The Abu Dhabi Tour swaggered into the cycling season in the autumn of 2015. It was a strange race but it felt right in the awkward mid-October slot. The race format consisted of three obvious sprint stages and a ‘Queen Stage’ featuring a dance up to Jebel Hafeet. The format has stayed exactly the same but for some reason the race has been catapulted into the new look World Tour. Nobody is particularly excited about it but suddenly we have a February stage race featuring Quintana, Contador, Aru, Nibali, Bardet, Kruijswijk and Majka, plus Kittel, Cavendish, Greipel, Ewan and Viviani. Here’s my quick picks for the race.
The final stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour sees riders tackle the Yas Marina Formula 1 Grand Prix track. The Yas Marina is a pretty lively race track for drivers but an utterly useless one for cyclists. I can’t think of a race where the outright battle will make up such a small fraction of the route. Unlike Dubai, time bonuses won’t come into play and the entire GC race will take place on a 10km stretch of road. It feels strange doing GC picks when the sprinters will have most of the fun. Nairo Quintana starts as 2/1 favourite but there’s riders I prefer.
The Winner – Fabio Aru 14/1
Where do you start with this selection of contenders? I’m assuming that, for once, Quintana isn’t overly fussed by winning. That leaves Aru, Nibali, Contador and Bardet as the premium climbers on offer. Of the four, I believe Aru and Astana will have most interest in taking the GC. The Italian climbed well on Jebel Hafeet in 2015 and Astana won the race last year with Tanel Kangert. Aru is heading to the Giro this year and last weekend on Green Mountain he showed rare signs of February form.
The Contender – Rafal Majka 18/1
I really can’t see Bora-Hansgrohe giving a sparkling leadout to Matteo Pelucchi but I can see them being involved on the feature climb as they bring both Emanuel Buchmann and Rafal Majka. The Pole should start as team leader and there has been nothing wrong with his two opening rides this season. He’s making his debut at the Abu Dhabi Tour which makes me think he could wind up finishing 86th. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of race – and sort of climb – where I can see him trying something.
The Outsider – Rui Costa 20/1
I’m really not sure why Rui Costa is so far down the outright betting. He’s been in great form so far this season and was the best rider in Oman not named Ben Hermans. There’s no reason why his fine series of results won’t continue in Abu Dhabi and he shouldn’t be dropped on a climb this straightforward. He’ll have a seriously good teammate in Diego Ulissi and the two should do their sponsor proud on home soil.
Look Out For – Mollema, Kudus and Kittel vs. Ewan.
Alongside Contador, Trek bring Vuelta San Juan winner Bauke Mollema to the race and I don’t expect him to be restricted to domestique duties. He’s carrying form and will be a dangerous rider in the finale of Stage 3. Dimension Data’s Merhawi Kudus deserves my final mention. He was excellent in Oman – going for broke on Green Mountain – and he shouldn’t be dismissed just because the big names have arrived.
Bunch sprints will make up a large part of the Abu Dhabi Tour and we can hope for some interesting finishes. In Marcel Kittel and Caleb Ewan, the race can boast two entirely different sprinters who’ve had flying starts to 2017. Ewan destroyed the opposition at the Tour Down Under but I’m expecting the big German to school him in what is a far more competitive field.
Stage Previews in Seven Words:
Stage 1: A regular sprint stage in Abu Dhabi
Stage 2: Another regular sprint stage in Abu Dhabi
Stage 3: Flat with a climb at the end
Stage 4: A sprint stage on a racing track