There was a little bit of eye-balling just before the finish line and when they crossed it Caleb Ewan had just about got himself in front of Sam Bennett, with that denying the Irish rider a hat-trick of stage wins at the climax of the UAE Tour in Abu Dhabi.
Proof perhaps there’s no such thing as a guaranteed win in any bunch sprint, Bennett had once again positioned himself exactly where he wanted to be, only for Ewan to sprint off his back wheel in the last 20 metres, winning by just half a bike length.
It was Ewan’s first win of the season and he made no secret about his need for it: the 26 year-old Australian from team Lotto Soudal had won stages in the last two editions of this race, further motivated perhaps by the fact Bennett had been stealing all the sprint thunder.
Bennett was seeking that hat-trick to go with Friday's Stage 6 win on Palm Jumeirah, two days after he'd secured the 50th win of his professional career with a Stage 4 victory. The two stage wins and his second place here also moved Bennett into second in the points classification, finishing with 56 points behind the young Dutch rider David Dekker of team Jumbo-Visma, and moving him ahead of outright race winner Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates, who also finished third in the classification.
Though entirely flat the 147km final stage into the capital of Abu Dhabi was far from straightforward, Bennett finding himself part of an early breakaway, before the peloton regrouped again; then with 40km remaining second-placed rider Adam Yates of Ineos Grenadiers was caught up in a small crash which saw him face-plant onto the road, thus requiring some considerable attention; the race slowed to allow him regroup, Yates thus finishing 35 seconds behind Slovenia's Tour de France winner in the GC, with Bennett's Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Joao Almeida third overall.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep lead-out train with Michael Morkov in front had again helped deliver Bennett to where he wanted to be, before things got a little bit messy, the wide open finish at the Abu Dhabi Breakwater perhaps giving Ewan the extra bit of space he needed.
“The was a bit of room for me on the right, that was really the only way out, but once I got past his (Bennett’s) wheel, and I was allowed to go, I’d a fair bit of speed,” said Ewan.
“So a bit of relief, really, I hadn’t been this far into the year without a win my whole career, so it feels good to have the win before I go back to Europe, and start the season from there. I’ve big plans for this season, and it means a lot for me to start off with a win here.”
They'll meet again: Ewan twice denied Bennett a stage win in the Tour de France last year, on Stage 3 and Stage 11, with Bennett getting the better of him to win Stage 10 Île de Ré. Last year's Abu Dhabi sprint finish was cancelled due to Covid-19, and in 2019, Ewan was just denied the stage win by Fernando Gaviria.
Bennett will next race at the 79th Paris-Nice, the eight-stage race starting on March 7th and racing towards the sun to finish on March 14th, which includes three flat stages perfectly suited to a sprint finish.