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Offseason Mini-Capsule: UAE Emirates’ Great Leap Forward?

Can we admit this is Italy’s biggest project?

Corbis via Getty Images

You know how it’s kind of a disgrace that Italy is home to the world’s second biggest race and leaves its mark all over cycling all the time but doesn’t have a team in the UCI World Tour? Yeah, except they do, and it’s a poorly kept secret.

Beppe Saronni remains the master of the team now known as UAE Team Emirates, a project nominally registered in the UAE and whose website has lots of photos of cyclists talking to guys wearing traditional thawbs. Ah, the website. There’s a great history page, where it talks about the team’s formation in 2017. 2017! Why are they doing this? I guess it’s a branding thing, or they just don’t want to feel like they are being used by the Italians.

Is there a point to all this? Yes, and I will get to it eventually. But I want to talk about the recent past. In 2017, the team went from its Lampre sponsorship of 17 consecutive years to something maybe called TJ Sport, based in China, to that falling through, to the UAE government stepping in and re-christening it UAE Team Emirates. That’s a lot of effort to go to just to shed the label of “Cunego’s squad,” but apparently that’s what it takes. Anyway, the team’s real story goes back to its founding in 1990, with an unbroken chain of licenses to race at the sport’s top level that continues into the present. Slightly more than half the riders last year were Italian, and this year it’ll be slightly less than half. Plus a Croat and a couple Slovenians, which is another Italian cycling tradition, bootstrapping in athletes from some neighboring countries which don’t have critical mass of their own.

It’s all same as it ever was. And I’m blathering on about this because it’s important to view the team’s performance last year and prospects this year through a realistic lens, where they are held to a pretty high standard. They were forgotten a lot last year but I don’t think that will last long.

What We Said Last Year

[Cricket noises.]

What, you are surprised? All I can find is a note shaming them for firing two Chinese riders in a post about the best and worst transfers. Had I said anything more substantive, I probably would have spouted off about that clever Rui Costa and the reliable Ulissi. Louis Meintjes would have merited a mention, and Matej Mohoric would have been glaringly omitted. Nobody knew exactly what to think of this team, which had been overhauled pretty dramatically as it hung in sponsorship limbo, and wasn’t that interesting a team heading into the offseason.

What We Got Instead

A slow-baking project that grabbed the odd headline and started to look pretty decent as the season approached its last acts. Of course, the reason they started looking better is because their biggest star, Diego Ulissi, finally got his winning touch back and started racking up late-season points after a season oriented around the Tour de France. Ulissi won in Montreal and some sprints in Turkey, sandwiched around his usual high finishes (but not wins) in the Italian fall races. Rui Costa had a Rui Costa season, though that used to be a bit more threatening than it is now, but anyway he won the Tour of Abu Dhabi in February because classy veterans know how and when to pay the bills. They snagged a good result here and there. But most of the time they were just a bunch of guys.

They did manage to get a very strong season out of Sacha Modolo, who capped off an active spring with sixth in the Tour of Flanders before cleaning up some stage wins in the Tour of Croatia, victory in the GP Kanton Argau, and nabbing a stage in Poland. Modolo may be past his Giro stage winning prime, but his usefulness in the classics is at a career high (and now he’s wandered off to Slipstream). Matej Mohoric’s continued development saw him score a Vuelta stage and a race in Hong Kong. Jan Polanc’s win on Mount Etna in May brought the team’s relevance to a season high. Louis Meintjes gave them a reason to live at the Tour. They weren’t invisible.

Really, they were exactly the semi-random collection of guys with some talent trying hard to get noticed and occasionally breaking through.

FSA DS Ranking

Well they only go to ten, so you can forget about that. But they were actually 12th in the World Tour, which is growing less meaningless and arbitrary as they include more races, and 13th over at CQRanking. So not as irrelevant as all that.

Jan Polanc wins on Mount Etna, again
Corbis via Getty Images

Top Highlights

  1. Polanc’s solo victory on Mount Etna. Is Polanc already registered as the winner of stage six of this year’s Giro d’Italia? Surely being the world’s foremost Etna-climbing cyclist puts him on the inside track, after Polanc won there for the second time in three years. Mind you, they are using a different road up this time, so maybe Polanc’s true specialty is climbing Etna from just the one approach they’ve used in the past. Anyway, he gave his team a nice boost in a race where the locals kinda sorta would have cared about the team’s prospects. And he preserved his Etna Strava segment to boot.
  2. Ulissi wins in Montreal. Sure, it’s just a race in Canada, but this was Ulissi playing with the big boys, riding aggressively against the world’s best and finishing it off with a sprint. Ranking the goodness of one day or another is a bit silly, but I’m conducting this exercise along the lines of what were surely the best psychological boosts for the team, and a win of this class has to rate very high.
  3. Costa’s Abu Dhabi Stage/GC Success. Modolo sixth in Flanders was my favorite moment, because of all the usual caveats about how Flanders-centered I am, and Meintjes riding credibly at both the Tour (again) and the Vuelta is probably the most objectively meaningful result. But Costa paid big bills in February, and did so with a command performance on the one climbers’ stage, a 10km ascent on a windy day where he outlasted Ilnur Zakarin and Tom Dumoulin, while Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana marked each other out. It was a 6km-long effort to clinch the stage and the overall, heroic stuff, and only gets downgraded because it happened in late February.

