All eyes were on world champion Remco Evenepoel as he returned to WorldTour racing for the first time since winning the rainbow jersey and the Vuelta a España at the end of last season. And the Belgian duly delivered, expertly navigating the disruptive crosswinds of the opening stages to move into the overall lead, and defending the red jersey comfortably on the final mountain stage.
In what was a great race for Soudal – Quick-Step all round, Tim Merlier won two sprints, and the team pulled off a narrow victory in the team time trial. In the absence of their star man and defending champion Tadej Pogačar, the home team UAE Team Emirates’ race was more of a mixed bag, but they still managed to win two stages despite not providing much of a challenge to Evenepoel’s overall title.
Although Evenepoel was hot favourite for the title, there were doubts about his form leading into the race. During his first race of the season, at Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina last month, he had made a costly mistake, overestimating his strength by attacking early on the decisive summit finish, only to pay for his effort and wind up being caught and dropped.
However, this time his tactics were on point, and he was already firmly in control of the race as early as day three.
His major coup came on the very first day of the race, when, aided by his powerful Soudal – Quick-Step team-mates Tim Merlier and Bert Van Lerberghe, he got into a 13-man group that went clear in an echelon amid windy conditions. In terms of GC rivals, this group featured only Luke Plapp (Ineos Grenadiers) and Pello Bilbao (Bahrain-Victorious), and ultimately arrived a whole 51 seconds ahead of the peloton.
That advantage of 51 seconds over most of his rivals grew even more when Soudal – Quick-Step won the team time trial the following day, and when Evenepoel took the overall lead the next by sprinting for some bonus seconds in the large group that reached the finish together on the stage three summit finish at Jebel Jais, his lead felt virtually insurmountable.
There were a few scares to come. For a brief moment about 20km from the finish during stage five he was caught on the wrong side of a split caused by the wind, but quickly recovered. Then Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates) put him under pressure with a vicious acceleration on the ascent of Jebel Hafeet, dropping him 3km from the top. A significant gap opened up immediately, but, with an advantage of 1-14…
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