UAE Team Emirates
2018 Vuelta a España
The final grand tour of the professional cycling calendar, the Vuelta a España is Spain's biggest race and, over the last few years, has also proved to be one of the most exciting stage races. Attracting some of the sport's biggest names, featuring a plethora of epic climbs and always providing scintillating racing, we joined UAE Team Emirates and NAMEDSPORT> ahead of the first stage of the 2018 edition.
Vuelta a Espana
Our Vuelta a España experience began on Thursday 23rd August, two days before the first stage. We joined the nutrition brand NAMEDSPORT> for the official team presentation, which took place in the historic Teatro Romano Amphiphetre in the centre of Malaga. Ahead of the teams being welcomed onto the stage, we were granted access to the team area, where the riders would wait. A cycling fan's dream, the open air quadrangle housed the likes of Peter Sagan, Nairo Quintana and the Yates brothers, all superstars of the sport and all looking to stamp their authority on the 2018 race.
Whereas the Tour de France can sometimes feel like a melting pot of media and fans, the Vuelta feels like a much more relaxed affair. As with the Tour, this is an ASO event but unlike its French equivalent, there's definitely a different vibe, with riders looking less on edge, maybe due to a reduced weight of expectation on their shoulders. Welcomed onto the stage, set against the stark and beautiful backdrop of the Teatro Romano, the 2018 Vuelta a España had officially begun.
Preparing the Bikes
Away from the hustle and bustle of Malaga and on the outskirts of the airport was an inconspicuous looking industrial estate. Surrounded by budget supermarkets, highrise apartment blocks and a sprawling motorway network, three team buses and some of the world's best professional cyclists were mundanely going about their business, away from the media spotlight. Team Dimension Data, Équipe Cycliste Groupama-FDJ and UAE Team Emirates were all vying for car parking space, with a fine collection of team cars, mechanic's trucks and team buses.
We'd be following UAE Team Emirates as they prepared for the first stage. Preparation is key and as with every WorldTour team, every day is run like a military operation. Cordoned off from the rest of the hotel and the waffle-filled buffet breakfast, the team enjoyed a plentiful breakfast before a leisurely 11am roll out on the bikes. Leisurely for the riders, less so for the mechanics, who had already been out in the scorching Spanish sun for at least two hours, preparing the fleet of Colnago K-One Time Trial Bikes for Saturday's stage, as well as ensuring all the V2Rs and Concepts were race ready.
Team mechanics are renowned for working around the clock to get bikes and equipment working for race day. With a huge collection of bikes, from climbing machines to time trial rigs to get through, every little bit of technology that can help speed up the process is much appreciated. The fit of the bike is incredibly important, as every rider has their exacting measurements for everything from the saddle height to reach. Taking the guesswork out of setting up either new or existing bikes, the mechanics at UAE Team Emirates use a rather nifty jig, which holds the bike firmly in place, and using a series of measuring devices, helps to get all the pro's measurements adhered to, with millimetre perfect accuracy.
In addition to this, and something we have never seen before, a small contraption, made up of a series of knobs and a Look pedal is what the team use to help replace worn out cleats. The system allows the mechanics to dial in exactly where the new cleat should sit on the sole of the shoe, ensuring the pros are in exactly the right position when they come to clip in.
Colnago V2R Road Bike
You cannot visit a WorldTour team without checking out their bikes, especially when they are as stunning at UAE Team Emirates' fleet. A quintessentially Italian team, it seems only fit for the riders to be rolling on Italian thoroughbreds. Colnago are the bike of choice, providing the team with a range of models, from the C64 to the K-One. A bike for one of the sport's most exciting talents and a man most at home in the mountains, Dan Martin is using Colnago's V2R, a machine designed to excel when the road rears skywards.
Equipped with Campagnolo's Super Record EPS groupset, Campagnolo Bora Ultra wheels, Vittoria tyres, a Deda handlebar and stem and a Prologo saddle, the slight, Irish grand tour stage winner has undoubtedly one of the best-specced bikes in the peloton.
Colnago C64 Road Bike
The Vuelta a España winner in 2015 and one of Italy's leading grand tour riders, Fabio Aru has bucketloads of experience when it comes to stage racing and performing with the best. Challenging for the top step on the podium requires a rather special bike and Colnago have provided him with just the machine. The C64 comes from a distinguished line of performance bikes, from the C40, as used by the likes of Erik Zabel in the early 2000s to its predecessor, the C60, which was heralded as one of the Italian brand's most complete bikes.
