‘We’ve increased our level again’ - Mauro Gianetti on UAE Team Emirates' dominance in the desert, time trial gains and challenging Visma-Lease a Bike

It’s a one, two, three for UAE in their home race - the type of result that their Swiss team manager argues is a result of big investment and hard work

As UAE Team Emirates riders warmed up on turbo trainers ahead of the second stage of the UAE Tour, Colnago’s flagship Abu Dhabi store loomed powerfully next to them, casting a shadow over the stretch of tarmac where the team cars and vans were parked. Signs advertising the UAE Tour were everywhere, while VIPs and local fans came to gawp at the home squad as they clipped their feet in the pedals and took final sips of water. The setting was a real, tangible reminder for the riders about how much this race meant to their sponsors and ominously indicated that victory today would be imperative.

The pressure on the shoulders of the Emirati squad was also noticeable in their meticulous preparation for the time trial stage. The team had specifically measured the wind direction to choose the order their riders would set off in for the most favourable conditions. As he got ready, the stage favourite Brandon McNulty was being helped into an aerodynamic undervest by two staff members who adjusted and re-adjusted until it was sitting perfectly on the American rider’s shoulders. The team’s Colnago time trial bikes glistened in the sun, so clean it was if they’d been taken straight from the shop’s display – each of them equipped with custom chainrings, custom aero extensions and unbranded deep section front wheels (no doubt chosen as a result of meticulous windtunnel testing across different manufacturers). The comparison between the UAE Team Emirates’ set-up and the equipment of some of the other team’s in the race paddock was stark.

And as the riders rolled down the start ramp one by one on Al Hudayriyat Island, and the finishing times began to trickle in, it all, unsurprisingly, began to pay off for the world’s number one ranked team. First, resplendent in the US National Champion stars and stripes, McNulty posted the fastest time of the day on the 12-kilometre course. After that, it was only his teammates that could come close. Jay Vine and Mikkel Bjerg finished within four seconds of the American rider, while Ineos Grenadiers' former world champion Tobias Foss was the best of the rest, ending up in fourth place. Notably, Foss rolled down the start ramp almost three hours later than stage winner McNulty, and by that time, the wind was blowing fiercely in the desert. As Foss rapidly lost time on the second section of the course, it seemed like a miscalculation by his team who failed to read the weather conditions like UAE Team Emirates did.Brandon McNulty wins stage two of the UAE Tour (Image: RCS)

After the stage, UAE's team principal, Mauro Gianetti, shook the hands of sponsors and basked in the praise of local fans. His team had taken a clean sweep of the podium on home turf, and, as he was keen to stress, it certainly didn’t happen by chance.

“For a few years we have been working, testing every new product, wheels, tyres, skinsuits. Every opportunity to go to the windtunnel on the track, we take it. It’s a big investment coming year by year. We saw last year we had many guys coming in the top-10 and top-15 in time trials, while only four years ago we didn’t have one rider in the top 40,” Gianetti said to Rouleur afterwards in a spare moment between accepting his congratulations. “We have good riders and time trial specialists but we invest a lot in research and development, also in specific training. It is paying off. We’re seeing an incredible result for the team.”

As cycling has developed in recent years, there is no question that time trialling is becoming somewhat of an arms race. Big sponsors mean big budgets, and big budgets mean enough money to buy and test the very best equipment. UAE Team Emirates are known to have one of the biggest money pots in the entire WorldTour – not to mention they brought an incredibly strong line-up to their home race – but Gianetti argued that it’s not just the team’s financial means that have made them successful.

“It’s not just a question of money, I think it’s about taking a good direction and investing the money well. It’s about putting it in a good structure and testing – we could use that money to waste for other things,” the Swiss former-professional said. “The most important thing is having the right people around the team and the staff who have the quality to make the right decisions after the testing. We also need good partners to do this. And also good riders, of course.”

McNulty, Bjerg and Vine are amongst the best riders in the world, but at the UAE Tour they didn’t come up against the quality of competition they will face in the Grand Tours later this season. This means that while this result can give them confidence, it doesn’t guarantee repeatability and higher stake events when the likes of Visma-Lease a Bike are present – the team which won the Vuelta a España, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France last season.

“I think Jumbo had a great season winning the three Grand Tours, from our side our goal was to win the team classification last season, because it was important for us and for this country,” Gianetti replied when asked about his view on the dominance of Jumbo-Visma in 2023. “This year it’s different because we have a stronger team and we’ve increased the level again with new riders. For me, the most important thing is to have young riders too, like [Issac] Del Toro, [Antonio] Morgado and Jan Christen to guarantee our future. We need to win the race and beat everybody, it’s not just one team. My goal is to work with our vision, goal, motivation and staff, looking to win the races overall and not to beat another team.”Mauro Gianetti with Tadej Pogačar at the end of the 2020 Tour de France (Image: Getty/Michael Steele)

Beating their rivals is one thing, but ensuring harmony within UAE Team Emirates' own ranks is also a crucial part of Gianetti’s preparation for this season. With such a plethora of talent on their roster and so many riders who have the potential to win the world’s biggest races, it’s imperative that each of UAE’s stars feels like they have the opportunities to race for themselves. With two-time winner Tadej Pogačar currently holding a monopoly on leadership at the Tour, riders like Adam Yates and McNulty need to be suitably rewarded for sacrificing their own chances at victory. 

“I think the biggest problem Richard Plugge had last year was the Vuelta,” Gianetti laughed. “The reality is we have so many races during the year, it’s important that each rider, when they come with us, they have both a space to do their own results and a period where they probably need to help the team. At the same time, they know when they have the opportunity to be a leader they will have a great team in support. Cycling gives opportunity from January to October and each rider can take their opportunity in the season. With us they know when they get that opportunity, they also get a great team helping them.”

As the UAE Tour moves to the mountain of Jebel Jais in Wednesday's third stage, and eventually to the famed Jebel Hafeet at the end of the week, UAE Team Emirates are perfectly poised after today’s time trial to take the overall general classification victory in their home race. McNulty, Vine and Bjerg sit in the top three positions on GC, while the team’s climber, Adam Yates, is only 28 seconds down the rankings – a gap easily narrowed when the roads kick up.

With so many options, the only question that really remains is which UAE Team Emirates rider will eventually stand on the top step of the podium of the UAE Tour in five days' time. Suggestions of any infighting have been quickly put to rest by the team themselves, and the general consensus is that the roads to Jebel Hafeet will decide who wins. After all, as long as it’s the Emirati team’s jersey taking victory, the sponsors are happy, the budget keeps rolling in, and Gianetti’s vision can continue to be fulfilled.

Cover image: RCS

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