The top UAE Tour riders Mark Cavendish (from left), Fernando Gaviria, Alejandro Valverde, Tom Dumoulin, Vincenzo Nibali and Elia Viviani during a press conference at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: As the sun set on the backdrop of the spectacular Louvre Abu Dhabi, some of the top cyclists of the world took centrestage ahead of the UAE Tour.

Come seven days starting Sunday, they will be riding through some of the most picturesque desert terrain and mountains to get their hands on the coveted 24kt gold-plated heptagonal trophy — depicting the unity of the seven Emirates.

Leading the star-studded line up, akin to any Grand Tour, was last year’s Abu Dhabi Tour winner and new world champion Alejandro Valverde of Movistar along with a list of overall contenders including Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb, Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain-Merida and Dan Martin of UAE Team Emirates.

Speaking about his team’s chances, Valverde said: “The race here has always been beautiful and excellent weather is guaranteed. This year, it is all the more special with the two races combined into the UAE Tour. Special attraction is the two mountain stage, Jebel Hafeet and Hatta Dam and I’m looking forward to it.”

Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner Nibali of Italy, too, was upbeat about doing well, having come straight from the training camp. “I’m in good shape and I have reacted well to training in altitude and more importantly, I have come here thinking about this race. It is a race that is on the rise and the field is great — hence I’m very much looking forward to it,” said a confident Nibali.

Image Credit: Gulf News

Dutchman Dumoulin, the individual time trial world champion in 2017, said: “I’m getting used to starting my season here. There is always some sort of a question mark on how the shape is. Wilco Kelderman and myself will race for GC and will back Max Walshcheid for the sprints.”

The star sprinters include Mark Cavendish of Dimension Data, Olympic Champion Elia Viviani of Deceuninck-QuickStep, Fernando Gaviria and Alexander Kristoff of UAE Team Emirates and Marcel Kittel of Katusha-Alpecin.

British ace Chris Froome was supposed to lead the show for Team Sky, but pulled out the last minute and the onus will now be on Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon to co-lead the side’s challenge.

Viviani has been a dominant force in this part of the world and has eight wins in the UAE. His success also includes an overall victory in Dubai Tour in 2018. It will be interesting to see if he can repeat the feat in the merged UAE Tour.

Cavendish, who has won the Dubai Tour and been the brand ambassador for the Abu Dhabi Tour, revealed that he has great memories of the place and was overwhelmed to see the event spreading to all the Emirates. “Taking the Tour to the entire country is incredible and it will be great to see all seven Emirates. See what else UAE has to offer. In terms of objective, obviously, it is a World Tour race. My team is coming here with the GC team really and obviously my job is to get them to the climbs and give my best in the sprints,” said Cavendish, who has won a record 30 stages of the Tour de France.

Viviani recalled that the Dubai Tour win was a great move forward last season and that makes it special this time round as well.

“Last year, to win, was exciting. Now the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Tour together is a more important race and you feel already that the race is not like last year. The team trial on the first day itself will put pressure on all the teams. The race has gone up with every year and presence of so many champions at the start of the season is amazing,” said the 30-year-old Italian.

UAE Team Emirates’ Fernando Gaviria with four stage wins in Giro d’Italia also has high hopes for the race in front of home fans.

“It is an important race for us as it is at home of the sponsor. We came with climbers and Kristoff and myself for sprints. The team time trial is not good for us. We will try to lose very little time on day one. We will try to win the sprints and then the GC, let’s see,” said the Colombian, who also revealed that he has fully recovered from a respiratory infection which saw him pull out of the stage 3 of the Tour Colombia 2.1 last week.

The 16-kilometre time trial course, that will create the first gap on the General Classification, starts from Abu Dhabi’s Al Hudayriat Island.