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Preview: At the Tour of Qatar, ‘you’re always on fire’

Cycling's Middle East tour continues Sunday with the Tour of Qatar, which will tell us a lot about the classics riders' preparation for the cobbles

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It’s early in the season. These guys are racing on highways through what appears to be a swath of a post-modern world awash in wind and sand. But this is a race that matters increasingly more each season, if not for the result itself then for what’s to transpire after the results. The Tour of Qatar is where we find out who among the classics men and sprinters is good, and who among them spent too much time at the beach or eating cookies.

The six-stage event — the 13th edition — begins Sunday and this year serves as the second of three major men’s races in the Middle East in February. It covers 714 kilometers over six stages, with time bonuses at the finishes of the first stage, and stages 3-6. In other words, this is a stage race rigged for sprinters, and they’ll look to make the most of the opportunity. There’s also a short time trial, at 10.9km. It may look flat, but that’s not to say it’s easy. To race in the wind like the peloton will do is to block out part of one’s brain.

“[The] Tour of Qatar is a race where no distractions are allowed. You’re always on fire and you need to be gutsy along each kilometer,” said Cannondale director Alberto Volpi. His tapped GC rider, Elia Viviani, said much of the same.

“People may think that a flat stage has no risks, but the wind and consequent fight to keep the head positions will make Tour of Qatar really tough to manage in the finale. Experience will be a key factor in getting the results I need,” Viviani said this week via a press release.

This year’s event is hugely important for Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). What? How is the Tour of Qatar hugely important for a man who’s won Paris-Roubaix four times and the Ronde van Vlaanderen another three?

Because it will set the tone for the Belgian darling leading into his beloved spring classics and, after a tough year that saw him suffer from an infection, surgery, crashes and carnage, Boonen needs to feel good on his bike again. There’s no time like the present. This race was made for him, and last year’s winner, teammate Mark Cavendish, isn’t in the running. Oh, and Boonen has four GC wins at Qatar and 20 stages to his credit.

“The Tour of Qatar will be another important step in the first part of my season,” Boonen said. “I’ve always done well in this race. This year, too, we’ll be lining up for the start with the ambition to do well, to achieve prestigious results. I really like the Tour of Qatar, it’s a race that is perfectly suited to my strengths. The wind is a fundamental factor in this competition; whether you want to or not, it forces you to always try to stay out in front and never underestimate any racing situation. Luckily, pedaling in the wind is one of the things Omega Pharma-Quick Step excels in. I’m really looking forward to this race.”

His director, Wilfried Peeters, of course pointed to the wind, as well.

“The Tour of Qatar is a race that is unique in its class, where the wind rules,” Peeters said. “Normally, the stages end up in tight final sprints with just a few riders. They are unusual sprints because after hours of battling the winds, riders come in to the sprint very tired. We are lining up for the start with a squad selected for this type of route. It will be headed by Boonen, but athletes like Nikolas Maes and Niki Terpstra can also do well.”

Terpstra figures to fare well in the short TT, to be ridden on road bikes, and to a large degree Omega Pharma will be rallying members of its classics squad. A rider they’ll have to watch closely is Lotto-Belisol’s André Greipel, who, at this point in their respective careers, is a better top-end sprinter than Boonen. The German has to be regarded as a top-tier favorite in this enigmatic race.

Here’s a theme developing. The team is worried about the wind. It can slow the peloton to a crawl, or make a break.

“The wind plays an important role each day. It’s a tough race. Someone who isn’t good will definitely get dropped,” said Lotto sport director Bart Leysen, who also rode the race four years ago. “It’s definitely the type of race for Jürgen Roelandts. Lars Bak, Pim Ligthart, and Marcel Sieberg are also used to riding in echelons and André Greipel perfectly knows where he has to be placed. When the field is broken up, a small group will battle for the stage win. You have to be represented with as much riders as possible. When there are echelons you shouldn’t doubt, a small hesitation can be enough to miss out.”

Boonen and Greipel are of course the heavy favorites, but there’s a bevy of stars suiting up Sunday. Sky, Trek Factory Racing, and BMC Racing will bring strong teams looking to chisel themselves into classics form. Fabian Cancellara (Trek) may target the short time trial to get the engine moving. And a sneaky, choice darkhorse? IAM Cycling’s Heinrich Haussler has won three stages in the past, and the points classification four times. He needs a good effort to show he’s back on track after a run of sub-par seasons.

Four riders on BMC Racing’s eight-man roster — Marcus Burghardt, former world champion Philippe Gilbert, Swiss road champion Michael Schär, and Greg Van Avermaet — have finished in the top 10 overall before, and Van Avermaet won a stage in 2007.

“I know if we have a windy race, we have a strong team,” director Valerio Piva said. “For me, it is very important that we have good training for the classics and see the team working together. We may not have a true sprinter, but if the race is in pieces after an attack, our guys are strong and motivated and we will try to make the difference as a team.”

A difference. That is essentially what the Tour of Qatar is all about. Making differences so that, coming late March and early April, the classics kings can arrive for battle with full arsenals at their disposal.

13th Tour of Qatar (Feb. 9-14)
Stage 1: Al Wakra — Dukhan Beach (135.5km)
Stage 2: Camel Race Track — Al Khor Corniche (160.5km)
Stage 3: Lusail Circuit ITT (10.9km)
Stage 4: Dukhan — Mesaieed (135km)
Stage 5: Al Zubara Fort — Madinat Al Shamal (159km)
Stage 6: Sealine Beach Resort — Doha Corniche (113.5km)

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