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

We spoke to Jay Vine, Mauro Gianetti, Mikkel Bjerg, Ben O'Connor and the stage and overall winner, Lennert Van Eetvelt, moments after the Jebel Hafeet finale

Clock08:28, Monday 26th February 2024
Lennert Van Eetvelt was beyond ecstatic after a surprising victory on the grandest stage


Lennert Van Eetvelt was beyond ecstatic after a surprising victory on the grandest stage

As the peloton hit the lower slopes of Jebel Hafeet on Sunday afternoon, the seventh and final stage of the UAE Tour looked all set to see UAE Team Emirates and Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale do battle in a seismic showdown.

The former had the race lead with Jay Vine, an able deputy in Brandon McNulty and a domestique-deluxe in Mikkel Bjerg to seal the team classification. The latter, meanwhile, had enjoyed one of their strongest performances in years and had Ben O'Connor within touching distance of the red jersey.

Just a few kilometres later, however, the race had been turned on its head as McNulty was spat out of the back of the peloton in unceremonious fashion, swiftly followed by Vine.

Beginning the stage with an 11-second advantage and two riders on the overall podium, UAE Team Emirates and their many home supporters - many of whom had ridden the climb with team principal Mauro Gianetti earlier in the day - were left dismayed as their GC ambitions lay in tatters.

It was not to be the only surprise of the day, with an unexpected young force upsetting the Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale applecart further up the 11km-long climb.

With McNulty and Vine put to the sword, Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale looked well set to land O'Connor into the red jersey at the final opportunity. But from the middle of the pack emerged Lotto Dstny's Lennert Van Eetvelt with 2km to ride, propelling himself up the road in what proved to be a stage-winning attack.

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

Not only that, but the Belgian produced an unlikely coup d'état in the overall standings, taking 22 seconds over the line, which along with bonus seconds and the third-place finish from O'Connor, was enough to see the 22-year-old leap from ninth to first place overall.

As Van Eetvelt fell into the celebratory arms of a team soigneur beyond the line, a deflated O'Connor slumped to the ground a ragged mess and the UAE Team Emirates riders rolled to their minibus each carrying a thousand-yard stare.

Each team and each protagonist involved had a tale to tell from the most dramatic UAE Tour final day we have seen in years. Some were ecstatic, some were bittersweet and some were downright disconsolate.

Speaking with GCN in the immediate aftermath of stage 7, Lennert Van Eetvelt recounted the finest day of his fledgling career, Ben O'Connor rued an opportunity missed and UAE Team Emirates pieced together the moments of their downfall between Mauro Gianetti, Mikkel Bjerg and Jay Vine.

This is the story of how the UAE Tour was won and lost.

UAE Team Emirates suffer a day to forget

There is no question that the race was UAE Team Emirates’ to lose at the start of stage 7, with red jersey Jay Vine saying as much to GCN on Saturday evening.

“As long as I keep McNulty's wheel right in front of mine, I should win the overall,” were the Australian’s bullish words.

Had he heeded his own advice, Vine would have been distanced with more than 9km to the summit of Jebel Hafeet, with Brandon McNulty faltering in spectacular fashion on the lower slopes. Eventually rolling over the line more than 20 minutes down, it was clear that something had been badly wrong with the American, which didn’t come as a great surprise to his team.

“With Brandon, we knew from the beginning that he was not good because the day before he was not feeling super super,” team principal Gianetti told GCN. The same explanation could not hold for Vine, however.

“But with Jay, he was good but you know that when you are in the middle of the peloton, you feel good, but then you have the feeling when you start to climb. This is also the first race for Jay and probably he missed a lot of volume because he was also a long time without training in the winter because of an injury.”

Gianetti added that the team doctor would follow up with both McNulty and Vine to try and ascertain a full explanation for what went wrong. The Swiss team boss was not the only man who felt confusion and disappointment after the finish, with domestique-deluxe Bjerg visibly upset.

Taking a moment to cool down with a quick spin before speaking to GCN, it was evident that Bjerg felt a little bewildered by the events of Jebel Hafeet, having not been informed of his leaders’ plight. Instead, he wasted valuable energy tapping out a pace at 500 watts on the front of the peloton and left himself needlessly exposed to attacks later up the climb.

“It was really hard with a headwind. As soon as I lost contact with the group, I thought maybe it was better to keep my own pace but I think maybe I should have just pushed a little bit more and then I could have stayed in the wheels a bit better,” he said.

As for the former race leader, it would take some time for the Australian Vine to reflect on the day’s proceedings. Naturally disappointed with the stage, Vine took solace in the team minibus, a lengthy phone call and what can only be described as a gigantic burger. Only 24 hours earlier, the 28-year-old had explained to GCN that stage 7 would see him burn approximately 4,000 calories, but as the echelons tore through the peloton on the final day, Vine was cooked.

“It's just this stage normally without the crosswinds, you arrive with 1,500 calories burned, an easy day and just do a TT effort. Today, it was much much harder and I just don't have the legs at the moment,” he told GCN.

“When they first pushed on, that's when I felt it. Annoyingly if I'd probably had a slightly easier ride for maybe five/six minutes in the crosswinds, I might have been able to hang on until the steep section with 3km to go, but I still probably would have got dropped there anyway and maybe cramped. I did the best I could, I'm really happy with my ride,” he added.

It had been a chastening day for the Australian, but he insisted that the race had been a positive experience, having worn the red leader’s jersey for four days and finally overcome a quads strain - described by Gianetti to Rouleur as tendonitis - that had hampered his winter preparation.

