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Offseason Capsule: Can UAE Team Emirates Be Stopped?

It’s not just Pogačar anymore; Abu Dhabi squad loaded in nearly all phases

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 17
Tadej Pogačar
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

One little programming note, I am trying to focus on the World Tour teams about whom there is something interesting to say. I won’t get to all 18 of them, so to avoid burning out on this series before I’ve covered all the good stuff, I am eliminating a few teams from consideration.

Off the list are the heaviest heavyweights, INEOS and Quick Step, who are basically the same team every year in an overall way, if not in the names of the riders themselves. Whoever is the hottest young rider, INEOS have probably bought him and will line up a glittering program of races for him where, with luck and determination, he can move up to the team’s fourth option. Quick Step will be favorites at the Classics, then maybe look interesting in the grand tours, only to end up stage hunting. Both teams will rack up impressive win totals. And literally nobody reading this needs help with these narratives,

Next are teams whose position in the pecking order may be subject to change, but their roster is not. Two teams from the Western Asia land mass — Bahrain Victorious and Israel Premier Tech — fit this description as inherently interesting but with few transfers that stand to alter what we just saw of them in 2021. Same with the French teams AG2R and Groupama-FDJ.

Anyway, UAE Team Emirates! Not exactly from the muddled middle anymore, the boys in white boast the world’s top rider, who is apparently its top paid rider as well, and who ranked #2 in team budget last year, based on the limited info we have in the public domain. A total success story, all because of one signing. But it wasn’t long ago they called the muddled middle their home, and for quite a while.

Giro d’Italia stage 7
Cunego and Simoni
Photo by Lars Ronbog/FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

The history of Team UAE goes back a long way to 1999 under the Lampre sponsorship, though the current management traces its roots to the original team’s merger with the Saeco team in 2005. This was the squad of Simoni and Cunego, of Ballan and Petacchi and Scarponi. For years it was the project of former world champion Giuseppe Saronni, though he stepped down to an advisory role in maybe 2014 and Jotxean Fernandez is now in charge. And it was Mauro Gianetti who gets credit for the rescue of the flailing Lampre team when the UAE government took over the squad before the 2017 season. Anyway, despite the usual churn of management and sponsors, this team has been around.

But where they hadn’t been is going anywhere. By 2017, when the Emirates took over, they were firmly in the World Tour’s second division, sinking to 15th in points and 27th in wins in 2018. But they did possess some very valuable assets... connections. Jan Polanc was already with the squad and training at home sometimes with a young Tadej Pogačar, who he says he could drop, sometimes, but not as often as you would expect of a teenager trying to keep up with a grand tour stage winner. In 2017, Pogačar was a rising talent in the U23 world, but still losing races to guys like Riabushenko and Mader. By 2018... not so much.

Cycling World Championship In Portugal
Freire pips Hauptman for the World Title
Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Pogačar was coached then by Andrej Hauptman, a former Lampre rider who was working with young Slovenian cyclists back home, including a former ski jumper who showed some promise. Hauptman is the one Polanc credits for UAE being able to sign Pogačar, which occurred in the 2018 season right before the kid went on to take his first eye-opening victory, his thrashing victory at the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir. Right then, UAE knew they had something. They added Hauptman to the team staff, got the kid ready for 2019 where he immediately began winning at the World Tour level, and the rest is history, as they say. UAE signed Pogačar to one contract extension, through 2023, then another one this summer, all of six years at €6m per season, the sport’s top salary.

The impact to the team has been every bit as immense as you might think. After bottoming out in 2018, they bounced right back up to fifth overall in 2019 (FSA DS rankings; 6th at CQRanking), buoyed by Pogačar’s eight wins and a glittering season from Fernando Gaviria. They’ve been #3 overall since Pogs took sole ownership of the Tour de France.

