WorldTour racing returns this week, with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) set for a sprinting showdown with his biggest rivals at the Abu Dhabi Tour, which rolls out on Wednesday February 21.

A mixed parcours for the expanded five-day race, split into two distinct sections – sprint stages on the first three days and GC stages in the form of a time trial and summit finish on the final two – has attracted a heavyweight line-up of riders.

Some – such as Cavendish and his fellow sprinting heavyweights – are back in the United Arab Emirates for the second time this year, having already taken on the Dubai Tour.

Cavendish claimed the red leader's jersey in the process, but with the Queen Stage next on the cards is unlikely to retain that lead (pic: RCS Sport)

Mark Cavendish, red jersey, Abu Dhabi Tour, pic - RCS Sport

The Manx Missile won a stage of that race, and will resume his sprinting rivalry with Dubai Tour winner Elia Viviani (QuickStep Floors), German heavyweights Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), among others.

Then attention will turn to the general classification, with Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) kicking off his season, and in-form veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) among the riders to beat.

Let’s take a closer look at the route and riders to watch…

Mark Cavendish, Rui Costa, podium, Abu Dhabi Tour, 2017, pic - RCS Sport

Mark Cavendish, Rui Costa, podium, Abu Dhabi Tour, 2017, pic - RCS Sport

Abu Dhabi Tour 2018 route

After the first three editions of the Abu Dhabi Tour were contested over four stages, a fifth has been added for 2018 and organisers have taken advantage by slotting in an individual time trial for the first time.

The immediate focus, however, will be on the sprinters with three pan-flat stages to race as they continue to search for early form and race wins in the deserts.

An out-and-back 189km stage to and from Madinat Zayed – where Mark Cavendish claimed his only victory of last season – is first on the menu.

The summit finish of Jebel Hafeet will decide the overall winner of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour (pic: ANSA/RCS Sport)

Abu Dhabi Tour, 2016, Jebel Hafeet, climb, mountains, rocks, panorama, pic - ANSA-RCS Sport

The second stage is the ‘Yas Island’ stage on the seafront, where Caleb Ewan and Elia Viviani have triumphed before, and that is followed by a short, 133km route that largely takes in Abu Dhabi’s city centre on stage three.

After the sprinters have gone head-to-head, attention will then turn to the 11.8km time trial on stage four – another urban affair – which will tee up the final stage, complete with a summit finish on Jebel Hafeet, for stage five.

The final climb is 10.8km long, and is actually the only climb on the otherwise completely flat five-day route – with gradients into double figures on the steepest sections.

Abu Dhabi Tour 2018: the sprinters to watch

Abu Dhabi will effectively be hosting a race of two parts, therefore, with a sprinting battle royale first up.

And it’s a heavyweight start list for the race too, fully befitting of the WorldTour status which has been bestowed upon the race since last season.

With three stage wins in the race’s history so far, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is the most successful sprinter across the three previous iterations of the race.

Cavendish won two stages of the 2016 edition, in its former end-of-season slot, before opening last year’s race with victory.

Mark Cavendish claimed his first win in the new kit at the Dubai Tour – an early tick in the box for the team’s sponsors (Pic: RCS Sport)

Dubai Tour 2018 - Tappa 3

Mark Cavendish, Dubai Tour 2018, sprint, win, celebration, victory (Pic: RCS Sport)

He arrives on the startline on the back of a Dubai Tour stage win – his first of the season – and a further chance to hone some form at the Tour of Oman, where he was second on stage one.

The most successful sprinter at the start of the season, however, has been Elia Viviani (QuickStep Floors), who claimed a stage win at the Tour Down Under and then two more at the Dubai Tour on his way to overall victory.

The Italian has been revitalised by his move from Team Sky to QuickStep Floors and will look to continue his early-season dominance at a race he has already bagged two stages wins in.

Elia Viviani, 2018, QuickStep Floors, Tour Down Under, sprint, (Pic: Getty Images/QuickStep Floors)

Elia Viviani, 2018, QuickStep Floors, Tour Down Under, sprint, (Pic: Getty Images/QuickStep Floors)

On the other hand, Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), the man Viviani has replaced at QuickStep, is still looking for his first win of the season for his new team.

The German sprinting star was third on stage three of the Dubai Tour – the closest he has come so far – but will be one to watch as he steps up his season this week.

His compatriot Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) will also be in the mix – the Gorilla won twice at the Tour Down Under – as will Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), who followed his own Tour Down Under stage win with victory at the Clasica de Almeria.

