The Saudi Tour returned on Tuesday following a one year pause due to the pandemic after it was rebooted in 2020. This year the race promises a more interesting parcours than the sprint-heavy edition of 2020, with a 3km climb on the fourth stage averaging a nasty 12% – far too hard for sprinters who have become accustomed to contesting the general classification in the races in the desert, such as Hatta Dam specialist Caleb Ewan.
The first stage was for the sprinters, with gentle climbs including one small categorised climb with 13km to go before a flat run in to the finish. The notable feature of this parcours was a 10km gravel section with around 25km remaining, the condition of which we were unsure of.
With Ewan present and no Sam Bennett on the startline (despite rumours of his attendance in previous weeks), the Australian on Lotto Soudal was the heavy favourite for this stage in his opening race of the year. Other notable sprinters on the startline included Dylan Groenewegen, the new recruit for Team Bike-Exchange Jayco, Fernando Gaviria of UAE Team Emirates with neopro leadout Felix Gross by his side (or as a rival sprinter…) and Davide Ballerini for Quickstep, who started fast in February last year.
Unfortunately for the race organisers and for us fans who have been starved of live racing for long enough during the off-season, there was absolutely no live coverage of the race due to the relay plane required for the live images from the motorbikes not receiving permission to take off.
So we saw absolutely nothing of the race. A shame, as the route had some interesting landmarks as Middle Eastern races go, as well as the doomed breakaway of the day expending all of their energy for hours on the flat for absolutely no sponsor exposure.
The major piece of news from the race prior to the sprint (although the details came after) was the crash of talented young Italian Andrea Bagioli of Quickstep-AlphaVinyl, one of the big contenders for Stages 2 and 4 as well as the General Classification win.
Quickstep have announced that Bagioli suffered minor injuries and will be monitored overnight by the medical staff, but is expected to continue the Saudi Tour. Regardless, Bagioli finished the stage last, losing 20 minutes in the process, so is already out of the GC mix.
A short time after the gravel section concluded, we saw some life on the static cameras at the finish. We managed to see sprint from the final sweeping right hand bend with around 225 metres to go, where Jasper de Buyst provided Caleb Ewan with his best launch pad for over a year, coming out of de Buyst’s wheel with under 7 seconds to go in the sprint and dusting off Martin Laas (Bora-Hansgrohe) by over two bike lengths.
When Ewan is provided with a leadout of that quality, he is close to unbeatable, even with Sam Bennett on the startlist. The question is whether Lotto-Soudal can deliver Ewan in that position consistently in the biggest World Tour races, when Deceuninck-Quickstep have their A star leadout. These are of course promising signs for Ewan’s team early on but UAE continue to have leadout problems with Gaviria and Gross sprinting against one another, Groenewegen was in a terrible position on the left hand side sprinting in the wind from the corner and the Van Lerberghe’s leadouts for Quickstep pale in comparison to Michael Mørkøv.
Stage 2 is one for the puncheurs, finishing with a 1600 metre 7.7% punch that should be too hard for the majority of the sprinters.
Before his crash today, Bagioli would have been a big favourite for this stage but now veteran Rui Costa will likely be the man to beat on this uphill finish, as well as for overall GC. Costa has not won a UCI race in Europe since 2015 but has won a stage of Saudi Tour in 2020 as well as the Abu Dhabi Tour GC with a stage back in 2017, so it is likely the Portuguese rider will be targeting the GC seriously here once again.
It will also be the first uphill test for Lennard Kämna of Bora-Hansgrohe since his return to racing as well as for two new talented French recruits for Cofidis, Alexis Renard and Axel Zingle. 22 year old Renard had good results at Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021 at punchy races like Wallonie and Pologne whilst Zingle was consistently racking up top 10s on the French hilly one-day circuit, including a sprint to third place behind Biniam Girmay and Vendrame at Classic Grand Besançon Doubs to end the year.