Stage 2 of the UAE Tour Women was held in the Al Dhafra Region, which makes up about of the country’s area but is very thinly inhabited and quite far from the urban centres of Dubai, Al Ain, and Abu Dhabi, which host the other three stages.
The drive to the start in Al Mirfa took about 90 minutes, and so does the drive back from Madinat Zayed that we are currently on. The sun is still shining brightly above the desert, but by the time we’re in Abu Dhabi, it will be long past sunset, and the light has made way for almost pitch-black darkness.
When we arrived at the start venue just before noon, there was a bit of wind, though nothing like the gusts at the pre-race press conference on Hudayriyat Island on Wednesday. And it looked like the wind direction was a bit too northerly to be ideal for echelons. But hope dies last, right?
While walking the team parking lot, I was invited to ride along in the Cofidis car by the team’s sports director, Arthur Quilliec – and that’s not something you say no to, least of all on a stage that might just explode into echelons in the desert. So, after completing my interviews at the start, I walked back to the French team’s camp to meet up with Arthur and the team mechanic Jérôme, my company, for the next couple of hours.
Waiting for the start, we talk about the venue – right by the sea and with various amenities, the area is nonetheless very empty, giving the feel of a recently-completed housing development that is still waiting for its residents to move in. We do pass older and more inhabited parts of Al Mirfa in the neutral zone, though, and locals were looking on outside their shops and cafés as the women’s peloton made its way through.
The neutral zone ended up being a bit longer than planned because a rider had punctured, and the race waited for her to return before the flag was waved. The rider was chasing back on the bumper of her team car that was going past the convoy in the left lane at high speed, causing Arthur to shake his head: “That is so dangerous! All you need is a car pulling left or braking suddenly, and you have a really bad crash. I wouldn’t do this, I want my riders to stay alive,” he said only half-jokingly.
This was the first of a number of punctures throughout the day. Every so often, the race radio would creak into action, announce the team in question and, if the mechanic was lucky, whether it was the front or the rear wheel that needed changing, prompting a mad dash by the…