Al Dhafra Castle > Al Mirfa 151.5km
The opening stage of the race is the same as back in 2021 when the wind blew and van der Poel won a reduced sprint. The GC riders will be nervously checking the weather forecast.
It’s going to be a windy one! At around 30km/h, it’s strong enough to cause a huge number of problems for the riders, especially as it’s in the dessert. The direction of the wind will give some hope, most of the time it’s going to be a cross/headwind, and there’s a block headwind as the bunch head to the finishing town.
It will split in the wind, but will it come back together as the head north towards the finish? If it was a cross/tailwind, the race would be in pieces, but the direction of the wind could well hold things together. The riders on the road will decide, but any front split will have to work very hard to hold off the chasing peloton.
This is a test for the GC riders, QuickStep look to have a strong team for the conditions. If there are any splits, expect to see lots of Belgians up the road, UAE could well be a little worried.
Pretty standard for this part of the world. There’s a U-turn with 1.7km to go, then a fast right-hand turn with just 300 to go. You need a good position for this final turn, van der Poel knew this in 2021 and made sure he was very close to the front.
Sam Bennett – arrives with his tried and trusted sprint train of Archbold, Mullen and van Poppel. Sam got off to a good start in San Juan, winning the opening stage, but he would have liked to have picked up another win. After some struggles with form and fitness, Bennett ended last year in brilliant form, and I’m expecting him to be at his best in 2023. In such a competitive sprint field, a win would be a big boost for him.
Tim Merlier – he’s not got the same train as he had in Oman, Jordi Warlop isn’t here as the team is mainly built around Evenepoel. Merlier will still have Van Lerberghe as his final man, and it would make sense for the team to save Černy for the closing kilometres instead of using him to chase the break. Merlier’s win in Oman was impressive, his lead out train worked perfectly and he delivered an impressive 200m uphill sprint. The shorter sprint train isn’t ideal for him, but he can still win.
Dylan Groenewegen – he’s got an old-fashioned sprint train; it looks like something HTC would have had back in the day. I’m not entirely sure of their order, but I would imagine they’d have Quick, Reinders and Mezgec as the final men. On paper, they have one of the strongest sprint trains in this race, and Groenewegen started with a win in the Saudi Tour.
Caleb Ewan – this is the first time he’ll link up with Guarnieri as his final man. Now, I don’t want to sound rude or disrespectful, but I don’t see the sense in adding a 35-year-old to an already old sprint train. The Italian joins Schwarzmann (32) and Selig (33), they do have a lot of experience, but I have my concerns. We’ll also have to see where Drizners slots in, he could add some speed around position 4, but I don’t call the shots. Ewan didn’t have a great time in Australia, but a lot of that was due to a lack of support while riding for the Uni-SA team. As 2022 wasn’t a stellar year, he’ll hope for an early win in 2023.
Sam Welsford – after beating Bennett and Jakobsen in San Juan, the Aussie arrives full of confidence. If you had seen him sprint on the track in his younger days, you won’t be surprised to see him beating the fastest in the world. Now his sights will be set on his first world tour win, and I’m confident he’ll get one this week.
Phil Bauhaus – started his year with a win in Australia, it’s always welcome to get the first one out the way in January. He doesn’t have his usual sprint train to support him, but he does have some big engines and the experience of Nikias Arndt. He’s a sprinter that normally prefers a more technical finale.
Mark Cavendish – it’s the first time we’ll see Cav and Bol working together, a partnership that I like. The problem is in front of them, there is a lack of other riders to help position them in the final 3km. Bol and Cav are clever cyclists, they’ll try and identify another sprint train to sit on, and then burst to the front in the final kilometre. This is a tactic I’ve seen work before, but it requires skill and luck.
Olav Kooij – I can’t speak highly enough of this young man, what a star he’s going to be. He’s 21, but already has 15 wins to his name, including a world tour success in Poland. I was surprised that Jumbo-Visma allowed Teunissen to leave, he and Kooij were forming an excellent partnership, I was even more surprised that they didn’t sign a replacement for him. This has left Kooij without a recognised final man, something that could cost him this season. In this race he has Hessmann, Roosen and Van Der Sande to help in the closing kilometres, while this isn’t a bad sprint train, it’s not the best. A lot of pressure will be on the shoulders of Van Der Sande, a rider I have a huge amount of respect for. The team are trusting him to deliver Kooij into a good position, hopefully he can.
Gerben Thijssen – after a good year in 2022, the Belgian sprinter is back for more. The team continue to put him with Julius Johansen and Boy van Poppel, they make a strong unit. It might be a short train, but they have the experience to make it work. Don’t expect to see much of them until the final 2km, that’s when they’ll try and surge to the front.
Fernando Gaviria – started the season well in San Juan, but it’s vital he continues to build momentum. The problem is his sprint train, it doesn’t look strong enough to me.
It will split in the dessert, but it’s likely to come back together thanks to the headwind in the final 60km. The team in front for the final corner will have a big say in who wins the stage, but who’ll nail the sprint?
I’ll take a win for Sam Welsford, I like the look of his sprint train.
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