The Road Book presents “The Red Line”: An alternative to a simple race report, bringing you regular impressions and musings to complement the racing calendar.
First thought: bike races may go on for hours, but they are decided in a flash. Blink, and you miss it.
Example: km 0. There was more action in the first 250 yards of the 2021 UAE Tour that in many an entire sprint stage of a Grand Tour. In strong sidewinds, the peloton fractured into echelons (four five, six? It was never entirely clear) and the leaders stayed away for about 30 km before it all came together again, 176 km being too far for a group of 25 to hold off the rest of the peloton.
Before the first intermediate sprint, with 112.5 km to go, the peloton changed direction into vicious cross-headwinds. The crucial moment was captured in a 1min 30sec video clip that did the rounds on the social media. It showed a compact group approaching the intermediate sprint line, with Caleb Ewan and Pascal Ackermann deep in conversation at the back, uninterested in the sprint. Meanwhile, Michael Mørkøv led out João Almeida, who took max. sprint points. Then, instead of relaxing, the leading handful of riders pressed on. Suddenly, we were looking at an aerial shot of the peloton shredded into groups of 20 and 30 and, this time, there was no way back.
Second thought: when you’re sharp, you’re sharp, when you’re not, you’re not. By which I mean, the first echelon consisted in great part the same riders who were up there the first time: Adam Yates, Almeida and a handful of Deceunincks, Neilson Powless, Mathieu Van Der Poel, Tadej Pogaçar and Fernando Gaviria. The guys who were plugged in first time round, were still plugged in.
Third thought, part 1: the stage winner Mathieu Van Der Poel is a phenomenon. He walked past me and across the sandy car park, and couldn’t resist hopping on his bike to ride the last 10 metres of sand before reaching the team car. Third thought, part 2: 23 year old David Dekker, second in the stage – and second in stage 4, and 4th in stage 5, is another. He’s stepped into Dylan Groenewegen’s shoes during the Dutchman’s suspension, and filled them with some aplomb. Opportunities can be few and far between in this sport. Sneaker Dave (apparently he collects basketball shoes) grabbed his with both hands.
Stage two was a 13.5 km time trial. Look at the ages of the first few riders: Ganna, 24; Bissegger, Bjerg and Pogačar, 22; Luís León Sánchez, 37; Almeida, also 22; then De Bod and Martínez, 24. Two considerations: first, there is no denying that the Egans, Pogs and Remcos are mould-breakers. Second, it is clear as day that the rise of the New Humans is not limited to a handful of physical outliers. When Remco is 24, there are going to be cohorts of 17 year old world-beaters coming through. Put simply, it doesn’t end here.
Stage three was the climb to Jebel Hafeet. Adam Yates posted repeated accelerations. Pogaçar sat on his wheel, looking like a man who could deep as far as he needed, and infinitely further, if need be. It is obviously insanely premature to say he has to be the outstanding favourite to win the Tour de France on the basis of one climb at the UAE Tour in February, but it would equally well be cowardly not to draw such a conclusion when it imposes itself so forcefully on you. No flash in the pan, he.
Moving on; we’ve got used to saying that their are six, eight, ten top sprinters, all virtually indistinguishable in their abilities. Well, it’s only the first WorldTour race of the season, but Sam Bennett is head and shoulders above the rest. In stages four and stage six he found a gap, darted though it, then forced the pedals through two or three massive turns à la Cavendish and powered away to win. That said, of course, he is part of a finely tuned mechanism, and has at his disposal the brilliant Dane Michael Mørkøv – not for nothing half of the reigning World champion Madison pair – third in stage one, after riding for Almeida, then reverting to his role as best lead-out rider in the world.
At the same time, his acceleration abandoned him in stage 7: or rather, the sweet spot he hit in stages 4 and 6 was hit by Caleb Ewan in stage 7, at the end of a complex and fascinating sprint. You could pick the bones out of the aerial shots of hours.
Between the big sprints, history repeated itself, in its own convoluted way. At the 2019 Tour of Oman, : Fabien Grellier was cruelly caught and passed in the last 100 meters by Alexey Lutsenko. On stage 5 of the 2021 UAE Tour, Alexey Lutsenko was caught and passed at the last gasp by the outstanding 24 year old, Jonas Vingegaard, from Denmark.
In short: the first WorldTour race of the year had seven compelling stage finishes, seven world-beating stage winners and a top 6 in GC who included a 20 year old (Skjelmose), two 22 year olds (Pogačar and Almeida), and 24 year old Neilson Powless.