UAE Team Emirates Team Talk: A great season but missing a Grand Tour victory

Pogačar's team continues to bring in more talent and victories, even if Tour victory was out of reach for a second straight season

Clock18:08, Monday 27th November 2023
The number one team in the world by ranking, but a solid number two by most other metrics

© Sprint Cycling Agency

The number one team in the world by ranking, but a solid number two by most other metrics, UAE will be extremely motivated to keep the momentum building in 2024

UAE Team Emirates head into 2024 with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they are officially the best team in the world, having topped the year-end UCI rankings. On the other hand, if you asked anyone to look away from those statistics and name the best team of 2023, the answer you’re going to be getting is Jumbo-Visma.

And therein lies the itch. UAE can celebrate their number one status all they like, and it does carry huge merit, but it doesn’t come with that automatic entitlement of feeling like the dominant force in the pro peloton. You can’t simply filter out all the other races but in this instance it can be boiled down to the Tour de France, and UAE missed out to Jumbo-Visma for a second year in a row. Not only that, but Tadej Pogačar cracked dramatically at the hands of Jonas Vingegaard for the second year in a row. It was, in a way, humiliating.

And yet, Pogačar arguably had a better season than Vingegaard, with two Monuments to his name. His victory at the Tour of Flanders – just the third in history from a Tour de France winner – was particularly sensational. He quite simply is the best all-round rider on the planet, and UAE will continue to fix him at the very centre of everything they do. One key question is how exactly they harness his talents. Do they embrace his all-action, all-terrain style? Or do they try and hone him in on the thing they initially envisaged, and the thing that would be most sponsor-friendly: the Tour de France?

UAE Team Emirates does not revolve exclusively around Pogačar, though, at least not in the way they once did. That much is clear by the success of their ranking, with numerous riders chipping in across the broad. With the rise of Juan Ayuso, and another influx of young talents, plus the likes of Adam Yates, Jay Vine, and João Almeida, there is strength in depth for the present and the future.

Whether they can truly claim that status as the best in the world, that’ll come down to the Grand Tours, if not the Tour itself.

GCN’s 2023 review

UAE Team Emirates edged out Jumbo-Visma for the top spot in the rankings, and that might simply be because they made a bigger point of it, deploying their riders cleverly across the range of races at their disposal. Jumbo-Visma, meanwhile, claimed all three Grand Tours, and even locked out the podium of one of them. In terms of wins, UAE’s total of 57 was a decent stretch behind Jumbo-Visma’s leading tally of 69.

The bulk of UAE’s wins and points, unsurprisingly, came from Pogačar, who had one of the most remarkable all-round seasons in recent memory, despite missing out on the yellow jersey. He started out with five wins in six days in Spain, then put Vingegaard to the sword at Paris-Nice with three more stage wins along the way. Into the Spring, there was that virtuoso Flanders solo where he schooled Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert on their home turf, before winning Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne in a potential Ardennes triple that was scuppered by a crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

After recovering from a broken wrist, Pogačar won his national titles before heading to the Tour, where he went hammer and tongs with Vingegaard in a contest that was close until Vingegaard stormed the final-week time trial and Pogačar fell apart a day later. He still won two stages and finished runner-up, and he went on to win Il Lombardia and podium at Worlds, capping a truly remarkable season, but the nature of that defeat at the Tour will be a lingering cause for concern.

Read more: Tadej Pogačar: I'm gone, I'm dead

Elsewhere, Adam Yates stepped up with his finest season to date, with a stage win and overall podium at the Tour de France and eighth in the UCI rankings. There was also a podium in the Giro d’Italia courtesy of Almeida, although Ayuso was unable to build on his sensational debut at the Vuelta, settling for the best of the rest behind the Jumbo trio this year. It was a case of so near and yet so far, as far as the Grand Tours were concerned.

Pogačar took care of the early season and the Spring Classics, while the team, chasing that ranking, put huge resources into the autumn Italian Classics campaign and were handsomely rewarded. That, along with a string of top-fives in major week-long stage races and one-day races, enabled them to amass enough points to top the rankings by the end of the year.

GCN’s rating: 9/10

It was a great campaign by any measure, but there’ll be a sense of unfinished business.

UAE Team Emirates’ Top Five in 2024

Ins & Outs

As has been the case for several years, UAE Team Emirates’ transfer policy has leant heavily towards youth, and 2024 sees the arrival of four more – two 19-year-olds and two 20-year-olds. Among them is the Tour de l’Avenir champion, Isaac del Toro from Mexico, and he’s joined by two top talents from the Axeon Hagens German production line – Jan Christen and Antonio Morgado – plus the sought-after Igor Arrieta, who was already a pro with Kern Pharma.