3rd UAE Tour 2021 - Stage 7
Racing on home soil at the UAE Tour
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

No one man is an island, they say, and that is as true in cycling as in life, but Pogačar’s impact on the team has a singular nature to it. Sure, UAE had resources to sign other riders, but for a sponsor like the Emirates without the kind of connection back home that would make their constituents, say, pore over course changes to the E3 Prijs, it is especially meaningful for the team that they have hit upon a Tour ace. Buzz is currency in a sport that relies on sponsorship money rather than selling tickets and beer, and the yellow jersey coming to the desert will keep those dirhams flowing back to Europe. [I looked up dirhams.]

The buzz and the money have now allowed UAE to build a true juggernaut. They are signing prime young talents, particularly climbers, attracted to riding for the King. They swooped in when Marc Hirschi became suddenly available after his contract dispute. They’ve completely terminated even the faintest hopes of the other big teams that they might be able to whisk the Slovenian superstar away from the desert outfit.

This is the story of a team from the muddled middle, who escaped that status in the quickest, most glorious way possible. This is who Bora and Trek and Astana would like to be if they ever win the talent lottery like UAE did.

108th Tour de France 2021 - Stage 21
Pogačar and Hirschi
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

What We Thought and Got Last Year

This might be a question of who “we” is here. I don’t know about you, maybe you saw Pogačar’s continued rise coming, but coming into 2021 I was ready to pump the brakes on Pogačar’s success, if just a little. Yes, he had been outstanding, but 2020 was like no other year — the Tour de France which shot him to stardom ended on September 19, for example. Also, while I certainly wasn’t betting against him defending his title, his first one came with few legitimate contenders. Was he better than his countryman Roglič? Sure, and that was amazing, but the rest of the top five were Richie Porte, Mikel Landa and Enric Mas, riders with no history in yellow. Most glaringly omitted was the defending Tour winner Egan Bernal, himself a shining comet across the sport’s landscape under the more typical circumstances of 2019, apart from the odd mudslide. If your wins are measured by who you beat, and they surely are, then there were still some blanks to fill out on Pogs.

On the other hand, I was all set to anoint them the team of the year for grabbing Marc Hirschi from Team Sunweb, after the young Swiss star had carried my FSA DS team to respectability, notwithstanding the weird management culture around the team and the paltry salary they paid him, which he supposedly multiplied by a factor of 14 with his move to UAE. Operations in the offseason to his hip and wisdom teeth delayed Hirschi’s season enough to put a damper on his entire year. But the talent and results date back several seasons now, so it would be unwise to overreact to his 2021 results.

81st Skoda-Tour De Luxembourg 2021 - Stage 2
HIrschi wins in Luxembourg
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Of course, what really had us — and I think I can be inclusive here — drooling was the prospect of Hirschi teaming up with Diego Ulissi to take over the hilly classics. Ulissi has been a steady point scorer for a while but could use someone to share the load and make teams pay the price for ganging up on him. They didn’t really deliver on that promise, but it’s absolutely still there.

Anyway, they were one of the best teams, which is what we would have thought, if maybe not quite for the precise reasons we would have identified.

FSA Directeur Sportif Rankings

As mentioned, they were third overall as a team. Pogačar was #1, of course, but it’s notable that Matteo Trentin was 15th and Ulissi 42. Three of the top 50 is a nice number. Three more (Covi, Kristoff and Hirschi) in the top 75 is nice depth.

107th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2021 - Men’s Elite
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Top Three Highlights

