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THE WEEK AHEAD: FRANCE, MALAYSIA & ABU DHABI

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Some of the sport’s big guns are ramping up their seasons, or just starting them, at this week’s Abu Dhabi Tour, starting Thursday, while riders on the way up will be contesting the three-day Tour de La Provence in France and the weeklong Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia. Headliners at the Abu Dhabi Tour—which is the first new stage race in the expanded UCI WorldTour—include Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Rui Costa (UAE-Abu Dhabi), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing). At the three-day Tour de La Provence, starting Tuesday, Thomas Voeckler (Direct Énergie), in his final season, is the defending champion. And at the venerable Tour de Langkawi, starting Wednesday, only one WorldTour team, Dimension Data, is on the start line partly because of a reduced budget and a new date clash with the Abu Dhabi Tour.

Words: John Wilcockson | Image: Yuzuru Sunada

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Abu Dhabi Tour
Elevated to UCI WorldTour status and moved from an October date to February, this four-day race has been held only twice before. With three flat stages favoring the sprinters, the overall title each year has gone to the winner of the stage ending on the Jebel Hafeet summit: Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) in 2015 and Tanel Kangert (Astana) last October.

In all, there are 16 of the 18 UCI WorldTour teams racing here. The race is organized by RCS Sport, the Giro d’Italia owner, which also put on the recent Dubai Tour. Most of the world’s top sprinters will be honing their form in stages 1, 2 and 4, including Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Andrea Guardini (UAE-Abu Dhabi) and Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors). Each of the three flat stages has a different physiognomy: a loop through the desert on Thursday, starting and finishing at Madinat Zayed; a stage within the city limits of Abu Dhabi City on Friday; and a floodlit race over 26 laps of the 5.5-kilometer FI Yas Marina circuit on Sunday.

Once again, Saturday’s summit finish at Jebel Hafeet will likely decide the overall winner. This climb is almost 11 kilometers long, climbs through 713 meters (2,339 feet), averages an almost 7-percent grade, with a maximum pitch of 11 percent 3 kilometers from the top. It’s much longer than Green Mountain at the Tour of Oman—and it could favor two riders who were beaten there last week: Bardet, who attacked early and blew; and Aru, who placed second to Oman winner Ben Hermans—a non-starter in Abu Dhabi because he’s headed to the opening classics weekend in Belgium.

Last year, Kangert ground out a win on Jebel Hafeet just ahead of Nicolas Roche—who’s now at BMC and will be ready to deputize for van Garderen should the American not have his best form in his season debut.

RELATED: Read about last week’s Tour of Oman in Sunday Race Briefing.

Tour de Langkawi
First held in 1996 and a fixture on the UCI’s Asia calendar, the Tour de Langkawi remains the most prestigious stage race in the Far East. Five of the 22 editions have been won by Colombians, three by South Africans and Italians, and two by Venezuelans and Americans (Chris Horner in 2000 and Tom Danielson in 2003). All of those winners were good climbers, establishing their overall victories on the famed Genting Highlands summit above the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Because of a reduced race budget, caused by the country’s organizing the South East Asian Games this summer, neither Kuala Lumpur nor Genting Highlands is on the 2017 route. Lasting eight days instead of the traditional 10, and without a start on the island of Langkawi in the northwest of Malaysia, the most decisive stage is on Day 4, with a finish at Cameron Highlands. America’s United Healthcare team is again competing, with its Colombian climbers Carlos Alzate and Daniel Jaramillo looking to shine on the one summit finish, while Greg Henderson, Travis McCabe and Tanner Putt could have a say on the other days. The last four stages are all likely to end in bunch sprints.

Tour de La Provence
With five WorldTour teams and eight Pro Continental squads, the second Tour de La Provence has a much stronger field than the inaugural edition. Among the pre-race favorites, besides defending champ Voeckler, include Jan Bakelants (AG2R La Mondiale), Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), Jérémy Roy (FDR) and Matej Mohoric (UAE-Abu Dhabi). The three stages all have rolling courses. Stage 1 from Aubagne to Istres on Tuesday has a completely flat finish; stage 2 from Miramas to La Ciotat on Wednesday ends with a long downhill; and stage 5 from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille on Thursday ends on the short but spectacular climb to Notre Dame de la Garde, after a hilly final hour.