Besides Tom Boonen being in near-peak form, what else did we learn from the Tour of Qatar?
Well, Stages 3 and 5 demonstrated that Mark Cavendish does not need a dedicated lead-out man to win. That’s not to say his Sky team did nothing – on both occasions in the final kilometers, Bernie Eisel and Juan Antonio Flecha got him where he needed to be – but Cav’ demonstrated his incredible dexterity by jumping from wheel to wheel until he launched his trademark low-profile sprint.
And when he goes, it really is a sight to behold.
It appeared that he was reveling in not having someone like his old lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, to steer him to the line – like he was playing a game of ‘Frogger’ on the Doha desert highway.
“You never really get the season going until you get that first win under your belt,” Cavendish said after his Stage 3 win outside Al Gharafa Stadium.
The key for his rivals was to stop him from taking that first win; now that he’s started, Cavendish will be virtually impossible to stop – unless, of course, he gets taken out (or takes himself out, depending on how you saw it), as happened on Friday’s final stage. Subjectively, it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, as much as it was the risks that riders were taking when 13 teams were yet to notch a notch a victory after five days’ racing.
It must be an awful conundrum for the likes of André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol, who was not in Qatar due to illness), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda), Mark Renshaw (Rabobank), Thor Hushovd (BMC), Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) and others right now.
It is clear as day that Cavendish is the fastest by a solid margin. He also has the agility and poise of Robbie McEwen in his heyday, which allows him to prevail with or without a lead-out train.
Greipel, simply because of his God-given strength (he says it’s from his mother – “you just need to look at her,” he said), will likely be the only man to come close to Cavendish this season. Perhaps his adversaries should get a hold of his race schedule and pick races the Manxman won’t be at, because to be beaten again and again and again, can wear on one’s confidence.
No surprises here, but when the winds blow, the Belgians reaffirmed their prowess in this discipline. The fourth stage was the highlight of the race, as the peloton shattered, then splintered, and left as its by-product shelled victims strewn across the barren landscape.
Narrow roads, constant changes of direction, and ‘cat’s eyes’ added to the drama with punctures aplenty; Farrar and BMC revelation Adam Blythe were just a few of the victims. Boonen and his faithful Quick-Steppers knew where they needed to be and duly applied more pressure, leaving just a quartet to contest the finale; ‘Tommeke’ held a vice-like grip on GC.
The stage also provided a clear bellwether for the Spring Classics, particularly those of the cobbled variety: Boonen’s team-mate, Gert Steegmans, was exceptionally strong all week; Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) and Flecha (Sky) were equally solid; honorable mentions also go to Blythe, Tom Veelers (Project 1t4i), Eisel (Sky), Farrar and Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Barracuda).
The form that four-time Qatar champion Boonen boasted in the Middle East, however, leaves me wondering a little: Is he too good too soon? Though the fourth stage aside, the 31-year-old didn’t really extend himself and the longest leg was just 160 kilometers, so, more than likely, the boy from Balen is back on track for a good run at Flanders and Roubaix. He last won those races in 2006 and 2009, respectively.
For the rest, the end of Qatar marked 36 days from the season’s first major appointment, Milan-San Remo, with Tirreno-Adriatico, another warm-up race for the sprinters in between, leaving enough time for fine-tuning before La Classicissima.