Slovenia's Tadej Pogačar is the favourite to retain his title at the UAE Tour, despite only having recently recovered from COVID-19 ©Getty Images

Slovenia’s Tadej Pogačar is lined-up to defend his title at the hotly competitive UAE Tour in the first race of the new International Cycling Union (UCI) WorldTour season starting tomorrow. 

The 23-year-old Pogačar, who rides for the local UAE Team Emirates and is the winner of the Tour de France for the last two years, is expected to be strong in the time trial on stage three and the two mountain top finishes on stage four and stage seven, despite having only recently recovered from COVD-19. 

One of the all-rounder’s closest challengers is likely to be Ineos Grenadiers’ Adam Yates, with the Briton one of those that will hope to stay within touching distance of Pogačar on stages four and seven, the conclusion of the race next Friday (February 25). 

The climber only missed out on the title after Pogačar posted a superior time trial.

A core part of the battle may come down to the effectiveness of their respective teams.

Yates’ team mates Michał Kwiatkowski of Poland and Andrey Amador of Costa Rica and Pogačar’s Joao Almeida of Portugal and George Bennett of New Zealand will need to deliver in protecting the two favourites on the climbs.

Other contenders include Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin of Jumbo-Visma and Russia's Aleksandr Vlasov of Bora-Hansgrohe.

Dumoulin is keen to get back to the highest level and the UAE Tour will be a competition for him to mark his comeback at the top of the standings.

Vlasov produced a thrilling victory at Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in Spain to establish himself as a potential challenger in the UAE.

Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux’s Jan Hirt, from the Czech Republic, and Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Fausto Masnada of Italy could also mount their credentials after finishing first and second at the Tour of Oman.

Additionally, set to make an impact is the major collection of top sprinters, which includes Britain's Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s Mark Cavendish, Italy's Ineos Grenadiers’ Elia Viviani and The Netherlands' BikeExchange-Joyce’s Dylan Groenewegen.

Cavendish, Viviani and Groenewegen, winner of stage four in 2020, are amongst the sprinters list eyeing a challenge.

Irish Bora-Hansgrohe cyclist Sam Bennett, winner of two stages last year, and Belgian Alpecin-Fenix rider Jasper Philipsen will make their first starts.

Arnaud Démare of France, competing for Groupama-EDJ, Pascal Ackermann of Germany, another member of UAE Team Emirates, and Italy's Alberto Dainese, who is riding for DSM, will look to improve upon their recent performances.

The race will begin with a sprint-focused stage one, scheduled to take place in Madinat Zayed.

Stage two is another sprint that will go from Hudayriyat Island to Abu Dhabi Breakwater.

The stage three time-trial will be set in the city of Ajman.

Riders will then be tasked with climbing from Fujairah Fort to Jebel Jais.

Stages five and six returns to sprinting, going from first Ras Al Khaimah Corniche to Marjan island, and then exclusively in Expo 2020 Dubai.

Stage seven sees cyclists going from Al Jahili Fort to Jebel Hafeet in climb friendly conditions.