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This week's UAE Tour may have featured just two hills, but Chris Froome has left himself a mountain to climb if he is to win a record-equalling fifth Tour de France, which starts under four months from now on June 26.
Following a winter of training in California — along with a continued period of rehabilitation after his career-threatening crash in June 2019 — Froome made all the right noises ahead of the race. When it mattered, though, his legs failed to deliver. Making his Israel Start-up Nation debut the seven-time grand tour winner looked a shadow of his former self.
After stage one, when the crosswinds wreaked havoc, Froome was on the back foot. Although he was not alone in missing the crucial split — sprinters Sam Bennett and Caleb Ewan who were targeting the stage were also caught out — it appeared an omen of things to come. In fact, Froome who was signed to Israel Start-up Nation in order to lead their Tour de France challenge, lost time on each of the seven stages.
Even the most ardent Froome fanatics will have been concerned following stage two, the 13-kilometre time trial, where he finished 1min 12sec behind reigning Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar. On this form Froome could quite feasibly lose as much as five minutes to Pogacar at the Tour de France, which this year includes 58km in time trials. On the two climbs featured at the UAE Tour — Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais — Froome lost a further 6min 39sec to Pogacar. These are not margins that Froome needs to close, but chasms.
When Froome returned from that career-threatening crash at last year's UAE Tour few expected him to challenge, and he did not, finishing in 71st place, 19min 45sec off the pace in the truncated race. A year later he was 22min behind Pogacar (16min 38sec after five stages).
However determined he is to make an assault for a fifth maillot jaune, as things stand Froome simply cannot compete with Pogacar. Following the emergence of the young Slovenian at the Vuelta a España in 2019 the trajectories of the two riders' careers have been diametrically opposed. Along with Pogacar, Froome must also catch up with Primoz Roglic, Mikel Landa and Enric Mas. And then there are his former team-mates from Ineos Grenadiers, Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richard Carapaz. The odds are stacked against him.
During the mountainous fifth stage when Froome was working, quite selflessly, on behalf of team-mate Ben Hermans he was dropped 3.7km from the summit. Alone, Froome drifted off the back with only the television cameras for company. Though smiling and waving to the viewers, that must surely have hurt the seven-time grand tour winner. Not only did he lose contact with the main protagonists in the general classification race, but their mountain domestiques too.
Davide Formolo and Rafal Majka finished almost 10min ahead of Froome on general classification. In fact, other than sprinter Fernando Gaviria and his lead-out man, Pogacar's entire team finished ahead of Froome.
By whatever metric you want to use, Froome appears beyond his best. Win a record-equalling fifth Tour de France? Not a chance. On this form, the rider that many consider the greatest grand tour rider of a generation may struggle even to break into the top 50 in July.
Stage seven: Pogacar seals UAE Tour as Ewan finally wins
Saturday February 27 — Yas Mall to Abu Dhabi Breakwater, 147km
Tadej Pogacar secured overall victory at the UAE Tour on Saturday after completing the seven-day race 35sec faster than Adam Yates, while Joao Almeida finished a further 27sec down in third on general classification.
Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) had led the race since stage two after Mathieu van der Poel was forced to abandon because a team member returned a positive test for coronavirus, and the Slovenian never looked likely to lose his leader's red jersey. He won the first mountain-top finish of the race ahead of Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) and was second in the other.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), meanwhile, took his first win of the season on Saturday beating Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick Step) to the line, with Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious) taking third. David Dekker (Jumbo-Visma) sealed the points classification having impressed with two runners-up spots.
Stage six: Bennett wins again as Pogacar is penalised
Friday February 26 — Deira Island to Palm Jumeirah, 168km
Sam Bennett took his second win in three days at the UAE Tour after he outsprinted Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann to the line at the end of the 168-kilometre sixth and penultimate stage in Palm Jumeirah.
Benefiting from some excellent work from lead-out man Michael Morkov (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Bennett was able to sit in the wheels waiting until 150 metres before poking his nose into the wind when the Irishman proved too strong for Viviani (Cofidis) and Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Despite finishing safely in the bunch alongside Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) and Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step), race leader Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) lost 10 seconds on general classification after UCI commissaires ruled that team-mate Jan Polanc had given him a push. Pogacar, however, appears poised to win the opening WorldTour race of the season on Saturday, the Slovenian taking a 35sec lead over Briton Yates, while the Portuguese Almeida is another 27sec down.
Chris Froome (Israel Start-up Nation) lost a further 2min 27sec and dropped one place to 41st. The Briton trails Pogacar by 18min 55sec.
Stage five: Vingegaard takes win as Pogacar extends lead
Thursday February 25 — Fujairah Marine Club to Jebel Jais, 170km
Jonas Vingegaard took only the second win of his career on Thursday when he caught breakaway rider Alexey Lutsenko just 250 metres from the line before he rolled over the line punching the air in celebration.
Lutsenko (Astana-Premier Tech) was the last man standing from a nine-man breakaway and though he looked strong, with UAE Team Emirates and Ineos Grenadiers looming the Kazakh national champion always looked doomed. While race leader Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) watched each other, Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) took advantage and slipped away to take the stage.
