After last month's Tour Down Under, the men's WorldTour series picks back up on Sunday in the Middle East with the seven-day UAE Tour.
The status of the race as part of the top-level series, with a premium offer of ranking points, has ensured a star-studded field, with a wealth of big names from sprinters to Grand Tour riders.
Ahead of the race, we've picked out five riders that are worth keeping an eye on. These aren't necessarily the big pre-race favourites - although one certainly is - but rather riders with interesting storylines, who could spring a surprise, or who have a point to prove.
Alberto Dainese (Team Sunweb)
So many of the world’s top sprinters are at this year’s UAE Tour that they almost cancel each other out. Caleb Ewan, Pascal Ackermann, Sam Bennett, Dylan Groenewegen and Fernando Gaviria are all lightning quick and accomplished enough that a win or two in the desert won’t really alter their stature.
However, that’s not the case for a number of other sprinters in the field. Mark Cavendish - although the most decorated of the bunch - will have to show something of his old self if he is to start justifying the idea of a Tour de France spot, but for Alberto Dainese the race holds a completely different meaning.
Still just 21 years old, the Italian was one of the most sought-after riders during last year’s transfer market before Sunweb snaffled him up on a two-year deal from the highly-rated SEG Academy. A European U23 road race champion, he spearheads a fresh class of talent that’s emerging at Sunweb, and while one theory would suggest that he should be eased into WorldTour racing, his team are obviously confident enough to throw him into the deep end. What’s more, he’s thriving.
At the Tour Down Under, he picked up two top-10 placings, while he followed that up with third behind Bennett and Giacomo Nizzolo at Race Torquay. His maiden 2020 win came just a week later at the Herald Sun Tour, and although the opposition at the UAE Tour will be far tougher, Dainese is worthy of a watch. We’re not putting pressure on him and insisting he should win against the likes of Ewan and Bennett, but it will be fascinating to see the young sprinter in action as he links up with another young rider in Max Kanter to at least take them on.
James Knox (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
James Knox is basing the first half of his season around the Giro d’Italia and, after an impressive Vuelta a España in 2019, the British climber could certainly be a factor come May. Between now and then, the 24-year-old has a number of opportunities to impress his team and solidify himself as a GC rider.
After placing eighth in the UAE Tour last year, and 13th in Valenciana a few weeks ago, Knox heads to the Middle East as a genuine threat for the overall. The majority of his teammates will be centered around Bennett in the sprints but Patrick Lefevere has afforded Knox help in the form of Mattia Cattaneo, and the valuable experience that comes in the form of Pieter Serry.
There are stronger climbers than Knox in the race, and certainly more experienced winners, like Alejandro Valverde and Tadej Pogocar, but if Knox can press home anything it will be that he’s demonstrating one of the most important attributes of all for a young rider: progression.
Alexey Lutsenko (Astana)
Lutsenko’s career palmarès is nothing if not eclectic, with overall wins in Oman, Hainan, Norway, and Almaty - all of which sit wedged between his Vuelta stage win and a U23 rainbow jersey. With the Tour of Oman cancelled this year, Lutsenko finds himself on the lookout for a new Middle Eastern race to conquer, and this year’s UAE Tour looks ideally suited to the Astana rider.
There are three stages in which he can put time into several key riders, with power-style climbs set to decide the overall race. Lutsenko might not be the most obvious of GC contenders, but his palmarès provides evidence to suggest that the 27-year-old can match the very best over the coming week. He is, if anything, an expert in peaking when everyone else around him is still at 80-90 per cent.
Recent form comes in the shape of a consistent third place on GC in the Tour de la Provence, while Astana line up with one of the most powerful squads in the race.
Chris Froome (Team Ineos)
It’s been more than 250 days since Chris Froome last raced and a lot has happened in that time; his teammate Egan Bernal has won a maiden Tour de France; Jumbo-Visma built a GC super team; and, more importantly, the world of cycling has moved on. No matter who you are, and how glorified your reputation, the peloton waits for no man or woman.
This race will not mean a great deal come July when Froome is hoping to win a fifth Tour de France title, but UAE is significant enough because it’s the first time the Ineos rider will have been properly tested since last June.
There should be no doubts over his mental resilience but the sheer time off the bike, his age, and his rehab leave so many questions that have yet to be answered. This race is unlikely to provide all the necessary observations but it’s one piece in the puzzle as to whether the 34-year-old can ever return to his former level.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
Our provisional list had the much-fancied David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) penciled in for the fifth and final spot. After all, the young Frenchman was third here last year, fifth in Romandie, and 13th in last year’s Tour de France. A former winner in l’Avenir, he is seen as France’s next hope but needs must, and Pogačar’s increasingly jaw-dropping progression makes him the complete outright favourite for this year’s UAE Tour.
Two stages and the overall in Valenciana earlier this month raised the curtain on the 21-year-old’s season but his record in one-week races over the last 12 months has almost been on par with his compatriot Primož Roglič. With no team time trial in the race this year, the route is tailor-made for a rider of Pogačar’s skillset, with punchy climbs set to determine the overall title.
With Ulissi and Formolo to support the Slovenian, the smart money is on Pogačar repeating Roglič’s 2019 triumph and taking his second overall win of the season.