Read more: Isaac del Toro: from anonymity to the top of the sport

However, one pressing area of recruitment has been the support network around Tadej Pogačar, who has never enjoyed the kind of awe-inspiring authority-stamping all-round squads enjoyed by Jumbo-Visma in the past couple of years and the Team Sky of old.

2024 will see two key arrivals in that respect: Pavel Sivakov from Ineos Grenadiers and Nils Politt from Bora-Hansgrohe. The former is a rider who might have had Grand Tour leadership opportunities at other teams, were it not for high competition and a few injuries. With that skillset, he could lighten the load on Adam Yates and Rafal Majka in the mountains. As for Politt, UAE have arguably needed a versatile domestique for the flat and medium mountains, and the German could prove just the ticket. He hasn’t quite kicked on as a Classics winner but has stood out in the domestique role for Bora.

UAE are losing Matteo Trentin as a road captain but Politt brings more power if not morale, while Sivakov will be seen as an upgrade after George Bennett’s two-year spell at the team never quite worked out. The team are losing Davide Formolo plus a few sprint options in Pascal Ackermann, Ryan Gibbons, and Alvaro Hodeg, while their other signing – on top of the youngsters – is Filippo Baroncini from Lidl-Trek, who won the U23 world title in 2021 but has yet to truly get his pro career off the ground.

Where UAE Team Emirates’ wins will come in 2024

There’s only one place to start, and that’s with Tadej Pogačar. The Slovenian has averaged more than 12 wins per season since turning pro in 2019, and 2023 was his best return yet, with no fewer than 17 wins. He is permanently in form, motivated and is quite simply a guarantee of success wherever he goes.

The big question is where he does he go. The Giro d’Italia has been touted as an attractive option but that would mean compromising the Tour de France. Then again, there are those who’d argue that Pogačar’s efforts in the Spring might detract from a dedicated preparation for the Tour. After his exploits in April, it would be a crying shame not to see Pogačar back at Flanders, but then again it would be hugely exciting to see him at the Giro.

Whichever way you spin it, he is absolutely central to the team’s plans in 2024.

Looking beyond Pogačar, Adam Yates was the team’s standout rider in 2023, winning five times in 2023 and even finishing on the podium of the Tour de France. As well as being Pogačar’s most important mountain domestique, the British rider will be a source of wins when the pair’s programmes do diverge.

Juan Ayuso didn’t have the happiest of seasons, with a knee injury at the start of the year and a slightly subdued Vuelta compared to his storming debut in 2022, but he remains a phenomenal talent who could make a big step forward in 2024.

Something similar could be said of Jay Vine, whose campaign was mired by misfortune but who could yet breakthrough as a Grand Tour contender. Meanwhile, João Almeida is not as attention-grabbing, and is not a prolific winner, but has a super-solid Grand Tour record, including a podium at the 2023 Giro. Those five represent the team’s stage racing core, and when you add in Brandon McNulty and now Pavel Sivakov, it’s a strong arsenal.

The team’s second tier of leaders can also be relied upon, as we saw in 2023. Marc Hirschi was deployed across the lower-level calendar - particularly the hilly one-dayers to great points-scoring effect. Like Hirschi, Tim Wellens is another rider who can chip in with quality on a number of terrains

Sprinting is arguably the weakest arm of the team, especially with the departure of Pascal Ackermann, but Juan Sebastián Molano is reliable for a handful of decent wins.

UAE Team Emirates’ next breakout rider

Take your pick. UAE Team Emirates, whose sporting manager Joxean Fernández Matxín used to be a scout, have been a leading player in the youth market that’s exploded in recent years, and they’ve added four more riders 20 or under for 2024.

You could make a case for the two arrivals from Axeon Hagens Berman – Christen and Morgado – but Isaac del Toro announced himself as a future star with his Tour de l’Avenir victory. He previously placed 10th at the pro-level Sibiu Tour, then third at the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, before it all came together at l’Avenir, over no fewer than eight stages. He won the mammoth high-altitude finish on the Col de la Loze then placed second or third on the remaining mountain stages, including an uphill time trial.

He is clearly an outstanding climber, and it’s worth noting he got the better of some riders who are already riding at WorldTour level, such as Matthew Riccitello, who rode the Giro d’Italia in 2023 before the Tour de l’Avenir. But there’s also a sense that Del Toro is an unpolished diamond. Hailing from Mexico, he’s not had the easiest path into pro cycling, and he has had to leave home and move continents from an early age.

Consistency could be the first thing to establish in a first pro season, but who would rule out the odd flash of brilliance?

What do you think about UAE Team Emirates’ 2023 season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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