5 conclusions from the UAE Tour

From the big names to a few surprise packages, plus a secret climb, we select five key takeaways from one of the most unpredictable editions in recent years

Clock18:12, Monday 26th February 2024
Do you agree with our five conclusions? Let us know in the comments

© GCN / Tim de Waele/Maximiliano Blanco/Velo Collection via Getty Images

Do you agree with our five conclusions? Let us know in the comments

Previously won by Primož Roglič, Adam Yates, Tadej Pogačar and Remco Evenepoel, it is safe to say that the UAE Tour carries a pedigree beyond its years. As the only men's WorldTour race in the Middle East, the seven-day stage race has earned itself a valued slot in the calendar as a great test for both sprinters and climbers alike.

This time around, more than 15 of the world's best sprinters flocked to Abu Dhabi, along with Grand Tour contenders such as Ben O'Connor (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) and Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates), promising an entertaining spectacle thousands of miles from the European epicentre of professional cycling.

For every stage at this year's UAE Tour, GCN were on the ground to keep up with all the latest goings on in the peloton. Click here for all of our race coverage.

Without a pre-eminent champion dominating the general classification, the race for the title was up in the air until quite literally the last second on Sunday afternoon atop Jebel Hafeet. Missing out was stage 3 winner O'Connor by two seconds to Lotto Dstny's Lennert Van Eetvelt, who would claim the title by the smallest winning margin in history.

Read more: UAE Tour: Lennert Van Eetvelt wins overall as UAE Team Emirates implode on Jebel Hafeet

In the other stages, meanwhile, Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step) dominated the sprints and both Olav Kooij (Visma-Lease a Bike) and Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) popped up with a victory apiece.

It was, without a doubt, a scintillating edition of the UAE Tour that has left plenty to unpack before attention soon turns to the beginning of the European WorldTour season.

From the supreme sprinter to the climbing sensations, here are our five major conclusions from the 2024 UAE Tour.

The world needs to see Tim Merlier vs Jasper Philipsen

Almost untouchable in the bunch sprints at this year's UAE Tour was Soudal Quick-Step's Tim Merlier, who was perhaps only denied a clean sweep of victories by a slow puncture suffered on stage 5. Aside from that one second place, the Belgian sprinter won every flat road stage of this year's race and could not have sat prouder at the stage winner's press conference on the penultimate day.

What was impressive was not only Merlier's results sheet come the end of the race, nor the manner in which he was able to win, but the star-studded list of riders he was able to beat. Numbering more than 16 riders earmarked as out-and-out fast men, Merlier was able to - on three occasions, at least - steer clear of the chaos and offer himself a clean run at the line.

In doing so, the Belgian sent the likes of Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan), Fabio Jakobsen (dsm-firmenich PostNL) and Sam Bennett (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) home disappointed, having been unable to land a jab on Merlier.

At 31 years of age, Merlier is at the peak of his career and certainly a cut above most, but is he making the most of it? In that respect, it's tempting to compare him to last year's preeminent sprinter, Jasper Philipsen, as Soudal Quick-Step's boss did in conversation with GCN last week.

Read more: Patrick Lefevere: Tim Merlier is a calmer sprinter than Jasper Philipsen

Merlier's fellow Belgian holds six Tour de France stage victories to the 31-year-old's lone win from 2021. To say that Merlier requires less of a structured lead-out than the Alpecin-Deceuninck man may be fair, but all the while, the real question lies unanswered: which of the pair is the better sprinter?

Although fleeting encounters may pop up in one-day races throughout the season, the only real place to answer the elephant in the room remains the Tour de France. But, rightly or wrongly, Merlier is not going to ride the Tour, with his team instead prioritising the GC ambitions of Remco Evenepoel.

We are not here to chastise or praise this decision - after all, Evenepoel deserves his shot at the sport's biggest race - but what we are here to say is that it is a shame. Both Merlier and Philipsen appear better than ever, but for the time being at least, the debate over which of the pair is the better sprinter looks set to remain up in the air.

Jebel Jais is greater than its reputation, but can it be better?

When one thinks of a mountain stage at the UAE Tour, the mind can't help but leap to Jebel Hafeet, the 11km-long climb that has served as the centrepiece of the race throughout its short history. However, the Jebel Jais mountain proved equally as impressive, if not more so, than Jebel Hafeet this time around.

Extending for more than 20km, Jebel Jais is a shallower climb than its Al Ain counterpart but is found in an area of far greater beauty. Located in the Hajar mountains, Jebel Jais is a towering figure that regularly pierces the clouds and is neighboured by similar imposing peaks.

By contrast, Jebel Hafeet feels like little more than a construction site at times. The loose limestone rock has seen so much development that it crumbles to its base in a series of jagged shards, with views to the flatlands that surround it offering no more than a sense of truly being at the high point of the Abu Dhabi Emirate.

Suffice it to say, from covering the race on the ground, Jebel Jais is the UAE's must-visit mountain for all interested, not the race's oft-quoted Jebel Hafeet. But that is not all.

Despite having earned a reputation for offering up little more than small bunch sprints or breakaway victors, Jebel Jais was raced with a vengeance this time around, and for that, the race was a beneficiary. Under the steam of Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale and previously, UAE Team Emirates, the mountain delivered many victims to the challenging racing.

Read more: When plans come to fruition: Ben O'Connor hits the jackpot at UAE Tour

At the summit, Ben O'Connor earned a memorable victory and proved once and for all, that Jebel Jais can be a showstopper for the UAE Tour in itself. But could the spectacle be even better?