For the second time in three days, Pogacar got the better of Yates on a summit finish and outsprinted the Briton to take second place along with a 6sec time bonus, while the Ineos Grenadiers debutant was third and picked up a 3sec bonus. Pogacar increased his overall lead on Yates to 45sec and will, barring disaster, secure the UAE Tour when the race concludes on Sunday following two more stages that favour the sprinters.
It was another disappointing day for Chris Froome who was dropped 3.7km from the line, though the Briton was able to give the television cameras a brief smile and wave as they passed by. After working for his Israel Start-up Nation team-mate Ben Hermans, who finished the stage in ninth place and is fourth on general classification, Froome lost 1min 39sec to Pogacar and trails the Slovenian by 16min 38sec with two days to go.
Stage four: Bennett takes victory after outmuscling rivals
Wednesday February 24 — Al Marjan Island to Al Marjan Island, 204km
Sam Bennett took his first win of the season on Wednesday when the Irishman outsprinted David Dekker and Caleb Ewan in a frenetic finale to the 204-kilometre fourth stage at the UAE Tour.
After a two-man breakaway featuring François Bidard (Ag2r-Citroën) and Olivier Le Gac (Groupama-FDJ) was reined in around 30km to the line the peloton appeared relaxed as it swept along the wide roads on Al Marjan Island. However, after Israel Start-up Nation put two riders on the front, along with their veteran sprinter André Greipel, the bunch started to fray.
Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) was the first big-name sprinter to show his cards, but the German faded before Bennett was delivered to the line by Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mate Michael Morkov. Dekker (Jumbo-Visma) again impressed following his runners-up spot in stage one, while Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) had to settle for third after team-mate Thomas De Gendt had worked tirelessly on the front throughout the day.
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) finished safely in the bunch and will take a 43sec lead into Thursday's fifth stage, with Briton Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) in second place while the young Portuguese Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step) will start in third. Chris Froome (Israel Start-up Nation), meanwhile, moved up one place on the general classification to 43rd, but remains 14min 53sec adrift Slovenia's Pogacar.
Stage three: Pogacar pounces to extend his overall lead
Tuesday February 23 — Strata Manufactoring to Jebel Hafeet, 166km
Tadej Pogacar extended his lead at the UAE Tour on Tuesday after the reigning Tour de France champion pounced to beat Adam Yates and win stage three on the first of two summit finishes in the seven-day race.
After a two-man breakaway featuring Tony Gallopin (Ag2r-Citroën) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) had been consumed by the peloton on the approach to the Jebel Hafeet climb, Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) sat patiently before making his move around 5km from the summit.
Marked by Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) and Pogacer (UAE Team Emirates), the Briton led the way though was unable to shake off Pogacar who sat on his wheel until around 500 metres out before jumping the Ineos Grenadiers debutant. Yates's runner-up spot propelled him to second on general classification, 43sec behind Pogacar, while Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step) dropped down to third just over a minute down.
In scenes reminiscent to last year's race when he was returning from a career-threatening injury, Chris Froome (Israel Start-up Nation) rode towards the rear of main bunch on the only significant climb of the day. Although he climbed 44 places on general classification, the Briton lost 5min to Pogacar who he now trails by almost a quarter of an hour.
Stage two: Ganna wins again after Van der Poel abandons
Monday February 22 — Al Hudayriat Island, 13km (time trial)
Filippo Ganna's blistering start to the season continued on stage two at the UAE Tour as the world time trial champion took his third win of 2021 following his two victories at Etoile de Bessèges earlier in the month.
Ganna's (Ineos Grendiers) win on the panflat course in the desert — finishing 14sec ahead of Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo) and 21sec faster than Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Team Emirates) — came just hours after overnight leader Mathieu van der Poel was forced to abandon after a staff member of his Alpecin-Fenix team had tested positive for coronavirus.
Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) became the new race leader after finishing fourth on the day, the Slovenian taking a 5sec lead into the third stage ahead of Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step) with Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma) in third at 33sec. Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) moved up to fifth on general classification though lost 34sec to Pogacar while Chris Froome (Israel Start-up Nation) dropped three places in the overall standings and lost 1min 12sec on the new race leader.
Stage one: Van der Poel blows away rivals to take early lead
Sunday February 21 — Al Yash to Al Mirfa, 177km
Mathieu van der Poel powered into an early lead at the UAE Tour after the Dutchman won a sprint finish at the end of an opening stag that was blown apart by vicious crosswinds. The Alpecin-Fenix rider beat compatriot David Dekker (Jumbo-Visma) with relative ease, while Deceuninck-Quick Step leadout man Michael Morkov took third.
Although he also beat Elia Viviani (Cofidis), who was competing in his first race since undergoing a heart operation, Van der Poel went largely untested after a number of the top sprinters — Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick Step) and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) — were caught out by the crosswinds. It was not only the sprinters that were hampered by the echelons that formed in the flat and fast stage. Chris Froome, making his debut for Israel Start-up Nation, finished over eight minutes down on Van der Poel while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Victorious) and Ivan Sosa (Ineos Grenadiers) also paid the price for missing the early split.
Adam Yates, the defending champion who was making his Ineos Grenadiers debut, made it into the lead bunch before the Briton finally finished alongside Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step), just 3sec behind pre-race favourite Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).