UAE Team Emirates may not be the coolest team in the WorldTour peloton, but they hit the jackpot in 2020 by winning the Tour de France with Tadej Pogačar and are on track to continue their success in 2021 thanks to continued sponsorship from the Middle East and a long-term strategy of rider development.
The yellow jersey has made Pogačar the leader of the clear team but in the last two seasons the arrival of young riders of the calibre of Mikkel Bjerg, the USA’s Brandon McNulty, and Ivo and Rui Oliveira, have sparked a gradual transformation and laid the foundations for the team’s future. Older riders such as Alexander Kristoff, Rui Costa, Diego Ulissi and the Italian backbone of the team remain, while Joe Dombrowski, Davide Formolo, David de la Cruz and Max Richeze have
completed the roster for every kind of race.
New signings for 2021 include Matteo Trentin, Rafal Majka and Ryan Gibbons while Fabio Aru’s onerous contract has finally run its course, removing a source of tension from the team and freeing a chunk of budget for further investments.
While other teams struggle financially due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, UAE Team Emirates seem on track to continue their rise to the top and will even be the first to secure a COVID-19 vaccine.
Managers: Mauro Gianetti (team principal), Joxean Fernández Matxín
Squad size: 27
Average age: 27.8
How did they fare in 2020?
WorldTour ranking: 3rd
Victory at the Tour de France is enough to compensate for any other failure but UAE Team Emirates struck gold in France and won another 32 races between January and November, despite being hampered by the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent team quarantine at the UAE Tour.
They won 11 races before the lockdown, thanks to Fernando Gavaria at the Vuelta a San Juan, Pogačar out-gunning Valverde at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and Juan Sebastian Molano winning three stages at the Tour Colombia. Ulissi also finished second at Tour Down Under, confirming his consistency.
The success continued post-lockdown with eight different riders quickly winning races when competitions resumed. The UAE Team Emirates had clearly got their training right despite the doubts of having Head of Training Inigo San Milan in Colorado, Head of Medical Jeroen Swart in South Africa, and other staff spread across Europe.
Kristoff is often the Mr. Wolf of UAE Team Emirates and he stepped up again to solve a problem and take the pressure off Pogačar by winning the opening sprint and the first yellow jersey at the Tour de France in Nice.
Pogačar lost time in the echelons early on stage 7 but fought back in the Pyrenees, winning stage 9 in a clear sign he was not afraid to take on Primož Roglič of Jumbo-Visma and anybody else. He won again on the Grand Colombier mountain finish and never gave up belief he could win the Tour. His incredible time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles and Roglič’s painful collapse is now legendary.
Pogačar was also third at Liège–Bastogne–Liège after being blocked by Julian Alaphilippe’s sudden swerve in the sprint, while Ulissi took two stages at the Giro d’Italia, and Jasper Philipsen won at the BinckBank Tour and the Vuelta a España. Whatever metric you may use, only Deceuninck-QuickStep and Jumbo-Visma did better in 2020.
Tadej Pogačar: The 22-year-old Slovenian had already shown his huge potential in 2019 and before that when he won the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir, but he improved and impressed even further in 2020, combining rare talent and ruthless tactics to win big.
His eventual defeat of Roglič at the Tour de France was perhaps unexpected due to his time gap before the start of the final time trial but true to nature, he stayed calm all Tour and then landed a cruel knock-out punch on his fellow Slovenian. It was a clear sign of Pogačar’s ability and of his destiny. He is a superb climber, a fast finisher when there’s a need to fight for time bonuses, and a determined time trialist. Gianetti and UAE have cleverly got him under a strict contract until 2024.
The COVIS-19 pandemic has limited the pressure and obligations the Tour winner usually faces each winner and so there’s no reason why Pogačar cannot return to the 2021 Tour de France and challenge again. Watch for him to also target the UAE Tour in February and then the Ardennes Classics in April too.
Alexander Kristoff: The Norwegian sprinter has often seemed on the cusp of leaving UAE Team Emirates after lacklustre campaigns and a loss of reciprocal faith. But he has always stayed on and delivered the goods. He won Gent-Wevelgem in 2019, took a haul of other sprint placings, with only Paris-Roubaix now missing from his cobbled Classics resume.
Kristoff was probably the only rider to wake up happy to see the heavy rain on stage 1 of this year’s Tour de France. He then survived the slippery roads of Nice and then again produced his power sprint, while everyone else suffered with tired, weary legs. He will be 34 during next year’s Tour de France but only a fool would bet against him winning another stage and earning another new deal at UAE Team Emirates for 2022.
Diego Ulissi: The recent diagnosis of a heart myocarditis means Ulissi will be sidelined for several months, and sadly cast doubts about his 2021 season and the rest of his career. It is a significant blow for UAE Team Emirates, who lose a team leader and the most consistent rider of their roster. Ulissi climbed into the top-10 rider rankings this year and had the ability to win stages in Grand Tours, fight in the hilly Classics and also weeklong stage races.
The likable Tuscan is understandably focusing on his health first but will surely always have a place at UAE Team Emirates and his teammates will want to win to inspire his recovery with as much success and support as possible.
Fernando Gaviria: Few people in the world have twice come down with COVID-19, but Gaviria faced that terrible challenge in 2020 and still managed to win races. He first tested positive during the UAE Tour in February and spent a month in quarantine, far from home. Yet he recovered to win three times in the summer.
He was clearly not at his best during the Giro d’Italia and was diagnosed with COVID-19 a second time, even if doubts remain exactly how the virus returned. Fortunately he has reportedly made a full recovery and shown immense resilience. Gaviria has endured high and lows during his career but his sprinting class remains clear. He is still only 26 and so will surely be back as strong and fast as ever in 2021.
Matteo Trentin: New signing Trentin adds further strength to UAE Team Emirates for the Classics and more than makes up for the loss of sprinter Philipsen. The Italian struggled post-lockdown after a crash at Milan-San Remo but is determined to bounce back next spring and show his true Classics ability. Watch for him from February until the Amstel Gold Race.
Trentin is also a key team player, who can combine with Kristoff and Gavaria, and teach Bjerg and others the secrets of the pavé. As an admired leader and spokesman in the peloton, he can also protect and help Pogačar with the responsibilities of being a Grand Tour winner.
UAE Team Emirates are gradually becoming one of the leading teams in the WorldTour thanks to their financial stability, a long-term plan created by Gianetti and executed from the team car by Matxin, Allan Peiper and the other experienced team staff.
A lot will be expected of Pogačar but he appears to have the character and ability to handle it all and deliver the big results.
The team have both youth and experience in their roster, with big-name leaders, quality support riders, experienced former world champions like Rui Costa but also some of the best young riders of the next generation.
Innovation seems vital in finding a winning edge in professional cycling and UAE Team Emirates have previously seemed stuck in the past and slow to adapt.
Gianetti made a brave move when he revolutionized the team staff at the start of 2019 but it now seems to have been a wise move, with science and physiology replacing the old-school beliefs of Beppe Saronni and his cohorts.
UAE Team Emirates have the budget, the riders and the staff needed to compete with Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma but perhaps need a further year or two to catch-up and match them when it comes to the accumulation of marginal gains and rider development.
The lack of a women’s team is another clear weakness and would surely be a huge boost for equality and women’s sport in the UAE.
There is a real sense that UAE Team Emirates will only continue to become more successful in 2021 and beyond.
Pogačar appears to be in full bloom and the whole team continues to improve alongside him.
UAE Team Emirates have clearly learnt from the mistakes of the past, invested for the future and seem ready to reap their just rewards in 2021.