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Offseason Capsule: UAE

UAE’s 2018 was ordinary. 2019 could be much better.

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A reminder: this was written and scheduled before Lombardia. So if one of these guys wins a monument, or the team folds, or aliens invade… I’m sorry I didn’t cover it.

When the UAE hegemony comes, and the history books are re-written, they’ll look back on 2018 as a bridging year. It was fine. Some good moments, but plenty of periods of irrelevance, too.

What we said last year

This was the boss’ contribution, and he looked at the big-picture move from a poor Italian team to a big-money squad with Italian roots and global interest. He also covered the arrival of Aru, Martin and Kristoff. Nothing was over the top, but there was broad short- and long-term enthusiasm for the project. There was also some justified concern in the post and the comments over the lack of “middle” to a team with some leaders and some projects, but relatively few foot soldiers.

What we got in 2018

A year with only twelve wins tells a story. When a sixth of those wins are in the UAE national championships, that story gets a little bleaker. Kristoff won a stage in Oman and one in Abu Dhabi, but other than Mirza’s Nats, that was it until 1 May when Kristoff added to his total with a win in Frankfurt. Through the spring, he managed 4th in Milan-San Remo but disappointed on the cobbles, whilst for Martin, Ulissi and Costa the Ardennes season was a wash-out, frustrating for a team that looked strong on paper.

Dan Martin returned to form, winning a Dauphine stage and a Tour stage, but a combination of bad luck and residual injury dropped him to 8th overall in the Tour. That was the best GT performance of the season for UAE, as Aru didn’t finish the Giro and was 23rd in the Vuelta. The Tour finished on a high, with Kristoff winning on the Champs, but that is the last win this team has enjoyed, and in truth they’ve been pretty anonymous since August came around.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

16th – In a word, poor. In several words? One place ahead of Cofidis – who aren’t paying for three superstars.

Top Highlights

1. Kristoff won the unofficial sprinter’s world championships in Paris, a great moment in a disappointing year. That will have been celebrated.

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2. At the risk of sounding unimaginative, second on the list has to be the other Tour win, doesn’t it? Dan Martin took the uphill sprint in stage 6 and left everyone dreaming of glory… before he came literally crashing back to Earth two stages later.

3. This is a personal pick, because I can. Laengen is a rider I have barely given a thought to, but his ride in break in the World Champs, whilst ultimately fruitless, was a brave and tireless effort. He had a good season and that day made a fan out of me. Let’s hope he gets some results in 2019. What’s more, he’ll be doing it in his stylish National Champ’s kit if he does.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Hard to pick a moment from Aru’s Giro, all of which he’d rather forget. Shipping nineteen minutes to the bigs on stage 15 was a low point, though, and one which played on international TV, with a camera staying with him for longer than seemed fair.

2. Richie Porte gets the press for rough injuries and bad luck in the Tour, but things are getting unfair on Dan Martin. For a second year running he was brought down in stage 8, bleeding time (and, you know, blood) that he couldn’t afford to lose. He has the talent to reach the podium, but hasn’t yet had the luck.

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3. Kristoff’s spring. He’s been Mr Consistency until now, with six rides in Flanders netting him 6 top-fifteens and 5 top-fives. In Roubaix, he’s added two top tens. This year he could only manage 16th and 57th, and will want to prove that was an anomaly in 2019.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Alessandro Covi (Team Colpack), Cristian Camilo Muñoz (Coldeportes Zenu Sello Rojo), Tom Bohli (BMC Racing), Sergio Henao (Team Sky), Tadej Pogacar (Ljubljana)
(Friendly editor addition: Andrew got royally screwed by the barrage of late UAE news. Fernando Gaviria (Quickstep) and Jasper Philipsen (Hagens Berman Axeon) are also in for 2019)

Outs: Filippo Ganna (Team Sky)
(Friendly editor addition: Ben Swift (Team Sky) is also out)

I think it’d be overly negative to that Rui Costa is done, and 10th in the World Champs means the wily veteran can still get it done on the hardest days, but there’s a sense of finding his replacement early in Sergio Henao. The Columbian veteran brings much of the same skillset and may have more opportunities here than at Sky. It is a logical move for all parties.

Munoz is a talented young Colombian and a valuable addition, whilst Covi makes the leap from stagiare to full-time employee and is an intriguing long-term project. Tom Bohli was a rare promising young rider at BMC and is a useful piece, especially for a team that are sometimes found rouleur-deficient. Last but by no means least, shock winner of the Avenir Tadej Pogacar skips Pro-Conti to join the big boys. Winning the biggest of the junior races was beyond expectations, but he’s a talented rider and was always going to be a sought-after signing. With patience, he can be a more-than-handy all-rounder.

On the other hand, losing Filippo Ganna is a real blow. He’s been with UAE/Lampre from his earliest days in road cycling, riding as an 18 year old stagiare in 2015. Mostly a track specialist (with the bling to prove it, winning 4,000m IP gold this spring) he’s shown signs of real promise on the road and could have grown into a star. With Affini signing elsewhere, it’d be reasonable to fear that the current crop of Italian youth may be looking past the “home” team.

Most intriguing rider

Well, Fabio Aru, clearly. I’m writing this before Lombardia, and there’s a little bit of me wondering how silly I’ll look if he wins. There aren’t many riders who could have suffered a year like his 2018 and left me with hope for 2019. It wasn’t good enough, and the results were made to look worse by the seemingly fractious relationship with the media, his bike manufacturer, and the world at large. This was not a happy camper.

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On the other hand, he’s only 28, in a team with good talent around him and clear leadership opportunities. He’s raced with the very best in grand tours for a number of years and is experienced and canny. If he puts his bad luck behind him, has a better run-in to next years races (he’s blamed overtraining at altitude and a gluten intolerance for some of his 2018 travails) then he can absolutely turn things around in 2019. Will he? Outlook is unclear.

So, what happens next?

I remember reading that the best weather forecast available is “the same as yesterday, and tending towards the seasonal average.” There’s something similar to be said for writing these previews; if you want to be right, you shouldn’t get over-excited and you shouldn’t forecast radical change. That approach will miss heatwaves and hurricanes (or Sunweb’s 2017) but it’ll be right most of the time.

That said, this feels like a big year for UAE. The project is well and truly underway now, and the cupboard is, if not groaning, much fuller than it was been in previous years. There’s a little more depth to a team that will also have benefitted from a year’s seasoning for a few talented young riders, and last year’s big-money transfers should have bedded in. With the money behind them, the pressure is on, and they need to deliver. Can they?

Kristoff is a risk, I’d say. Not too long ago I was pushing him as a candidate to be the best rider of the year, in 2017. He’s still a very good rider, but there are plenty of others targeting the same races and his successes are getting more infrequent. He could grab a big race but he won’t start any of them as favourite. Bad weather and hard riding will probably be his friends. Aru is another risk, and I’ve talked about him above. A GT podium would go a long way to calming the nerves.

Dan Martin, meanwhile, looks increasingly reliable and we know what his seasonal targets will be. With Henao and Costa, he’s part of a strong trio for the Ardennes, and he’s a climber everyone will keep an eye on in France in July, though he remains a liability against the watch. Diego Ulissi is another one-day rider who can make some noise on the right days.

Youth will be served, with riders like Conti, Ravasi, Pogacar and Munoz helping the big names and hopefully getting their own chances. Consonni might nick a sprint or two if he keeps improving. The cobbled races may well just be Kristoff and some outsiders (Marcato among them) but there’s no reason we shouldn’t see the UAE jerseys prominently throughout the rest of the year. The time to deliver is nigh.