Analysis: Qatar paving way for classics success

Since its 2002 inception, the Tour of Qatar has produced all but three Paris-Roubaix winners

DOHA (VN) — The hot air and blowing sand in Qatar welcome the classics stars this week and hold the key to success on the spring roads of northern Europe. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) and others will land Friday at Doha International Airport with their eyes on the semi-classics and monuments one to two months away.

An alarming frequency of riders who participate in the Tour of Qatar go on to win in Belgium’s opening weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and the cobbled monuments — the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. The sun and wind-swept roads apparently offer the perfect preparation for cycling’s hallowed ground around Brussels.

“It’s important,” Eddy Merckx told VeloNews. “You have very good conditions here, nice weather and you have a lot of speed. It’s very windy sometimes. It makes the race very hard. I think for the beginning o of the season, you don’t need climbs; you need to have speed to gain your condition.”

Tour de France organizer ASO launched the race in 2002 with Merckx’s help. In 2010, they paired it with the Tour of Oman, which begins just three days later. The stage race in Oman suits grand tour riders like Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who are each racing this year, more than the classics stars.

The warm February racing offered the Europeans an alternative to traveling half-a-world away to the Tour Down Under in Australia or to the Amgen Tour of California (before it moved to its May slot in 2010). A handful of riders will still combine a trip to Australia or the Tour of San Luis in Argentina with Qatar.

“The big advantage is that there is only a two-hour [time] difference between Europe and Qatar. In Adelaide, it’s 10.5 or 9.5 hours,” Merckx said. “Also, the temperature is much higher than it is [in Europe], like 40 [degrees Celsius], which I don’t think is a great advantage when preparing for the classics.”

The team managers also don’t mind rubbing shoulders with the same race organizer that selects teams for Paris-Roubaix and the Tour.

The riders, this year 144, find temperatures around 70 degrees and sun. Most days the wind blows air from the Arabian Gulf across the peninsula. Some days it whips, splitting the peloton into echelons and causing crashes. It is perfect race training: warmth and winds similar to the North Sea breeze during the classics.

Merckx added with a grin, “[The wind] is even worse here.”

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is the winningest rider in the race’s history, winning four of the nine editions he’s started. He has led the flow of Qatar starters onto the classics podiums. Surveying the four most significant cobbled classics — Het Nieuwsblad, KBK, Flanders, and Roubaix — over the last five years, riders participating in Qatar have won 12 of 20 races.

All five Paris-Roubaix winners (Johan Van Summeren, Fabian Cancellara and Boonen three times) fought the gulf winds and enjoyed Qatari hospitality in February. Only three times in the Tour of Qatar’s history has one of its participants not gone on to win on Roubaix’s velodrome.

Boonen’s fondness of Qatar and dominance in the classics does aid the statistic somewhat, but perhaps the two went hand-in-hand.

The Belgian, however, is forced to skip the race this year due to an elbow injury sustained in training earlier this month. Asked about his classics chances in light of missing Qatar, Merckx said, “He’s the first one to regret not being here.”

In 10 weeks we will see if Boonen can become the fourth non-Qatari starter earn a cobblestone in Roubaix for his trophy case.

Tour of Qatar classics winners:
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Juan Antonio Flecha (2010)
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: Mark Cavendish (2012), Bobbie Traksel (2010), Boonen (2009), Steven De Jongh (2008)
Ronde van Vlaanderen: Boonen (2012), Fabian Cancellara (2010)
Paris-Roubaix: Boonen (2012), Johan Van Summeren (2011), Cancellara (2010), Boonen (2009), Boonen (2008)