“I'm supposed to be the sane one right now, because my wife is pregnant! She has been having to do double duty, looking after two babies at the moment,” he chuckled. “It has been incredibly frustrating but the team has an incredible group of support staff.”

Ben O’Connor falls agonisingly short of first WorldTour GC win

Beginning the stage as the biggest challengers to UAE Team Emirates’ seemingly vice-like grip on the red leader’s jersey, there was an air of determination around the Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale gazebo on the morning of the race. Sports director Sébastien Joly held a 20-minute briefing with his riders to make everybody’s roles clear, in fact.

Read more: Ben O’Connor considers contract options: 'I think you have to be open-minded'

It was an action plan that looked to be paying off for team leader and second overall, Ben O’Connor. In the crosswinds that left Vine feeling worse for wear, O’Connor was guided admirably into a favourable position by his inexperienced but plucky group of climbers. Lotto Dstny’s Lennert Van Eetvelt, meanwhile, starting the day in ninth position and 26 seconds behind O’Connor, was marooned in the second echelon, making his eventual victory all the more impressive.

“It's just a bit shit,” O’Connor sighed to GCN. “We all knew how hard it was going to be in the winds and you never freewheel. You always make sure you are on the pedals and that's why I think for Van Eetvelt to get away there so strongly, was super impressive because we were all pretty fucked, if you're going to put it frankly.

“He managed to stay away and none of us could really keep riding, because we were all so on the limit, you couldn't really keep it up.”

With 2km to go, after closing down a few attacks from birthday boy Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) and stage winner last year, Einer Rubio (Movistar), O’Connor could only watch in dismay as Van Eetvelt launched up the road. The Belgian youngster would not be seen again by the Australian, whose fortunes would go from bad to worse as the finish line came into view.

He was not to know it, but Van Eetvelt had finished 22 seconds ahead of the next group of riders, meaning that for O’Connor to take the overall win, he would need to nab six bonus seconds as the second-placed finisher on Jebel Hafeet. Eventually out-sprinted by Bilbao and reduced to four bonus seconds as third-place over the line, the Australian lost the 2024 UAE Tour by two seconds.

Characteristically chipper and engaging, O’Connor spoke to a delighted member of the UAE’s Australian Embassy as he changed into his casual attire at the team minibus, but the 28-year-old’s disappointment could not be hidden, having missed out on a shot at his first WorldTour GC victory.

“We were trying to control on the climb so that I could get up as far as I could without too much reactivity. In the end, it just didn't work out. The missing puzzle was me, I wasn't as good as I was hoping today and I'm just a bit sad about that.

“I'm proud of all the boys today and it was just me who let the whole thing down in the end.”

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

Nevertheless, O’Connor has been one of the best riders in the world in the opening two months of the campaign, and simply missed out to the stronger rider in the end on Jebel Hafeet.

Time trial training and breakaway bravery deliver Lennert Van Eetvelt to UAE Tour title

Given the calibre of talent above him in the general classification heading into stage 7, few would have given Lennert Van Eetvelt a sniff at claiming the overall title. But he would turn the race on its head in the upper reaches of Jebel Hafeet.

In truth, though, as impressive as his stage and race-winning attack proved to be, the seeds to Van Eetvelt’s victory were sewn days and weeks before Sunday’s stage. A former national time trial champion as an U23, the Belgian was quick to note that his ambitions for a top-five finish before the race had left him desperately in need of finding the TT form that had since deserted him.

“I trained so much on it over the last couple of weeks and I really hated it, I hated every second of training on my time trial bike,” he said to GCN after having completed anti-doping protocols on Sunday evening.

“I was really happy after it because although I knew I lost quite a bit of time, it was an improvement from last year.”

Ending the stage 2 time trial a commendable 31st place, but 43 seconds down on stage winner McNulty, the Belgian climber knew that every second would count between there and the end of the race some five days later. What he perhaps didn’t know, however, was how important a daring breakaway venture would prove on stage 5.

To the surprise of pretty much all onlookers, Van Eetvelt gallivanted up the road in a three-man breakaway between Al Aqah and Umm Al Quwain. For his Lotto Dstny teammate Harm Vanhoucke to be there was expected, given his ownership of the black points jersey, but Van Eetvelt raised eyebrows when he nabbed six bonus seconds at an intermediate sprint before taking his leave from the front of the race.

Sharing a broad smile in discussion with GCN, Van Eetvelt explained the move that proved decisive in his victory over O’Connor.

“The day before it was really easy and I am a guy who really needs a lot of hard training and a lot of hours with a lot of power to be good. Even on normal days, I would do seven hours two days before the race just to be better,” he noted.

“So I thought 'this is two days before the race, maybe I can just train,' and then I thought to take some seconds also, 'it can never be bad, you never know,' and it turned out quite good actually - so it's just amazing!”

With a pseudo-training day in his legs, Van Eetvelt made it count on Jebel Hafeet, attacking with vigour and not glancing back as his rivals could not help but look at one another. Just like his entry into the stage 5 breakaway, his move was instinctive, enthusiastic and ultimately, effective. Rolling over the line the conqueror of the Queen stage, Van Eetvelt had produced a masterstroke to win the 2024 UAE Tour.

“At the start of the climb, I thought maybe my legs were not perfect, maybe I wasted too much in the echelons, but then in my opinion we were riding really slow and then at 2km to go I just thought, 'fuck it, let's go, why not?’”

Why not indeed? That is how the UAE Tour was won and lost.

For all the important information about the 2024 UAE Tour, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub for our full preview, the race startlist and much more.

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