Just a few kilometres before the race's summit lies a service road that winds up an adjacent hillside, unvisited by the race but unavoidable to the eye when standing atop Jebel Jais. From a distance, the small road looks to contain eye-watering gradients and the potential for a fresh take on a UAE Tour classic.

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To our knowledge, former pro and current CPA president Adam Hansen looks to be among an exclusive club of riders who have tackled the tough ramps - members of RCS Sport, the race organisers, seemed none the wiser about the climb - but you can count this as the start of an official petition: send the UAE Tour peloton up the service road.

Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale are a team transformed

Ending 2023 as AG2R Citroën, the historic French WorldTeam appeared to be drifting along like a ship without a sail at times, having taken only nine victories all season. Less than two months into this season and the renamed Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale already have almost half of that tally.

Although most eyes were on UAE Team Emirates at the beginning of the UAE Tour, both as a result of being the home hope and having a former winner, Adam Yates, in their midst, the week ended with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale earning plaudits from all quarters.

They may have come up short in the sprint finishes - lead-out rider Gianluca Pollefliet crashed and subsequently suffered from illness, leaving Sam Bennett to fend for himself - but the French side dominated proceedings on both mountain stages.

Read more: UAE Tour stage 3: Ben O'Connor wins atop Jebel Jais

Stage 3 saw the blue and white jerseys rise to the occasion through Valentin Paret-Peintre and O'Connor, with the latter of course taking the day's honours. Stage 7, meanwhile, had the team working as one to combat the tricky crosswinds.

"It was a hard day for some of our climbers, it's not really their speciality and I think they did well anyway just to be in the front group," O'Connor told GCN after the finish. "We have always had other guys who do that job, whether it was Greg Van Avermaet, Michael Schär, Oliver Naesen, so for these guys to step up, that was actually pretty cool."

Ahead of the start of the final stage, we chatted with team sports director Sébastien Joly to find out how new technical partner Swiss Side had brought an aerodynamic revolution to his team for 2024.

"Swiss Side has a wind tunnel specifically for Formula 1 in Switzerland, and Van Rysel has a wind tunnel in Lille in northern France, which delivers everything for the collaboration and the data," he revealed.

"It is very new for Van Rysel, but Decathlon have been in the WorldTour before and Van Rysel is now one of the top bikes in the WorldTour, which has made all of the riders very happy."

Keep an eye on this team for the rest of the season.

Read more: Remembering the Decathlon pro bikes of the 2000s

Astana Qazaqstan and Michael Mørkøv have still got it

The UAE Tour began with two lacklustre sprint stages for Astana Qazaqstan, the team of Mark Cavendish and Michael Mørkøv. Back together for the first time in a couple of years, the pair and sports director Mark Renshaw had been left disappointed by the team's efforts on stages 1 and 4.

Read more: Mark Cavendish says Astana lead-out 'over-eager but learning' after first UAE Tour sprint

Speaking to GCN after stage 5, in which the pearl blue jerseys finally made themselves known at the front of the pack, Renshaw admitted that he had given his side some stern words before their latest bite at the apple.

His firm honesty clearly had an impact on the side, as they performed well not only on stage 5, but during stage 6 as well. In the former, Cavendish was delivered to the finish with precision by Mørkøv, as though the year was 2021, and in the latter, Gleb Syritsa stepped up to the plate to finish fifth after the withdrawal of the British sprinter.

Read more: No Mark Cavendish but Gleb Syritsa steps up for Astana at UAE Tour

"I think we did really well and of course, Mark [Renshaw] had to speak with big words because it didn't work, but also for me, I am new in the team, it is the first time I am racing with Gleb, with Gruzdev and Gazzoli," Mørkøv said to GCN in the immediate aftermath of stage 6.

"So of course in such a hard field like this, you will not expect it works from the first day, but I am happy with what we achieved so far, even though we didn't win."

With Mørkøv turning 39 in April and Astana Qazaqstan looking to establish themselves as a sprinters team for only the second successive year, plenty of doubters commented on their chances with Cavendish this season. Whilst they may have left the UAE Tour empty-handed, it is fair to say that the Kazakh side drew their line in the sand for a season filled with big ambitions.

Read more: Mark Cavendish's 2024 Tour de France squad 'miles ahead' of 2023, says Mark Renshaw

It will not be long before Lennert Van Eetvelt is a WorldTour rider

To end on a rather obvious point, we were very impressed by stage 7 and overall UAE Tour winner, Lennert Van Eetvelt (Lotto Dstny). The Belgian began the race with top five ambitions but ended it having won the Queen stage and his first WorldTour stage race.

Speaking exclusively with GCN long after the dust had settled on the final stage, Van Eetvelt remained equally ecstatic and dumbfounded at what he had been able to achieve on Sunday afternoon.

"I am not the easiest guy to keep up front and when the echelons started, I was in the second echelon and I was just praying for us to come back.

"[My teammates] just told me to go for it, 'don't be afraid.' It is what I did and I could not be more happy. Even before the race, I came here to do a really good GC, I was hoping for top five, I thought it would be amazing to be fifth!"

Read more: Voices of the peloton: How the UAE Tour was won and lost

Now in the final year of his Lotto Dstny contract, the 22-year-old surely looks destined for the first big move of his career at the end of the season. Having proved himself not only a committed trainer but also an instinctive racer and world-class climber, Van Eetvelt is a rider with the world at his feet - or cleats.

For all the important information about the 2024 UAE Tour, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub.

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