The Spaniard yelled down the race radio as he crested first over the Jebel Hafeet summit finish for the second consecutive year. Valverde (Movistar) outsprinted race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), showing experience and knowledge can beat brute strength.
“It’s another incredible victory. Even though it’s at the same place as last year, there is something extra because I won with the world champion’s jersey,” Valverde said.
“I tried a number of times this year to win my first race with the jersey so I’m glad that it finally happened today.”
The 10km climb came at the end of the 179km race, which featured a flat run into the ascent where the peloton slowly shattered. Australian Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) was dropped with 7km to go and finished seven minutes and 55 seconds down on the winner. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was then shelled with about 5km to go as Visma-Jumbo continued to set a fierce pace.
Valverde wasn’t among the lead group of four men, including Roglic, Gaudu, Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Emanuel Buchmann (BORA-hansgrohe), that got a gap inside the last 4km. It was of no apparent consequence, however, to Valverde. The 38-year-old attacked from the chase group with 2.4km to go and bridged to the leaders at his own pace.
“This climb is always dangerous with the headwind, so I had to calculate my effort. I knew exactly where I wanted to start my effort, which is exactly where I did it last year,” Valverde said. “I just waited for the right moment to go for the win. It was a very tactical victory.”
Roglic had been anticipating attacks from his GC rivals but few were able to really come close to Jumbo-Visma, and the 29-year-old went on the offensive himself. Roglic had been climbing out of his saddle inside the last 3km, but started to look around with 600m, unwilling to lead-out Valverde. Valverde led into the last corner and was faster than Roglic on the home straight.
“It was quite a hard climb for all the guys in the end,” Roglic said. “It was my first time here, I didn’t know the finish, but still we showed today with the team all the guys are super, super strong. They all did a perfect job, I’m really thankful for them. Somehow, they also gave me some power, so I went all out at the end.”
Martin said he got a stitch from his effort on the climb and couldn’t breathe.
“It was fast with a tailwind and obviously a super easy stage all day. As I’ve said before, it’s a type of racing that we don’t really do. It’s basically a sprint up the climb,” he said. “It was just from the type of effort that it is. I couldn’t have done more,” he said.
Tom Dumoulin had previously spoken of attacking but neither he nor Sunweb teammate Wilco Kelderman were able to challenge Roglic yesterday.
“We didn’t have the good legs, that’s pretty much the story of the day,” the Dutchman said.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), who has commenced his 2019 season here, also struggled to keep up with the pace.
“I thought I would be up there because I felt pretty good at the bottom, but the pace was so high. I really struggled the last three kilometres,” Kwiatkowski said.
“It's the first race of the season and I'm on a good way. Pretty much every year from the beginning Valverde is unreal. He proved he's on the same level as always here. It would be nice to mark him, to race against him, but I'm not there yet. Let's hope I will be there.”
Valverde has identified Roglic as his main rival for the race title moving forward.