Elisa Longo Borghini (Lidl-Trek) stood front and centre at the UAE Tour Women pre-race photoshoot with the Abu Dhabi Cycling Club on Wednesday afternoon, holding the heptagonal winner’s trophy. She was surrounded by Silvia Persico (UAE Team ADQ), Mavi García (Liv AlUla Jayco), World Champion Lotte Kopecky, Lorena Wiebes (both SD Worx-Protime) and Alison Jackson (EF Education-Cannondale).
Following the press conference, Longo Borghini happily reminisced about the 2023 edition of the race. She used a victory on the stage 3 climb to Jebel Hafeet, with teammate Gaia Realini riding just behind in second place, for the duo to take the top spots and lock up 1-2 on the final stage.
“Crossing the finish line on Jebel Hafeet together with my teammate Gaia Realini last year was special. It was one of the most beautiful memories I have from 2023, it was just an amazing feeling to cross the finish line with a teammate and celebrate together,” the defending champion said.
In the 2024 edition, the Jebel Hafeet climb will again decide the general classification as stage 3 finishes on the 10km climb to the top of the mountain overlooking al-Ain. Averaging 9% and reaching 11% at the 3km mark, it is a tough test for the climbers and GC contenders this early in the year.
“My winter training went OK. It will be interesting to be back racing after basically seven months away from the peloton. I don’t know where my shape is because I haven’t been racing for a long time, but I’m healthy, which is the most important thing. I’m really looking forward to finally being back in the peloton where I belong,” said Longo Borghini after having to sit out most of the second half of the 2023 season due to injuries.
Because of this less-than-ideal preparation, GC leadership at Lidl-Trek may instead fall to Realini. On the Jebel Hafeet a year ago, Realini looked like the stronger climber of the two already, and the minuscule 22-year-old Italian has improved even further since. But Longo Borghini said that it was too early to make such a call, pointing to the possibility of echelons on the first two stages.
“First, we have to see how the first stages unfold. I am always happy to let Gaia go if she drops everyone. But this is a decision that the team leader is making, and it’s not up to me to decide,” she said.
Whoever ends up being the team leader, Longo Borghini and Realini have their work cut out for them as there is no shortage of competitors. Persico finished third overall last year and is back and hungry for more in the home race of her squad, UAE Team ADQ.
“We will see if I can do even better, but why not? It’s a dream. We started this season in a good way with two victories. We are here to do our best to represent this country,” Persico said.
García is another strong contender for a GC podium spot. Slowly but steadily building her form for the season, García is nonetheless ready to give it her best in the UAE.
“I go step by step, not too fast. I am not in my best possible condition right now, but I’m feeling good. I was at the races in Mallorca to check my form, and I felt very good,” said García, referring to a third and a sixth place in two of the three new women’s one-day races on her home island.
García is known as an aggressive rider, nearly always making an attacking move when racing. The 40-year-old wouldn’t promise an attack in the UAE Tour Women, though, keeping her cards close to the chest.
“I am happy to be here, it’s my first time in this race. As for attacking, it’s a bit different here because there are three flat stages, the only chance for me is the third stage. I will go for the general classification, but I don’t know yet if I will attack or not,” she said.
Watch for Tour de France Femmes stage winner Ricarda Bauernfeind (Canyon-SRAM) and strong all-rounder Amber Kraak (FDJ-SUEZ) in the GC battle. There are the pure climbers who can use stage 3 to stake a claim on the GC, such as Pauliena Rooijakkers, Petra Stiasny (both Fenix-Deceuninck) and Claire Steels (Movistar Team).
Other talents such as Lizzie Stannard (EF Education-Cannondale), Silvia Zanardi (Human Powered Health), Sigrid Ytterhus Haugset (Team Coop-Repsol), Usoa Ostolaza, and Debora Silvestri (both Laboral Kutxa-Fundación Euskadi) complete a varied GC peloton, promising a spectacular showdown on the Jebel Hafeet on Saturday.