Fabio's bike, uses very much the same equipment as Dan's, with the main difference being an integrated Deda Alanera handlebar and stem setup. A refined cockpit addition, this carbon fibre system weighs 350 grams and adds an aero touch to this team leader's bike.
It's a delicate balancing act making sure you are rested before a grand tour but not too much so that you have stiff legs come race day. There are plenty of different takes on what riding should be done, on the days leading up to the race. Whether it be duration or intensity, a lot comes down to personal preference. UAE Team Emirates were keeping things simple, the day prior to the first stage, opting to go for an easy couple of hours and enjoy a cafe stop. This rare moment of calm and normality is a far cry from what the riders will be experiencing over the following three weeks and it is clear to see the team were making the most of it.
Keeping the Team Fuelled
While the riders were out on their pre-race ride, we headed to the hotel kitchen to meet up with team chef, Michele, and find out what he was preparing for the riders post-ride. After picking up supplies from a local supermarket, the charismatic Italian was hard at work chopping a mountain of vegetables when we met him. On the menu today, salmon with rice and vegetables, simple, nutritious and the perfect fuel for the upcoming days. It is interesting the see the shift in focus for teams over the last few years, with more and more now opting to take a chef or even a mobile kitchen away to stage races with them. Gone are the days where riders would have to endure, sometimes, suspect hotel buffet food.
Whether it is preparing the legs for the opening stage, recovering post race or easing out the muscles after a crash, a massage is both physically and mentally a key part of every rider's day. Sitting in on Vegard Stake Laengen's massage, in an inconspicuous hotel room, with the TV on in the background and the massage table set up in the middle of the room, the Norweigan national champion was evidently appreciating the time to relax, as the team soigneur gave his legs a light rub down, in preparation for the following day's time trial.
Fabio Aru - The Interview
A professional cyclist's life on the road is one of routine. Eat, race, recover, repeat. Performing on the world stage though also comes with team and sponsor obligations and none more so than the pre-race interview. A man always in high demand, Fabio Aru is hot property when it comes to interviews, so we were very pleased to get the opportunity to sit down and talk to the quietly spoken 28-year-old, on a balmy warm Friday afternoon in the hotel lobby. Discussing everything from goals in the 2018 Vuelta to memorable races and his opinions on the bikes he rides, we'd like to thank Fabio for his time and wish him the best of luck for the upcoming three weeks.
Fabio Aru - The interview
The day we had all been waiting for, the day that would signal the start of the 2018 Vuelta a España and the day that would decide the first general classification on this year's race. An eight-kilometre time trial around the streets of Malaga, taking in views of the port and the city. Although not a team with a clear favourite for the time trial, UAE Team Emirates did have two riders aiming for the overall general classification, so there was definitely pressure to perform.
Beginning at 5:25pm, with the first rider taking to the start ramp, there was a lot of time to kill prior to the first UAE Team Emirates rider, Simone Petilli, going off. The young Italian would be starting at 5:39pm, with his seven team mates following throughout the evening, finishing with Fabio Aru, who would be pushed for light, starting at 8:13pm.
A relatively technical course, the riders used the proceeding hours to recce it, ensuring there was no nasty surprises once the timer had started. Even though the temperature was in the early 30s the riders would still need a good warm-up for this explosive effort, and each jumped on the Elite Direto Trainers to turn the legs over ahead of the respective start times.
Ribbon cut and riders off, the team put in a respectable performance, with Valerio Conti leading the standings amongst the team, finishing in the top 50, just three seconds ahead of Martin and four ahead of Aru. The winner on the day was time trial specialist, Rohan Dennis, who rocketed around the route in a blistering nine minutes, 39 seconds.
A familiar sight at the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de Yorkshire and a host of other major cycling races, NAMEDSPORT> aren't just a brand with impressive cars and bright orange hoardings. A branch of the natural medicine company, NAMED, NAMEDSPORT> prides itself of delivering carefully thought out nutrition, which it uses to fuel both amateurs and pros. A popular choice among the world's best teams, the likes of UAE Team Emirates, Trek Segafredo and Bahrain Merida all train and race with their products.
Including fully traceable ingredients and offering a wide range of bars, gels and drinks to help fuel the rider before, during and after the ride or race, it is no wonder all the team buses are fully stocked with the Italian brand's products.
We would like to thank UAE Team Emirates for giving us access to the team and NAMEDSPORT> and ASO for making this trip possible. Roll on the next grand tour!