Bottom Lowlights

Ehm... well I am going to give this a pass for now. I could toss out some items like how Meintjes lost the white jersey for a second year in a row to a second Yates by just about the same time he lost the 2016 white jersey, but even that’s good news, at least insofar as he’s run out of Yateses to lose the white jersey to. [He’s also off the team and aged out of the competition, but still.] Basically they lost to a bunch of people they weren’t expected to beat, with a team that wasn’t usually all that deep compared to the competition. They won a couple times with Arab riders in the Arab world (Yousif Mizra winning UAE nats titles, Annas Ait el Abdia in the Tour du Maroc) which probably helps solidify their new place in the world.

I’m sure they had some bad moments I could plug in here, but my memory of crashes and screw-ups isn’t very good at the moment. I guess the worst thing that happened was Mizra missing the Abu Dhabi Tour because the UAE testers hadn’t completed three tests for him in time to take part, which is a colossal screwup by them and not the team or Mizra.


Comings and Goings for 2018

Weeelllll.... things are getting interesting. This is the point I was sort of making above, which is that as random as UAE Team Emirates seems and as much as you might want to assume a certain irrelevance to them after their tortured journey back from oblivion, this is actually an Italian power squad, or what counts for one nowadays, and the new signings reflect that. This is a team with some money now, from the Emirates airline (not just the UAE government and some half-interested banks like last year), and the roster reflects the new reality.

Out are, sadly, Matej Mohoric, Louis Meintjes, and sprinters Andrea Guardini and Sacha Modolo. Meintjes returns closer to home at Dimension Data, and the sprinters are replaceable. Mohoric, though, is a young and developing rider you could dream on a bit, a workhorse climber who may or may not win a lot but would definitely lend a helping hand. Losing him to Bahrain-Merida adds to the sense of possible rivalry between the two squads.

Why? Oh, because Fabio Aru signed on for 2018, along with Alexander Kristoff and Dan Martin. That duo bring not only a level of excellence and hope for big victories, but also an identity to a team that hasn’t had much of one for a while. Aru’s presence, opposite Nibali and his Bah-Meh mates, is what makes this feel a bit like a rivalry in the making, but we’ll see about that.

More importantly, though, Aru vaults the team into major relevance, beyond what was possible to do on the backs of Ulissi and Rui Costa. Aru has swallowed the same bizarre serum that forces you to target the Giro instead of the Tour, so rather than taking the easy route to the world’s most prestigious title, he will battle it out with a crowded field of riders aiming for the #2 spot. 2018 is already a deeply weird year.

Kristoff will be looking for a bounce-back year after Katusha had one of those nothing-going-right seasons and let him go in favor of Marcel Kittel. The 30-year-old Norwegian might not rack up Tour de France stage sprints — the unsatisfying junk food of cycling royalty — but he looms as a potentially big presence across the season, especially in spring. I’ve apologized enough for downgrading him too hastily last year, when in fact he was a quarter-inch away from a world championship and was just barely off the front in the classics. Now, though, his ousting at Katusha might put a chip on his already broad shoulders, and a motivated Kristoff could be a force this year.

Dan Martin in France
Getty Images Tim de Waele

Most Intriguing Rider

Hm, nobody stands out in a big way. They host two U23 monument winners in Aliaksander Riabushenko (2017 Piccolo Giro di Lombardia) and Filippo Ganna (2016 Paris Roubaix Espoirs), but a pair of 21-year-olds should probably live in the “check back in a year or two” category. Their biggest names are Aru and Kristoff, who aren’t so much intriguing as important. But there’s one rider who gets the nod here, another of their big name signings, who might be that guy who does his usual thing, or he might... win the Tour de France.

Dan Martin is that guy. The veteran Irish rider is maybe exiting his prime years, as we conventionally think of them, but was one signature win away from having registered a definitively best season in 2017, and even that was nearly accomplished if only he’d waited a bit longer to blast off in Liege. Martin’s classics chops are well established but limited by, well, his ability to outsprint Alejandro Valverde, which is a problem for a lot of people.

But Martin was also sixth in the Tour in a field that is all but completely abandoning the race in 2018 (functionally at least, by contesting the Giro first). Romain Bardet will line up in July as the favorite, and Rigoberto Uran will try to prove that last year’s fluke second place was more like the real thing. That leaves Martin with a clear shot at a podium and only a few minutes to gain for the yellow jersey, on a course that shouldn’t be too far from his liking. Yes, the TTT will be an adventure, but the individual miles against the clock are minimal, and the Roubaix stage... well, he’s succeeded in Belgium, so maybe it won’t be a complete nightmare? Anyway, that’s why we talk about him as “intriguing” as opposed to something more definitive.

So, What Happens Next?

I’ve covered the Bigs already, though it bears repeating that UAE Team Emirates has Bigs to discuss. Airline money should bring them back to a stable place after years of being a poor Italian squad, in more ways than one. The Italian connection, ramped up dramatically by Aru, provides a plan, but Middle Eastern support and success is becoming their foundation, and if this means that riders from the Arabian Peninsula find a growing place in the peloton, fine by me.

Regardless, they have covered the grand tours and monuments with at least someone who can win. Depth may be an issue, but it’s not like they have nothing. In the climbing events, be they classics or stage races, Martin, Ulissi and Aru can count on reliable riders like Polanc, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Darwin Atapuma, Costa and Ben Swift. In the classics, Kristoff will appreciate having his Katusha mate Sven Erik Bystrom and countryman Vegard Stake Laengen, along with old hands like Marco Marcato and Rory Sutherland. Maybe a breakthrough will come from Ganna, climber Edward Ravasi, or sprinter Simone Consonni. Maybe Swift will find himself in the right place in Milano-Sanremo again, or help put Kristoff there instead.

There is stuff to like, and to be interested in, and to think that this team has a long-term, respectable future. That’s new for 2018, and be they Italian or Arab or just another international mishmash, the sport is better for it.