Starting next week, the Dubai Tour is entering its third year as a strangely enjoyable ‘stage race’. Okay, so there’s no chance of seeing any cat-and-mouse attacks, stinging breakaway moves or breath-taking descents, but there’s something simple about the bunch sprint tear-ups in Dubai’s selection of resorts.
It’s certainly not got the feel of a traditional cycling race and the money-talking world of Dubai is obvious from the departing of the Marine Club to the finish on Palm Jumeirah – a far cry from a day’s climbing in Finestre. The race does, however, fit neater into the cycling season than the soulless Abu Dhabi Tour and the finishes can serve as both a fitness test and opportunity to chalk up a win over rivals.
Three of the four stages will end in a bunch sprints. There are more than a few big name sprinters here and plenty of teams to chase, plus a landscape unfavourable to breakaways. Two names jump out from the startlist and have been pushed as headline acts; Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel. England against Germany. Master against Conqueror.
However, this is not the battle between two riders on top of the world (as was the case rolling out of Yorkshire in 2014) and both riders bring fragile form to Dubai. In one corner we have an aging Cavendish, now at Dimension Data, carrying the baggage of mediocre treatment at Etixx-Quickstep. In the other is Kittel, arriving at Etixx-Quickstep following a disastrous non-season at Giant-Alpecin.
Much has been written about Kittel’s virus-hit final season at Giant but it’s time to focus on the positives and a move to Etixx is scarcely a bad thing. Outspoken Patrick Lefévère is unlikely to have brought Kittel in without plans to support him and Dubai brings a chance to test out the German’s train. If Etixx (Martin, Sabatini, Richeze) get it right, Kittel could begin to clean up once again. Added pressure comes from the brilliant start to the season by teammate Fernando Gaviria.
Cavendish will be familiar with parts of Kittel’s train and whilst there was no bad blood between the Brit and his former teammates (he celebrated Tony Martin’s Tour stage as if it was his own) he will remember plenty of days they mis-fired. His new team (MTN-Qhubeka under a new guise) are on the rise and Cavendish will reunite with Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw, the latter recently placing high in a number of sprints at the Tour Down Under. There’s plenty for Cavendish to be excited about and their set-up should be a breath of fresh air. To the team Cavendish adds tonnes of star power and has one of the greatest winning mentalities in the peloton. Make no mistake; Dimension Data are serious about winning races in 2016.
But hold on a second, this is Dubai – how much does winning really matter? With all respect to the race, seasons will not be measured by a performance on February 3rd. Moreover, both Kittel and Cavendish would be unwise to solely mark each other with Italians Sasha Modolo, Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo and Andrea Guardini all hungry for wins. I’ll go as far as saying this Italian quartet will take home a couple of stages with Sky’s Viviani the most likely to threaten. This multitude of hungry sprinters should make a more than watchable spectacle.
The exception to the sprinters paradise is Stage 3’s Hatta Dam and its inclusion should be enough to keep the fast men out of the GC battle (although Cavendish showed a defensive ride teamed with stage wins is enough to take the title). The 2015 Hatta Damn stage was one of the best finishes of the early season with John Degenkolb exhausting himself to beat Alejandro Valverde. This year Philip Gilbert may chance his arm, though it is the one time in the race anybody could have a go (we’re looking at you 44 year-old Davide Rebellin).There isn’t much point tuning in until the final kilometres, but the Dubai Tour, along with its brothers the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman, serve a purpose in the early season and with a stage or two comes confidence, momentum and those all-important bragging rights.