By David Hunter
Al Ain – Jebel Hafeet 198.6km
Time to head for the mountains, well, it’s actually just one mountain!
The stage most have been waiting for, ending with the climb of Jebel Hafeet.
10.8km at 6.6% is a good test for the climbers at this time of the year, but it can be hard to make big gaps. As the stage is very easy, all the riders arrive with plenty of energy. The opening 1.5km of the climb is easy, before we have a central section of 7km at 8%. Once through that test, the final 2.3km is easy, with a lovely little ramp to finish.
Rain!!! I can’t quite believe it either, but apparently it does rain in this part of the world. The wind will be stronger than at any point during the week, coming from the south. That means we have a large crosswind section, when the riders turn left and head through the desert. It also means a strong headwind on the climb, making it very hard to escape the bunch.
Alejandro Valverde – before the race started, he did a recon of this climb and smashed it out the park! Some were worried that his leg break at the Tour might have ended his career, no need to worry, he’s better than ever. After a brilliant win in Valenciana he certainly starts this stage as favourite. He had a good TT and sits 24 seconds behind Rohan Dennis. With 10 seconds for the winner of the stage, we should be in for an interesting fight. The good TT is another indication of Bala’s current level, it is very high. Movistar have enough climbers in their squad to set a fast pace at the foot of the climb and put Dennis into difficulty. With the headwind, don’t expect an attack until near the end.
Julian Alaphilippe – after a solid performance in the TT, the Frenchman sits 10 seconds behind Valverde. This isn’t ideal, but he’ll just have to deal with it! Often referred to as the new Valverde, it will be interesting to see these two attack each other. With the prospect of wind, expect to see QuickStep trying to create echelons in the stage, they will want a tough day in the saddle to try and put some of the GC rivals into difficulty. Due to the headwind, we might see a small group sprint for the victory, something that he would look forward to. He might just be the only rider capable of beating Valverde.
Rui Costa – won’t get the same freedom as last year. He should be good enough to make the front selection and possibly make the podium.
Miguel Angel Lopez – won the Queen stage in Oman, but this climb isn’t as hard. The wind isn’t great for him, it won’t be easy to attack from the bunch and put others into trouble. If Lopez is going to win the race, he needs to be patient. If I was him, I would attack in the final 3km and see what happens.
Simon Yates – has the kick required to seriously challenge Valverde and co. As we know, Yates isn’t scared of attacking from distance and trying to surprise his rivals. As the bonus seconds could be crucial for the GC battle, he won’t find it easy to get away from the bunch, but he will try.
Tom Dumoulin – finished 31 seconds behind Dennis in the TT, despite a mechanical. That clearly indicates he has good form, even though this is his first race of the season. To win this race, he’ll have to think of a way of beating Valverde, something that will be very tricky! Sunweb have Dumoulin and Kelderman sitting high on GC, this gives them an advantage over some of the other teams. If both riders have a good day, they will be tough to beat.
Michael Woods – the outside choice for the stage. 2017 was a successful year for the Canadian, but hugely frustrating to watch. He gets into brilliant positions, but usually chooses the wrong option. He must have the worst conversion rate of all top cyclists. Given this tactical naivety, I don’t think he’ll win this stage.
Rohan Dennis – the pressure is on. After a brilliant TT he has a nice advantage over his rivals, but this won’t be easy. With Bookwalter, Caruso and Frankiny in the squad, they should have enough men to chase down the attacks early in the climb. Dennis knows he is going to be put under severe pressure, if he can hold on, it will be a huge achievement for him.
Jonathan Castroviejo – 2nd in the TT puts him in a great position to fight for the overall title. He is 14 seconds behind Dennis, but has a 10 second advantage over Valverde. He is a good climber, but not as explosive as some of his main rivals. Winning the race is unlikely, but he should be very happy if he manages to hold onto a podium spot.
The headwind is going to make this a difficult climb for the attackers. It looks like a small bunch will escape near the end of the climb and Alejandro Valverde will sprint to glory. The GC fight will be close, but I think that with the 10 bonus seconds, Valverde will have enough to win this too.
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