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Qatar world championships takes shape amid questions

Eddy Merckx and his team push Qatar toward the 2016 road worlds, despite questions surrounding the courses and fan access

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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Qatar is planning for cycling’s first world championships in the Middle East in 2016 with questions still surrounding its selection to host such a prestigious event.

The race will start and finish in the capital city of Doha, the home base for the Tour of Qatar. It will be flat, raced around the desert, and likely buffeted by high wind from the Persian Gulf. It is a world apart from the bergs outside of Maastricht, Netherlands, where Philippe Gilbert was crowned champion in September.

Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Thani presides over the cycling federation in the petroleum- and natural gas-rich emirate. He looked over the finish on Doha’s Corniche Sunday while speaking to a small group of journalists.

“I was in Maastricht for the worlds,” he said. The late afternoon gulf wind blew his keffiyeh. “We have a dedicated team. We had 14 people in Maastricht and we’ll have more in Florence [this year’s host -ed.]. We take people from all the departments — from the security, communications, medical — anybody who has anything to do with it will have to go and experience it to prepare in the best way possible.”

The UCI awarded Qatar the 83rd edition of the elite road world championships on September 19 during the Valkenburg worlds. Norway also bid, but is now expected to host the 2017 worlds.

Florence, Italy, hosts this year’s edition. Spain will play host in 2014 and the U.S. will be home to the 2015 road worlds in Richmond, Virginia.

The circuit

Recent editions, since 2010 in Geelong, have started in cities different than the arrival. Last year, the race began in Maastricht and ended on top of the Cauberg climb in nearby Valkenburg.

Doha will host the start and finish along its waterfront.

“We are still busy [designing the course] because there’s always new roads. We are speaking with the UCI, making plans, and show them what we have,” Eddy Merckx told VeloNews.

The cycling legend co-owns the Tour of Qatar, which is run by Tour de France organizer ASO and is in its 12th year. He helped Sheikh Khalid launch a major stage race; now he is doing the same with the worlds.

“It’s flat, but it’s windy here. You can see that from everyday in the [Tour of Qatar]. It’s not so easy,” he said. [The Worlds circuit] will have a lot of change in directions. With the wind, it will be a hard race.”

The time trial circuit will cover around 10 kilometers. The men will ride it four times for nearly 42km. A larger circuit of around 15 kilometers will feature in the road race.

When asked about the rumor of Qatar “creating” difficulties, Merckx laughed. “No,” he said, “they won’t be building a climb.”

“It’s not an issue that we have to have a hill to make it difficult,” Sheikh Khalid said. “In Europe, they’re used to having climbs in races and that suits some riders better, but they will be handicapped here of course because here would be a sprinters’ course.”

The winner

The 2016 world champion will be one who favors a flat circuit. Sheikh Khalid suggested it would be similar to Copenhagen, therefore suiting Brit Mark Cavendish.

VeloNews suggested to Merckx that the course could be compared to Zolder, Belgium, where Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini won. “But Zolder wasn’t windy; here it’s windy,” he said. “It’ll be harder, I think. It won’t be a [bunch sprint].”

Dane Matti Breschel was second in Melbourne behind Norway’s Thor Hushovd.

“It always depends on the weather, but most of the sprinters are good in cross-wind and know how to position themselves,” said Breschel. “It’s going to be really good for Mark Cavendish.”

The fans

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound? Likewise, would such a prestigious win be devalued by a lack of cheering fans?

It is no longer used, but in 2009, the Tour of Qatar played an applause track during the podium ceremonies. These days a sprinkling of fans cheers.

Their numbers will certainly increase, but will be less than what cycling saw in Valkenburg or in Copenhagen, Breschel’s home.

“I think that all the locals don’t really give a shit,” Breschel said. “But there are so many ex-pats living and working here, and in neighboring countries, Bahrain and [the UAE] to travel over.”

Enthusiasts from America and Europe may travel to Doha, but the trip and hotel stay will be costly. Merckx explained that Qatar may invite, at its expense, young people from different countries.

It will be a unique worlds to remember, like Colombia in 1995 or Japan in 1990.

“It can’t always be in the same place,” Aussie rider Baden Cooke said. “It’s not like it’s [in Qatar] every second year. Why not have it in a different place? I’m sure Qatar will put a lot of effort into it.”

And why the effort? Most communities pay to host the worlds to bring in tourism dollars. Qatar, however, is rich — the richest country in the world in 2010 according Forbes magazine. Its move is not for tourism. It is hosting the worlds and other events, like soccer’s World Cup in 2022, to eventually bring in the Olympics.

“Everybody knows — it’s not a secret — that we have ambitions for the Olympics,” Sheikh Khalid said. “We must test every discipline to show it can performed with success in Qatar.”