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Tour of Qatar canceled over sponsor woes

The race that opened the door to the lucrative Middle East market is no more.

The UCI confirmed Wednesday that the 2017 Tour of Qatar and the Ladies Tour of Qatar are canceled due to “difficulty attracting sponsor financial support.” Qatari officials also confirmed to VeloNews that the race would be immediately canceled.

Coming just months after Qatar hosted the sometimes-controversial world championships in October, the sudden announcement comes as a surprise. The Qatar race (February 6-10) was recently upgraded to WorldTour status as part of the UCI’s expanded international calendar for 2017, and its abrupt exit leaves a hole in the calendar just weeks before the 2017 WorldTour opens at the Santos Tour Down Under (January 17-22).

The Tour of Qatar was first organized in 2002, and quickly became a favorite for classics-bound riders who relished the warm weather and intense racing often marked by strong winds and echelons. The Quick Step franchise won eight of the 15 editions, with Tom Boonen taking a record four GC titles.

The five-day race ushered in a period of strong investment from oil-rich Middle East countries looking to cash in on exposure and enhance their credentials among international governing bodies with high-profile events. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, and Bahrain have since followed, backing races and cycling teams.

The Qatar races were often marked by a lack of fans, but the peloton seemed to enjoy the well-organized event, spring-like weather, and the five-star luxury accommodations. Several top teams, however, skipped the event in 2016.

The race was organized by Tour de France owners ASO, had strong links to Eddy Merckx, and usually drew a top-level start list over the years. The Ladies Tour was introduced seven years ago and will also be canceled as part of Qatar’s hasty exit from cycling.

Qatar is also slated to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but it was unclear if officials wanted to redirect resources toward that looming international soccer event.