  1. Pogačar crushes everyone on stage 8 of the Tour. He had already won the time trial on stage 5, and at that point it was clear that Pogačar was going to be nigh well impossible to stop. But this makes for a better highlight, given that he took fourth on the stage behind three break dudes; it was the opener in the Alps; Roglič was clearly too injured to be a factor; and every other potential rival lost major time. The Tour ended before the first rest day. Youngest Patron ever?
  2. Sigh... Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Or the day Pogačar signed his new contract? Either one of those is a harbinger of future, sustained, potentially massive success. In the moment, it was an exhilarating win, days after the team had to forego La Fleche Wallonne due to a COVID outbreak. Even better, it featured Pogačar outsprinting Julian Alaphilippe, in a sort of “anything you can do, I can do better” moment.
  3. Hirschi breaks through at Tour de Luxembourg? Or maybe you prefer Gaviria taking a sprint in the Tour de Pologne. Both were the first wins of the year for two guys whom UAE will want to count on heavily going forward. Not that Gaviria is a top-end sprinter, but he’s in the mix and will pad their numbers when he can. Hirschi just needed a little redemption after his odd season.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. The La Fleche withdrawal. Ulissi gave a positive COVID test the night before, and the team had to abandon what looked like a possible 1-2 between defending winner Hirschi and Pogačar (although Hirschi had said he wasn’t at his very best, so...). Yep, so sad. They had to wait four more days before their next major victory.
  2. The missed chances? There weren’t many, though Pogačar watching Carapaz saunter away for Olympic gold counts, as does Ullissi trying vainly to bag a Giro stage, only to get outfoxed on consecutive stages in the final days.
  3. Trentin’s inattentive wheel touch in the Veneto Classic. The wily classics man had Samuele Battistella all to himself in a two-man finale, but a moment’s carelessness saw Trentin hit the deck and lose his chance at the victory, ending up 18th. This came four days after losing a sprint in the Giro del Veneto to Xandro Meurisse. Not his week, despite lots of home support from the nearby (where else?) Trentino.
105th Gran Piemonte 2021
Trentin misses out
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Comings and Goings

UAE shipped off a bunch of guys to Astana — same agent? package deal? — in Riabushenko, Dombrowski, Conti and de la Cruz. Kristoff and Bystrom left for Wanty. Marco Marcato finally retired, four years after I assumed this had happened.

Incoming are some huge reinforcements, as if Pogačar needed them, in potential grand tour winner Joao Almeida and top lieutenants George Bennett and Marc Soler. Pascal Ackermann comes in to serve as the top sprinter, along with Alvaro Hodeg. Then finally there are all the young talents: classics men Joel Suter and Alexis Brunel, climbers Finn Fischer-Black and Juan Ayuso, and I guess another sprinter in Felix Gross?

81st Skoda-Tour De Luxembourg 2021 - Stage 5
Hirschi and Almeida
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

So Now What?

Things almost certainly get better. It may take a year or two for everything to fall into place, particularly since Trentin and Ulissi are of an age where maybe they can’t keep delivering the way they have. It’s possible UAE don’t light the World Tour on fire in 2022, but within a year or two they should be pushing for the #1 ranking in the sport. They were hot on the heels of INEOS this past season for #2, and while Quick Step were another cut above, the guess here is that they can’t pull that off in 2022, not when they padded their numbers with wins from Cavendish and the recently-rehomed Almeida. Quick Step didn’t do much to reload either. The pack is hot on their heels.

35th Deutschland Tour 2021 - Stage 1
Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images

Ackermann should give the sprint team a huge upgrade from Kristoff and take the pressure off the other fast finishers in the biggest events. Almeida is ready to do something big this year, and both he and Pogačar will have lots of help. Hirschi is a strong bet to get back to his 2020 form. The stable of young talent, along with the incoming guys, already featured Mikkel Bjerg, Brandon McNulty, Alessandro Covi and Adres Ardila. Fisher-Black is one of the sport’s bigger young talents, with both climbing and time-trialing chops on display. Ayuso was just 18 last year when he lit up the Baby Giro. I feel like I am ranting now.

Money means a lot in the sport, as we all well know, so the fact that UAE Team Emirates can shower Pogačar with cash and still have plenty more left over to build perhaps the sport’s most exciting roster, both young and old, is nice for them and probably tough for a lot of other teams to watch. Let’s face it, if another team signed the next Pogs and suddenly escaped the muddled middle, but didn’t have the kind of cash UAE has, the vultures would be circling overhead non-stop, ready to pounce as soon as that rider began to wonder about his earning potential. So sure, winning the talent lottery can get you off the mid-table merry go round for a bit, but without top-of-the-table cash, you can’t stay off it for long. That’s the UAE Team Emirates story. And it’s not a hopeless one — find the next big star and maybe the sponsor cash will turn up too. But it’s a high wire act, and UAE’s template may prove very hard for others to duplicate. Generational riders are supposed to come along only once a generation, right?

94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men Elite Road Race
Brandon McNulty
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images