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Chasing rainbows in Qatar: A worlds unlike any other

The heat, as well as potential for backroom drama, should make 2016 Qatar worlds one to remember — or perhaps forget

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The hunt for the rainbow jersey this week will see a world championships unlike any other in cycling history.

Heat, wind, dust, humidity, and a pancake-flat parcours along the backdrop of the exotic Arabian Sea will provide a unique setting in cycling history, and that’s just on the bike. Backroom intrigue will also play out, as season-long frustrations and ambitions could bubble up, as they inevitably do at every worlds.

For the first time since the inaugural professional world championship in 1927, what’s arguably the sport’s most important one-day race ventures to the Middle East for the first time. In only the world’s ninth excursion beyond Europe, the stakes are high during these championships.

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The UCI will want to deliver a flawless event to quiet the peanut gallery wondering about the appropriateness of the host venue, while sprinters will not want to miss what could be their last chance to claim the stripes in awhile.

Worlds week is a big deal inside the rolling circus of professional cycling, and it normally draws many of the sports heavy hitters, as former racers, pro team managers, agents, UCI officials, race promoters, and the entourages of the respective national teams all converge for one week of cycling drama involving the breadth of the road scene from the world’s best men and women, to U23 and junior racers. The UCI also holds annual meetings during worlds week. This is showtime.

Yet many have traveled to Qatar this week with misgivings about the suitability of the course and the legitimacy of the venue, with worries that extreme heat that could torpedo the whole thing.

When it comes to the potentially high temperatures, officials are doing what they can, and the worlds were moved back three weeks on the calendar, in part to make room for the Rio Olympic Games, but mostly in the hope that the 100-degree-plus summer temperatures would break by mid-October.

Last week, the UCI announced that the road races could be dramatically reduced — lopping out 150km of the men’s road race — if temperatures are deemed too high and dangerous on race day.

During training this week, riders tweeted photos of their computers revealing temperatures in the high 90s, hot by any measure, but nothing beyond what the peloton occasionally faces at the Vuelta a España or other peak summer races. How teams and racers deal with the heat will be a key talking point all week.

The worlds opened with Sunday’s truncated pro team time trial — not all teams attended over a spat over travel costs — and more than a few riders were already complaining of the heat. The worlds continue this week under the threat of Sahara-like temperatures sweeping across the Qatari peninsula.

Forecasters are calling for temperatures in the high-90 to 100s with 60 percent humidity, far from ideal racing conditions, but lower than what they could be. It will be a tightrope-walk to see if organizers can pull off the full, longer distances of the road races. It’s the combination of heat, humidity, and wind that has everyone worried that the worlds could be turned into little more than a kermesse.

“I am afraid of what can happen with dehydration,” Spanish national team doctor Iñaki Iñigo told El Mundo. “The Europeans are not used to the high temperatures of Qatar. It could be very difficult.”

After a season of superb racing, from the classics, across the stage races and grand tours, to the highlight of the Olympic Games, the worlds typically put an exclamation point on the season. Bringing the worlds to Qatar is a high-risk proposition by any measure.

Organizers promise the infrastructure and facilities will be up to world-class standards typical of any event backed by the well-funded Qatar government. John Lelangue, a former sport director at BMC Racing and an official as ASO, was tapped by local officials to steer the project.

“Of course, we do not have any mountains, but we decided to work with what we have. And what Qatar has a lot of is wind,” Lelangue said. “And the circuit course is very technical, without a lot of straightaways. There is no guarantee it will be a sprint.

Beyond the racing, there are other, larger issues that could come into focus this week as well. There will be grumbles from traditionalists about having a worlds in the Middle East. The UCI’s hefty fee and and the promise of potential additional sponsorship money for the sport is the rationale behind the unconventional destination. Yet some wonder just how much importance the race will have on a course with little natural challenges before what’s sure to be a sparse crowd.

There is no question that the Middle East has emerged as an important funding source for cycling, and a world championship is the culmination of a relationship that dates back to the early 2000s. Next season, races in Qatar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi will join the WorldTour calendar, and a new team backed by the Bahrain government built around former Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali will enter the peloton, giving the region even more gravity. Rich in petro-dollars, the region has helped cycling endure the economic malaise across Europe for nearly a decade, and many of cycling’s key players hope it remains that way.

“We are keen to take cycling to new areas of the world,” UCI president Brian Cookson told a local Qatari paper. “I am hoping this will be the first of many world championships to come to the Middle East. More and more tour events are now being organized in [Mideast].”

Yet others question whether it’s appropriate to take the world’s so far from its tradition hotbed simply to chase money. Previous efforts to extend the worlds out of Europe have brought it to Canada, Japan, Venezutyela, Colombia, Australia, and the United States, nations that for the most part already had a committed cycling base.

It will be curious to see how many fans actually will make the long trek to Qatar to watch the races. The stage races at Qatar and Dubai usually see ex-pats and a few curious locals, but rarely draw big crowds.

Local supporters naturally defended the move to bring the worlds to Qatar, and insist the sport is starting to take hold in the region.

“We raced in Montreal in 1974, and that was different than Qatar, but it was special because it was the first time out of Europe,” said Eddy Merckx, who has played a key role in bringing cycling to Qatar. “With 30 to 35 degrees [Celsius], the heat will be a factor, but it won’t be decisive. The wind in the desert will be a more important factor.”

These worlds will surely be measured more on the success of the racing, and whether or not extreme heat prompts a reduction in road races, rather than on the size of the crowds.

The pro teams could also be hitting a boiling point over plans for next season to trim the WorldTour league to 17 teams while expanding the WorldTour racing calendar for 2017. Season-long gripes over course safety, over-stretched racing calendars, and other aggravations, including a gnawing sense that Tour de France owner ASO is enjoying too much influence, could come bubbling to the surface during the week in what’s the season’s final major get-together.

Worlds also kick off as the sport finds itself under renewed media scrutiny, especially by the British media, following revelations that came out of the Fancy Bears hack last month, and allegations of possible TUE abuses. And to add one more wrinkle to this week’s thickening plot lines, UCI president Brian Cookson could see a challenge at next year’s UCI elections from French rival David Lappartient.

Extreme heat or not, what’s sure is that the Qatar world championships provides a unique opportunity for the sprinters. The course is so flat that perennial worlds podium man Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who’s won a record six medals, decided to give it a pass. The last chance for the sprinters was in Denmark in 2011, and before that in Zolder in 2002, with Mark Cavendish and Mario Cipollini winning those respective races. Expect a big name to step up to win the men’s road race next weekend.

Regardless of weather conditions, riders will be ready to race, with the sprinter teams expected to control the road races. Smaller worlds teams, mixed with potentially blasting winds and a technical circuit course once the race hits the Pearl-Qatar loop, means that a bunch sprint is far from guaranteed.

The worlds are never boring, on or off the bike, and the heat of Qatar should make the 2016 edition one to remember, or maybe forget, depending on how the week unfolds.