The unravelling of UAE Team Emirates - What went wrong for the home favourites at the UAE Tour?

After looking incredibly strong on the opening stages, the week progressively got worse for UAE Team Emirates

The unusual, murky white fog that obscured the view of the desert and the stifling, heavy humidity might have been the first, ominous sign that the ultimate stage of the UAE Tour would not go entirely to script. Rumours swirled around the race start about riders fearing crosswinds on the long, wide, exposed roads on the way to the final climb of Jebel Hafeet. Some were preparing an assault in the form of echelons and others were nervous, dreading the possibility. If there was one team with heavy pressure on their shoulders on that quiet, tense morning before the stage, it was the home favourites of UAE Team Emirates.

They had set a precedent earlier in the race by sweeping the podium in the individual time trial on stage two with Brandon McNulty, Jay Vine and Mikkel Bjerg – a statement of intent from the Emirati team who had brought an incredibly strong line-up to the race. Mauro Gianetti, the team’s manager, cut a proud figure as he milled around the podium that day, shaking hands and gratefully accepting congratulations. The home fans had been treated to a show, and no doubt sponsors were happy. It was the next day, however, when things began to unravel for UAE Team Emirates.

Stage three was the first chance for Adam Yates – UAE Team Emirates’ best climber and a former winner of this race in 2020 – to make his mark on the general classification atop the steep slopes of Jebel Jais. It’s a climb that the British rider has performed well on before and he didn’t lose much ground on other GC contenders in the time trial, either, so, in theory, everything should have been in place for Yates to try and take the red leader's jersey that day.

But it was some innocuous cat-eyes studded through the centre of the road that did it. After successfully navigating the crosswinds earlier in the stage, Yates hit one with his front wheel and ultimately lost control of his bike, hitting the hot tarmac hard with just under 50 kilometres to go in the race. He rejoined the peloton for a period, but was ultimately withdrawn after he showed concussion symptoms while riding. His race was over, and there would be no victory atop Jebel Jais for the home team.

With the British rider out, UAE Team Emirates’ trump card was no longer an option, and it was down to the rest of the team to pick up the pressure to perform well on the GC. Jay Vine finished second on the Jebel Jais stage and managed to take the red jersey from McNulty, but Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale’s Ben O’Connor was breathing down his neck, only 11 seconds behind with one mountain stage left to Jebel Hafeet after three sprint days.

When the final and queen stage of the race rolled round, UAE Team Emirates spoke of simple plans: Jay Vine just needed to stick to Brandon McNulty’s wheel on the final climb and he would win the race. McNulty was one of the best climbers present and already has a win in Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana to his name this season, proving his form. Should Vine keep up with his American teammate on Jebel Hafeet’s unrelenting gradients, he would just need to finish things off when the line rolled round.

As the wind started to blow early in the stage, however, signs that something was awry already came into view.

“In the echelons, Brandon [McNulty] couldn’t work because he wasn’t feeling good and he was hoping to recover energy a little bit for the final. But immediately at the bottom of the climb, he could not. Jay also was not super from the beginning but not so bad. However, when 40 riders remained on the climb, he could not follow the pace,” a dejected Mauro Gianetti told Rouleur after the stage.

The Swiss team manager appeared genuinely confused as to why his riders had been unable to perform on Jebel Hafeet, explaining that he would speak to team doctors after the stage to try and ascertain what had gone wrong as McNulty and Vine were dropped from the group of favourites far earlier than anticipated.

“Of course, it was the goal to keep the jersey. Normally it should be quite easy, because it wasn’t a fast climb this year, it was quite a slow pace. For a guy like Brandon – we saw him win last week on a climb in Spain,” Gianetti said. “Also Jay Vine, we know how strong he is, it should be quite easy. In the end you see that nothing is done. You always need to fight until the end, we don’t know exactly what happened – especially for Brandon.

“We need to check this evening with our doctors [if there is a risk of illness in the team]. It could be two different things for Brandon and Jay. It’s just the first race for Jay and his goal was to be here working for Brandon and especially for Adam Yates, not to do the GC. Thanks to his great performance in the time trial he got the jersey and also on Jebel Jais he was amazing, but probably he still doesn’t have the base. He had a long injury this winter with tendonitis so he probably needs to set his condition up a little bit. But it's a sport, we dream to win, but it’s ok.”

As Lotto-Dstny’s Lennert Van Eetvelt took the stage win and overall general classification after a surprise attack in the closing kilometres of Jebel Hafeet, the best performing UAE Team Emirates rider on the stage ended up being Mikkel Bjerg, who had gone into the stage entirely expecting to ride for the better climbers on his team.

“When [Pello] Bilbao was in the second group in the crosswinds I went full gas for the team so he wouldn’t come back, I was a little bit empty when we arrived at the climb,” Bjerg said after the race, visibily frustrated at the outcome. “I think the pace was a little bit less because there was a headwind on the climb, so it was easier to sit on. But, yeah, I think we really missed Adam today. I trained with Adam in Sierra Nevada two weeks ago and he’s like ten times better than me, so I think today he would have been up there, definitely.”

Yates’ absence was undeniably the missing link in UAE Team Emirates’ success this week. It’s true that the British rider, if in full health, would have likely been able to stay with the likes of Van Eenvelt as he launched his winning move, which is what would have allowed the Emirati team to get the race victory they desperately wanted at one of their biggest goals of the year. As Gianetti stresses, however, elite sport always moves on and the team’s only choice is to try and refocus after this disappointment on the remainder of the season.

“We never give pressure, we are doing sport. We won so many races from the beginning of the season, we came here with such a strong team and we did nothing,” Gianetti said matter-of-factly after the stage, as grey rain clouds began to form atop Jebel Hafeet. 

“This is life, this is sport. We need to turn the page and look at the next races.”

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