As I've been writing around here recently, I've been focusing far more on European races than I have Middle Eastern ones. In fact, I may remember myself being slightly less than complimentary about the Dubai Tour. It came as something of a shock to me then, when I realised this morning that I was rather looking forward to the Abu Dhabi Tour. It's well-organised (well, it's organised by RCS, and therefore by Italians, but it's not badly organised) and it's moved from a pointless and boring calendar location in October to a useful calendar location in February.
It's actually an extremely useful calendar location. After completing the Ruta del Sol or whichever other February race he wished, the usual GC rider would lay low for several weeks before springing back up for Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, leaving Omloop, Kuurne and Strade, the main races going on in that time, to the classics riders. However, as Boonen and co. set off from Gent on Saturday, the GC riders attending the Abu Dhabi Tour will be faced with climbing Jebel Hafeet with a leader's jersey at stake. That means that they do not have a weekend where they are not racing, with only seven days between the finish of the race and the departure from Bois-d'Arcy in Paris-Nice. If you subscribe to the idea that racing is the best way to train, that's certainly a benefit.
The UCI evidently agrees with me as regards the usefulness of this race. Well, I'm being enthusiastic about it for free, which can't be said for them, but it's still true that it was one of the races added to the World Tour, even if it is not a compulsory event. Only LottoNL-Jumbo and Cannondale are the only two teams taking advantage of this, which is strange. You might think they would feel kinship with something else that has the same justification for telling people it's in the top echelon of cycling.
I'm also backed up by the startlist. This will be one of the best-attended races of the year, with Nairo Quintana, Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet, Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay van Garderen, Rafał Majka, André Greipel, Caleb Ewan, Marcel Kittel, Julian Alaphilippe, Mark Cavendish, Ilnur Zakarin, Diego Ulissi, Bauke Mollema, Louis Meintjes, Tom Dumoulin, Ruí Costa and Alberto Contador all attend. Essentially, it's everyone your average commentator has heard of, minus Chris Froome and the people riding Omloop. So it's nobody your average Belgian commentator has heard of.
Quick sidebar: I'd also like to point out that the first three stages of the race move the race away from Abu Dhabi, and then the race turns around and ends up a few kilometres away. This directly contradicts the #RidetoAbuDhabi thing the branding department's got going on. While cycling has never mastered the hashtag (Hello, BMC and #DontCrackUnderPressure) this one slightly annoys me. Perhaps #FlytoAbuDhabiRideAwayandthenRideMostoftheWayBack would be an improvement.
So what's actually going on in the race? Well, there are three sprint stages (named after a car company, a building and an island, respectively. Inspiring) that couldn't be flatter if you ran an iron over the tarmac. Although, if anyone’s willing to volunteer and make my comparison more literal, they can feel free. It shouldn't be difficult, the asphalt is hot enough that just putting a heavy object on it should be enough. That's a mark against the race, but there are enough sprinters at the race for the three stages to provide at least some entertainment.
Given that most sprinters are hanging around Kuurne hoping to be bringing Ambroos home with them on Sunday, the field of sprinters for this race is not wide, but it is full of concentrated talent, essentially boiling down to Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Caleb Ewan. Ewan mopped up everything he could around Adelaide a month ago, Kittel did the same in Dubai - without the kind assistance of Andrei Grivko he might have made a clean sweep - but Cavendish has been far quieter. He led out Edvald Boasson Hagen in Algarve, while he was in Algarve and nothing went his way in Dubai. I have to pick Kittel to be on the best form. He's hardly lost anything from Dubai, and if he's any better he'll be damn near unbeatable.
That leaves us with the solitary other stage, Saturday's stage three, which contains its only piece of topography, also known as Jebel Hafeet, the third highest point in Dubai. Eleven kilometres at an average of six and a half per cent, it's not the hardest climb on the calendar, but it is a tough effort at the beginning of the season. There's plenty of people gunning for it as well, as victory on the climb will guarantee the victor's red jersey. Contador says he's working for Mollema, which I don't believe, but he's also just off a tough week of losing to an octogenarian, Nibali's not tuned up yet, this isn't Bardet's race, Zakarin might melt, and let's be honest, this is the obvious pick, but I have to choose Nairo Quintana to win this one. He's a little further along his trajectory than everyone else, he was really impressive in Valencia, and I'm just going to give you this one, Chris and your fellow Nairo-champions.