Gusting gale-force winds are not ideal for bike racing. Qatar, a peninsula that juts into the Persian Gulf off of Saudi Arabia, is a wide-open windy desert with few trees and fewer roads. The races are lost on the windy open roads as the peloton quickly splits into echelons, as every rider fights to find shelter in the draft of another rider. To race well in the wind a rider needs great bike-handling skills, unrelenting power, consistent focus and experience.
The winds the last week have been blowing from the north at an estimated 70 km/h. In a tailwind we fly, spinning the 53×11 at 115 revolutions per minute, and in a headwind we creep along at 20 km/h. In the crosswinds the peloton splinters — we pedal like mad to keep the gaps manageable and muscle our bikes to keep them upright. The racing is draining, physically and mentally intense.
Qatar has hired the best in the business to run its national tour and uses its wealth to make it grandiose. Amaury Sport Organization organizes the event and Eddy Merckx is the race’s consultant. The race is housed under one roof, at the luxurious Ritz Carlton. Although we battle in the dust during the day, we live comfortably in the evenings.
Merckx, who eats in the main dining hall with the riders, often walks around the room to chat with the different teams. For us, it is an inspiring moment to have the sport’s greatest hero, an idol to virtually every rider, converse with us and take genuine interest. Their respect for him is evident as soon as he approaches the table. As if they were speaking with royalty, the modern-day champions become shy, sit straight, and address him politely. Eddy will forever be the king of cycling. And, he still has his pedal stroke.
In the week prior to the first stage last Sunday, we trained on the wide-open roads and Merckx joined us on a few occasions. To find shelter from the persistent wind we ducked in behind our team car to increase the speed and spin our legs. Slim, motivated and fit, Eddy fought the wind, rode the distance and sat tightly in the draft while we cruised along at 50 km/h.
Watching his legs turn the pedals I thought about all the Tours, Giros, Milan-San Remos and Roubaixs they had won. His physique is impressive but what is striking is his passion for the bike. Even today, the spark that made him the champion he became is evident. Rarely have I seen retired professionals still so fond of riding and bikes.
As we sat around the mechanics’ tent after the ride, Cavendish said to Merckx, “I can’t believe it: now I can say I have ridden with Eddy Merckx.” With sincerity he responded, “And, now I can say I have ridden with Mark Cavendish.” A fervent fan, he is as impressed with today’s riders as they are with him.
The Belgians know how to ride in the wind as they grew up battling the gale that blows off the North Sea. Here they outnumber any other nation in the peloton and race with aggressive confidence built on experience.
The race begins before it starts. To ensure we are well positioned for a furious race into a blowing wind, we line up 20 minutes before the start to get a good spot on the grid. Even though the race doesn’t officially start until we reach the zero-kilometer banner on the outskirts of town the peloton pushes and shoves behind the commissaires’ cars — which regulate the speed — for the best spots at the front. The panic borders on ridiculous; with 140 kilometers to go, and the race not yet officially started, we push each other for position as though we are in the last kilometers.
Once in echelons we pedal furiously to maintain the gaps, or close them. The echelon is brilliantly efficient and we move fluidly through the wind together. When the road narrows, riders who are pushed out of the draft pop off the back of the group within in seconds. A lone rider has no chance against a fast-moving echelon and will never return to the front without the help of another fast-moving group. Being alone is what we all fear and for this the peloton is in a constant state of panic.
We, Team Columbia-High Road, came here to lead out Cavendish for the sprint finishes. The first two stages didn’t go as planned, as luck wasn’t on our side, but on the fourth the team rode brilliantly, driving the echelons and keeping Mark in position for the final charge to the line. In a fierce crosswind he held his position and won comfortably.
Canadian Michael Barry is a pro with Team Columbia-High Road and a regular contributor to VeloNews.com. Read more of his columns here