• There was aggressive racing to the start the first stage of the 2017 Dubai Tour. (ANSA)Source: ANSA
Mark Cavendish physically steps back in disagreement when asked if early-season races outside of cycling’s Europe heartland can be described as ‘friendlies’.
Sophie Smith

Cycling Central
1 Feb 2017 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 1 Feb 2017 - 12:06 PM

The 31-year-old opened his 2017 season campaign at the Dubai Tour on Tuesday, a later start for the Manxman who previously has tested his legs in South America, or as was the case in 2011, the Tour Down Under, prior to arriving in the United Arab Emirates.

That collection of outsider races over January and February has previously been termed by press as “the pre-season friendlies of the cycling season”, a notion the WorldTour peloton counters to a point.

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“Down Under is nowhere near a pre-season friendly. For a European, it’s one of the hardest races of the year if you understand how the season works,” Cavendish says categorically.

“The only time I ever did it, I was first dropped every day.”

Cavendish’s race debut at the January WorldTour opener in 2011 was lacklustre at best but, as the champion sprinter points out, he did go on to win a career-first Tour de France green jersey and road world title the same season.

“It’s nice to do Down Under, I like Down Under, but in our situation, I’d have to go in good form,” he says. “If you go good in Down Under, you’re not going to go good in the Tour de France.

“There’s always the exception to the rule.”

Cavendish and the WorldTour cohort seemingly disagree with the pre-season friendly summation in regards to the physical efforts each tailored race requires so early.

“It’s a shame Qatar is off the calendar – that was always a brutal race. There was no hanging about in those crosswinds,” former Het Nieuwsblad champion Ian Stannard (Sky) says.

The Dubai Tour has attracted marquee sprinters like Cavendish and Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step), who have a shot at not only stage victories but the overall and, for the winner, a valuable dose of confidence to carry on with.

“They are good racing, as a sprinter they’re really good for your early season form,” Cavendish says of the UAE tours.

“You come here flying you can do well, but you can really get that top end from riding here. It’s quite relaxed through the day and then it really does, it’s competitive at the end. You get that power effort, so it is good to come here.”

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The tours are comparatively more relaxed than those that follow in Europe. Down Under as the official WorldTour opener is a slight exception with the points on offer, and the emphasis and consequent voracity Australian riders particularly approach it with.

“It used to be a pre-season friendly but in the last four years especially, and since it became WorldTour, it’s gotten harder and harder every time I’ve started,” 2015 winner Rohan Dennis (BMC) says.

“There is 100 points up for grabs for the win and teams put a lot of emphasis on points, the WorldTour these days. No-one [arrives] underdone.”

The press and peloton typically stay in a centralised hotel and have more time to liaise between stages, collect interviews that can be banked over the course. The weather is fair and behind the scenes, it’s easier to walk around, riders are more accessible, happy to chat to a smaller media pack as they sip on an espresso in a van or tent, over the private confides of a team issue coach.

Some riders have, wittingly or not, referred to their respective campaigns in the various as ‘warm ups’. The events do serve as a litmus test as to where each is against the other and how effective their pre-season training may have been.

As Kittel pointed out after his stage one win at the Dubai Tour, they also provide a good stomping ground for, in his case, sprint trains to discover and iron out creases before the Europe season begins. In that instance, you could term the set ‘friendlies’, if comparing them to the spring classics or Grand Tours where such factors aren’t liberally referenced.

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“My personal season highlight, the Tour de France, it’s still five months away. I think it’s nice to start like this but it’s only a reminder that you win like this when you’ve worked hard, when you’ve dedicated yourself to a goal,” Kittel said. “You have to keep doing that for the rest of the season. If that doesn’t happen then you will maybe not be the winner and other guys will be successful.”

The value of a win in January and February shouldn’t be undermined regardless of which side of the debate you sit. A victory within the period may not be as rich or sought after compared with those on the continent.

It may not even be indicative of the season a rider will or has the potential to have. But it can provide the momentum needed to perform and triumph under the biggest spotlights later.