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.
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.
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)
It’s February, the early season. Up until recent times, riders did not start racing properly until Paris-Nice in March. Now, they have a myriad of races on offer, from Argentina to Australia to Qatar. The idea, though, is that the stages are not so demanding. If they are, it is limited.
Australia and Argentina throw in what they classify as mountain stages, but those climbs would barely be considered a speed bump in a grand tour. Featureless Qatar is unable to offer the same, but it does have wind. Depending on where the race travels in Qatar, it becomes worse.
Just as gradient impacts the climbs of the major tours, so does the road direction in Qatar. One way could be a howling tailwind and the next thing you know, riders are heading into a block headwind or the group is shattered into echelons.
Stage wins and time bonuses are important to winning the overall. A stage win nets 10, six and four seconds, while three, two and one second are on offer at intermediate sprints.
Stage 1: February 3, Katara Cultural Village — Dukhan Beach (145km)
The race has begun from Dukhan, but never finished there along the country’s west coast. The opening stage rolls into town, heads out on the main drag to Fahahil before U-turning back to Dukhan’s beach. In Dukhan, the race changes direction from five to four kilometers out. After the tricky section, the riders head straight towards the beach, into a likely headwind, and turn right 550m from the finish line for the final drag race.
Stage 2: February 4, Al Rufaa TTT (14km)
Al Rufaa hosts a stage, a 14km team time trial, for the first time in the race’s history. The city sits just west of Doha and stages the start finish near its stadium. The leg is out and back on a gently curving road, but before racing back to the line the teams must navigate a tricky exchange over the Al Rufaa Street. The team time trial is the first such test of the season and a Qatari staple.
Stage 3: February 5, Al Wakra — Mesaieed (143km)
The women raced to Mesaieed on Tuesday, when Chloe Hosking won the opening stage. They did not encounter much wind, but that could change for the men when they face two big circuits. In Mesaieed, the finish is simple, with only a roundabout at 1,700m out.
Heinrich Haussler won the same stage last year for Garmin. Boonen (2010) and Greg Van Avermaet (2007) have won here as well, but with the starts in different cities.
Stage 4: February 6, Camel Race Track — Al Khor Corniche (160km)
Mark Cavendish won the same run from the Camel track in Al Sheehaniya to the coast in Al Khor last year. The tension rose through the day and exploded when Filippo Pozzato crashed, abandoned and jeopardized his classics season. Cavendish wove through the bunch and beat Liquigas’ duo of Daniel Oss and Peter Sagan. Like last year, it is the longest stage and may be just as nervous.
Stage 5: Al Zubara Fort — Madinat Al Shamal (154km)
Wind and crashes ripped the field apart before Cancellara clicked on and drilled it last year en route to Madinat Al Shamal. Boonen responded and won the stage. Another classics-like scenario may play out this year along Qatar’s northwest coast before heading into town, this year facing three circuits. The finish is straight, with only a small roundabout at 800m out.
Stage 6: Sealine Beach Resort — Doha Corniche (116.5km)
In the last two years, this stage has produced surprising winners: Arnaud Démare and Andrea Guardini. As with the previous five stages, it is flat and straight, but mostly exposed to wind. This stage travels north along the east coast to the capital city. Once there, riders will complete circuits along the bay, with the final bend at 1,400 meters to race.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) ★★★★ Cavendish will carry the burden of Omega Pharma’s leadership with Boonen out. It should be no problem, as he has won four stages and placed sixth and ninth overall in the past.
To win the overall this year, he needs to do well in the team time trial and win as many stages as possible for the bonus seconds. If he is able to win three of the six stages, he will collect enough seconds to jump up in the overall, perhaps landing himself on the top step.
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) ★★★ The Swiss is on track towards the classics, which underlines his name for the Tour of Qatar. The best he has accomplished so far is a stage win and seventh overall last year.
His ability to stick with the lead group when the gulf winds howl will work in his favor. To win the overall, he simply needs to give the slip to the sprinters. The winds will go a long way to determining how and if that happens.
Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) ★★ Taylor can work his Phinney magic to win the overall classification by sticking with Cancellara and teammate Greg Van Avermaet. The effort will ensure he is ‘up there’ every day, but one of those days he will need to launch from a select group to get the winning advantage to seal the deal. It is a long shot, but Phinney in his short two years as a pro has shown capable and he is coming off of his first incident-free offseason.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) ★★ Norway’s “Eddy BoHagen” will form part of Sky’s classics team next month and will be nearing top form in Qatar. He showed well in the Santos Tour Down Under, working hard for teammate and overall leader Geraint Thomas, and already has four stage race titles under his belt.
In 2010, he debuted for Sky with a win in Qatar. He helped the British boys win the team time trial and wore the leader’s golden jersey for one day. It may be a sign of things to come when he returns for his second participation.
Elia Viviani (Cannondale) ★★ The Italian fast-man is beginning a new chapter after devoting much of last season to the track omnium at the Olympic Games. He debuts in Qatar, but will catch on quickly and give Cavendish some competition. A stage win or two will allow him to move up in the overall, but he will need to follow Cancellara or another attack one day to gain enough to win the overall.
Others to watch
Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) ★
Tom Veelers (Argos-Shimano) ★
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) ★
Adam Blythe (BMC Racing) ★
Tony Gallopin (RadioShack-Leopard) ★
Bernhard Eisel (Sky) ★
Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) ★★
Daniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff) ★
How to follow in North America
VeloNews.com and Cycling Weekly contributor Gregor Brown is on the ground in Qatar and will have daily in-depth coverage from the race. We’ll also carry daily photos and results. Follow Brown on Twitter @GregorBrown.
U.S./Canada TV listings:
Will update as available.
Notable social media:
Twitter hashtag: #TourofQatar
Race Twitter: @tourdefrance
Updated January 31, 2013.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step (OPQ)
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IAM Cycling (IAM)
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Champion System (CSS)
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FENG Chun Kai
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