It’s symptomatic of the rapidly expanding Women’s World Tour calendar that February was barely a week old and already the second stage race of the season launched last week, as the first ever Women’s UAE Tour unfolded in the desert sandscapes of the Middle East.
Over four stages – three flat and one hilly GC stage – the women’s peloton tested their legs in competition, many of them for the first time this season. It was a chance to see a number of riders on show for new teams following the off-season transfer shuffle: Lorena Wiebes and Barbara Guarischi for SD Worx, Liane Lippert for Movistar, Gaia Realini for Trek-Segafredo and Audrey Cordon Ragot for Zaaf Cycling were among the women fresh from the transfer merry-go-round to pull out strong performance for new teams across the four days of racing, but they all had to have their wits about them under stressful conditions.
Anxiety and echelons
Early-season nerves are a permanent fixture in the peloton and the inaugural women’s UAE Tour was no exception, with a twitchy peloton especially susceptible to splits and crashes, with tensions running high throughout the four stages. This collective anxiety is inevitably exacerbated by crosswinds, and the wide open spaces of the desert races offer these in abundance.
With little shelter and wide roads leaving nowhere to hide, the riders had to be on high alert throughout the race, and the formation of echelons had a real impact on the outcome of the race, with GC favourites left floundering on the wrong side of splits, and lapses of concentration leading to crashes on a number of occasions.
The student defeats the master
It’s a tale as old as time: the apprentice rising above the teacher to eventually defeat them. OK, it’s possibly slightly hyperbolic in the case of Team DSM’s Charlotte Kool and her former team mate, European champion Lorena Wiebes, bearing in mind both women are 23-years-old, and there was no real suggestion that Charlotte Kool was unhappy with her lot at Team DSM. She rode as the main lead-out in support of Wiebes for the past couple of years, including last season which saw Wiebes ascend to the winningest rider of the women’s peloton.
Kool beat former teammate Wiebes on stages one and four
Nevertheless, there was something poetic about the outcome of stage one, a sprint finish widely expected to be an easy win for Wiebes. It was Kool’s very first opportunity to get one over on her former team mate, and get one over she did, proving her mettle in difficult conditions, riding into a headwind and with chaos at every turn. Kool kept her head, and her cool, and with her Team DSM lead-out train absolutely on point to deliver her to the final she proved too much for Wiebes, storming clear of her for an historic victory.
The race has served as a prologue for a rivalry that promises some feisty battles to come. Kool lost out to Wiebes at the second time of asking, despite another clinically executed lead-out, but rode with supreme tactical nous on the final stage, positioning herself perfectly to freelance her way to a second victory to make it two-one in a series that will run and run this season.
However, after coming second on stage one, Wiebes was more determined than ever to beat Kool on stage two
Despite a strong performance in the Tour Down Under, the French side struggled in the UAE, despite the return of one of the revelations of the 2022 season, Marta Cavalli. The team suffered in the relentless crosswinds, missing the split when it mattered to rule themselves out of the general classification battle, with Cavalli’s positioning coming under scrutiny as she found herself adrift at the worst possible moment. In a season where they have openly expressed their desire as a team to challenge Annemiek van Vleuten in her final competitive run-out, FDJ will have to regroup and come back stronger in the Spring.
Cavalli during stage three
The UAE Tour featured just one day for the climbers to stretch their legs, and as such, this stage would necessarily decide the general classification. It was the always assured American side Trek-Segafredo with veteran GC superstar Elisa Longo Borghini at the helm who drove the pace on stage three, putting the likes of FDJ and Movistar under pressure in the crosswinds and forcing the splits that would see them isolate their rivals and put themselves in the driving seat for the climb of Jebel Hafeet.
It was a one-two finish for Trek-Segafredo as Longo Borghini and Realini cross the finish line together on top of Jebel Hafeet
By the beginning of the climb, Longo Borghini had broken away from the rest of the bunch with new team mate and climbing domestique extraordinaire Gaia Realini in tow. The two of them partnered their way up the climb to secure both the stage win and all but guarantee the GC in the process. It seemed a shame for Realini not to take the stage after all her hard work but with just one GC day and only four stages Longo Borghini was advised to take the win by her team car, but rest assured we will see big things from the diminutive Italian climber in the coming seasons.
German champion Liane Lippert is another rider to shine after a move away from Team DSM, and she rode intelligently for her new team Movistar, making the most of her opportunities and her versatility as a rider to maximise her chances on GC. She rode smart at intermediate sprints, using her speed to beat a sprinting Chiara Consonni for the bonus seconds on stage two, and she animated the race on the final stage, attacking off the front of the bunch to string out the peloton and put pressure on Trek and Longo Borghini, an unexpected and exciting move that had viewers holding their breath to see if the elastic would snap.
Lippert with teammate Emma Cecilie Norsgaard Bjerg on stage four
Although Lippert was caught on the wrong side of the splits on stage three, she didn’t capitulate, attempting to limit her losses and managing to finish in the top ten on GC despite losing over two minutes to her Italian rival. In line to step up to be Movistar’s primary leader in the wake of Van Vleuten’s retirement at the end of this season, Lippert is already showing why the Spanish team have put their faith in her as a GC contender.