with Sky and Etixx taking over. Guardini, sporting the red points jersey, jumped out from behind Cavendish trying to catch him by surprise. The Brit responded but the pair had gone too early. Viviani was third wheel and timed his move perfectly, prevailing ahead of his Stage 1 rivals. Cavendish followed him home and held on to the overall lead by two seconds, 16 ahead of his main rivals for the overall win.
This 16 second gap came into play in Stage 3 as the tougher profile meant splits in the pack and no final sprint. Even if a large bunch remained, the final hill, touching 17%, was sure to eliminate the sprinters. Aggressors Alejandro Valverde and Philip Gilbert would have been the favourites, whilst even the likes of Enrico Battaglin could have been hopeful. What these riders underestimated, however, was the power of any sprinter who they had not dropped. John Degenkolb, the 2014 Vuelta points winner, stole the show with his tremendous kick on the final section of the stage. It was a finish worth watching, as every rider struggled alone, out of the saddle, squeezing out the last of their energy. Valverde jumped after Degenkolb but failed to close the gap on the big German. In third was Juan José Lobato, also a sprinter by trade. Degenkolb pushed himself to the limit and collapsed on the floor at the summit, happy to recover in the Dubai sun. The Giant-Alpecin rider had been misfiring in the previous days’ sprints but turned his race around with a brilliant win. Is Degenkolb the toughest sprinter in the world at the moment? Maybe. He should have a brilliant 2015.
He was not the only sprinter to impress in Stage 3 though as Cavendish finished just ten seconds behind with a show of climbing ability. He too remained with the leaders and, although not good enough to mount a challenge, was a respectable 17th place on the stage. Granted, the climb was not quite Mount Ventoux, but Cavendish’s ride was key to him staying in the hunt for overall victory. It was his lowest stage finish in the race but arguably his most important. Along with his winning gap, Degenkolb took another ten seconds courtesy of the stage bonus making him the race leader by four seconds. The race was perfectly poised for the final stage with ‘Cav’ needing a second win. And he got it.
The Stage 4 finish was a strange one, with Etixx opening up a small gap in the sprint even before Cavendish made his move. Following Renshaw, the Brit had a look over his shoulder at the situation and then kicked on to get his win. Etixx got their positioning almost perfect, with their man having to sprint a touch longer than he would have liked. Still, they looked better than Team Sky, despite Viviani praising them as ‘one of the best lead out trains in the world’. Degenkolb continued to struggle in the Dubai bunch sprints, finishing 9th. With two stages and the race win here, and a steady Tour de San Luis last month, the Manx Missile looks happy again.