Andre Greipel, Lotto-Soudal, sprint, Tour Down Under, 2018 (Pic: Tour Down Under/John Veage)

Andre Greipel, Lotto-Soudal, sprint, Tour Down Under, 2018 (Pic: Tour Down Under/John Veage)

Other sprinters set for the Abu Dhabi Tour include fit-again Team Sky new boy Kristoffer Halvorsen, who missed the Tour Down Under after a crash on the eve of the race at the People’s Choice Classic, Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb) and Great Britain’s Dan McLay (EF-Drapac).

Perhaps the most pressure will be on European champion Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), however, as he represents his team in their home country.

He signed off the Tour of Oman with a stage win to ensure he heads to Abu Dhabi with a first victory for his new team on his palmares already.

Abu Dhabi Tour 2018: GC battle

Onto the GC battle, and if Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) starts his season in top shape it is hard to look past the Giro d’Italia champion for this year’s race.

The world time trial champion can gain time on stage four, and consolidate his lead on Jebel Hefeet on the final day.

Having not yet raced this season, however, much will depend on the unknown that is his early-season form.

Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), winner on Jebel Hefeet last season, is the defending champion, meanwhile – the Portuguese former world champion has also been crowned national time trial champion twice, proving the extra stage should not hold too many fears for him.

Rui Costa, UAE Team Emirates, 2017, pic - Sirotti

Rui Costa, UAE Team Emirates, 2017, pic - Sirotti

There are stronger time triallists on the start line, however – and not just Dumoulin either – with Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Team Sky) leading their respective teams.

Both have the pace, and climbing ability, to triumph over the weekend, while double British champion Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) could be another in contention.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) goes into the race having already won the Volta a la Cominitat Valenciana, meanwhile, and Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) kicks off his season with his new team, offering another GC option for his Emirati employers.

Aru’s former team, Astana, have already won the Tour of Oman and Miguel Angel Lopez, who was second overall behind team-mate Alexey Lutsenko, is another possible contender.

Finally, last year’s runner-up Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) will look to go one better this time out.

Abu Dhabi Tour 2018: Brit watch

No less than 11 British riders are on the startline, including two taking part in a UCI WorldTour race for the first time.

Those debutants are James Knox (QuickStep Floors), who will race for his new team for the first time, and Sam Brand (Team Novo Nordisk) – who, likewise, is starting his season in Abu Dhabi.

Brand is the first British rider to race for the all-diabetic Novo Nordisk team, and will look to prove his credentials after the team were awarded a wildcard.

The race also marks the comeback of Luke Rowe (Team Sky), who is back in the peloton for the first time since breaking his leg at his brother’s stag do.

Luke Rowe, portrait, Tour de France 2017, Castelli (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

Le Tour de France

Luke Rowe, portrait, Tour de France 2017, Castelli (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

Rowe is one of two Brits in the team, alongside Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky).

Only one team has more British riders in the race, with Dimension Data boasting Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Scott Davies.

As outlined above, Cavendish will be bidding for sprint stages. Cummings, meanwhile, will be giving the British champion’s jerseys a first airing of the new season and could be a dark horse.

Fans cheers the British national champion on the Col d'Agnes (Pic: Alex Broadway/SWPix.com/ASO)

2017 Tour de France

Tour de France 2017, Steve Cummings, British champion, Pyrenees, mountains, climb, breakaway (Pic: Alex Broadway/SWPix.com)

Davies, meanwhile, was 23rd at his debut WorldTour race, the Tour Down Under, and also competed at the Tour of Oman. The Welshman, in his neo-pro season, will be another looking to impress in the time trial.

The same can be said of Alex Dowsett (Katusha-Alpecin) too, who will form part of Kittel’s sprint train on the first three stages before bidding for success of his own on stage four.

Dowsett’s switch to Katusha-Alpecin will mean a first competitive ride on his new Canyon Speedmax CF SLX set-up – the frame is the same he used at Movistar, but he has traded in SRAM Red eTap shifting and Zipp wheels.

Alex Dowsett, Katusha-Alpecin, team kit, 2018

Alex Dowsett, Katusha-Alpecin, team kit, 2018

Dan McLay (EF-Drapac) will be targeting sprint success, building on fourth place in his first race for his new team at the start of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.

Finally, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) will look to impress on Jebel Hafeet as Mitchelton-Scott look for a second consecutive WorldTour stage race win – after Daryl Impey won the Tour Down Under – and James Shaw (Lotto-Soudal) completes the list of British riders.