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Preview: Classics masters set to build foundation in Qatari wind

DOHA (VN) — The Tour of Qatar opens Sunday and gets riders into gear ahead of the spring classics back in Europe. The six-day stage race in the Arabian Gulf will see classics stars such as Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) mixing it up with sprinters like Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in an attempt to polish their form for the cobbles.

“We get more and more requests from the teams to race in Qatar,” race representative Eddy Merckx said Monday. “It’s amazing, at the start we had to ask teams to come here; now they come to us. It shows this race is an important event ahead of the spring.”

After Qatar, many riders will head to the Tour of Oman or right into the European classics season. The northern classics truly get going at the end of February with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne semi-classics, but the foundation for the cobbles season starts to take shape on Sunday in the dry, hot wind. To deal with the North Sea winds and speed, the riders need to be on track in Qatar. Since its 2002 inception, the Qatari tour has produced all but three Paris-Roubaix champions.

The Tour of Qatar is not just a prep race for the big exam, but also a prestigious title in its own right. If Merckx is the race’s patriarch, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) is its king. Boonen won for the fourth time last year in the race’s 11th edition. An elbow injury sustained in training in January, however, is stopping him from returning to his beloved race.

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) went head-to-head last year with Boonen for the Qatari title. The American is back, as are Sky’s classics man Ian Stannard, former classics heir-apparent Matti Breschel (Saxo-Tinkoff), Vuelta a España points champion John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), and veteran Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM). Besides good form, they’ll be chasing the race leader’s golden jersey, 100 UCI points from the 2.HC-ranked race and $13,400 [€10,000].

The riders, this year 144, face wind and sprints everyday. The peninsula, sticking out in the gulf from Saudi Arabia, features very few roads, but the ones that are here are racked by gulf wind.

The survivors and winners after six days of racing will travel out of the Doha International Airport, a launch pad of sorts to the European races and cobbles success.

Brief History

As Merckx said, in the beginning the race was a bit of an unknown. The major teams needed persuading to head off to the Middle East to race in the desert, where fans were sparse.

The race grew, though, with Boonen’s rise. When he won his first edition in 2006, the event was already ranked 2.1 with the UCI. It now runs six days and ranks hors classe in the Asia Tour — the top ranking outside of the WorldTour.

Qatar’s cycling federation president, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Thani said Monday, “My dream is to see a local Doha kid one day standing on the podium.”

The race featured a local team in years past, but now features most of the major first and second division teams. With its wind and flats, the wins inevitably go to hard men who excel in races like Paris-Roubaix, men like Boonen (2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012) and Robbie Hunter (2004).

Germany’s Thorsten Wilhems won the first edition in 2002. Aussie Mark Renshaw became the only non-European to win in 2011.

Cancellara has ripped across Qatar’s peninsula a couple of times. Last year, he shot off in the final five kilometers of the fourth leg to the country’s northern tip. Making it seem more classics than Qatar, Boonen bridged with Tom Veelers and Juan Antonio Flecha following.

Previous winners

2002 Thorsten Wilhelms (Ger)
2003 Alberto Loddo (Ita)
2004 Robert Hunter (RSA)
2005 Lars Michaelsen (Den)
2006 Tom Boonen (Bel)
2007 Wilfried Cretskens (Bel)
2008 Tom Boonen (Bel)
2009 Tom Boonen (Bel)
2010 Wouter Mol (Ned)
2011 Mark Renshaw (Aus)
2012 Tom Boonen (Bel)

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