By David Hunter
The peloton head east and we get ready for a race that is made for the sprinters. No transfers, nice weather and beautiful hotels, no wonder the riders love Dubai!
The same opening stage as the same as usual, featuring a tunnel with 6km to go and a big u-turn with 3.2km remaining. The long finishing straight is perfect for a strong sprint train to control and put their sprinter into the best position.
This is also the same stage as last year. Another easy day for the bunch, but a big turn inside the final two kilometres sets up a fierce battle for position.
This is nearly the same stage as was used in the opening stage of the 2016 edition, where Marcel Kittel won from Mark Cavendish. Will we get a repeat?
High winds meant this stage was cancelled in 2017, but it should be fine this year. The Hatta Dam finish is the most interesting of the week with the final 200m rising at around 15%. This is all about positioning and power. Some sprinters can cope, others struggle.
The race ends with a frantic city circuit. This is a stage where riders can get lost in the bunch. With GC times likely to be tight, the final stage should see a big battle for the overall title.
We do have two stages that go through the desert, but the wind doesn’t look like it will cause a problem. The sun will be out, but not the extreme heat of Australia. The conditions look perfect for the bunch.
Hugely important in this race. With 10, 6 and 4 at the end of each stage, a dominant sprinter can take a big lead and then see if they can hold on at the Hatta Dam. We also have 3, 2 and 1 available at two intermediate sprints throughout each stage. Normally, this doesn’t have a big impact, but watch out for a cunning GC rider who could infiltrate the break on the opening stage and collect some vital seconds. The 2nd stage has a sprint after just 15km, this will certainly interest the bunch.
Marcel Kittel – the big German seems to love this race, having won the overall title for the last two years and taken five stage wins, eight since the race began in 2014. This is his first race for Katusha and it usually takes time to settle into a new squad, but helping his transition will be riding with fellow Germans. Katusha arrive with four German riders, but it’s the quality of their sprint train I’m concerned with. They have Kuznetsov, Haller and Zabel looking to guide Kittel in the closing kilometres, this is a step down from the riders he’s used to working with. Their approach will also be fascinating, as Kittel has favoured a different style of lead out in the past. Instead of dominating from the front, Kittel prefers to sit a little deeper and then hit the final kilometre very hard. This worked at QuickStep, but mainly due to the speed of Trentin and Sabatini. Looking at Katusha, I don’t see that style working, but will he be willing to change?
John Degenkolb – he’s already started the season with a bang, taking two wins in Mallorca, compare that to the one win in the whole of 2017. Trek arrive with an interesting team, it looks like they will use Van Poppel and Nizzolo in the sprint train, not something Nizzolo is used to doing. Sprinters don’t always find it easy taking a step back, this could work but there is a doubt in my mind. Degenkolb will be the favourite to win on the Hatta Dam, but he can’t allow the other sprinters to dominate him in the flat sprints.
Mark Cavendish – 2017 will be remembered for his horror crash in the Tour de France, something that ruined the rest of his season. Cav arrives in Dubai where he won two stages and the overall title here in 2015, losing just 10 seconds to Degenkolb on the Hatta Dam. While some of his rivals arrive with untried sprint trains, Cavendish doesn’t have that problem. He has his usual support team of Renshaw and Eisel, but he also adds Julien Vermote into the mix. The pair of them were teammates back in Cav’s QuickStep days and it’s good to see Dimension Data lengthen their sprint train.
Alexander Kristoff – another sprinter who has moved teams, now with UAE. The Norwegian leaves behind a good sprint train, but I’m not sure about what he’ll make of his new squad. It looks like he’ll have Bystrom and Consonni, this is nowhere near enough. It could be a frustrating start to the year for Kristoff.
Sonny Colbrelli – the Italian enjoyed a strong 2017, taking some big wins. A rider that usually prefers a tough day in the saddle, he seems to have improved a little in the flat sprints. He doesn’t have the strongest sprint train, which could hurt him in the opening stages, but he’ll be looking forward to the Hatta Dam. He has the power to compete with Degenkolb on the steep slopes.
Dylan Groenewegen – the Dutchman had a brilliant 2017, taking an iconic win in Paris. Still just 24 years of age, this will be another season where we see him develop and improve. He has the benefit of working with a settled sprint train, although they could alter the position of some of their support riders. He had two 2nd places here in 2017, I wonder if he can find his way onto the top step of the podium.
Elia Viviani – started the season in impressive fashion over in Australia, that will have helped with his confidence. After moving from Sky to QuickStep, he’ll be delighted to have riders now working for him and his sprint train is looking good. QuickStep have decided to keep Sabatini with him, but Morkov is away riding 6 day events, meaning that they have to slightly alter their train. Having riders like Terpstra, Stybar and Lampaert will be hugely important to the Italian and he’ll be confident of continuing his good start to 2018.
I’m not sure we’ll see any sprinter dominate this race, but there are still enough bonus seconds available for podium finishes to ensure a sprinter takes the overall title. Looking at the sprint trains, I’ll take a little risk and go with Elia Viviani. He impressed me in Australia and his train looks the fastest here.
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