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The road to the finish at Dukhan Beach doubled back on itself before cutting left one last time, putting the finish in sight. Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick-Step teammates yanked at the front of the field, pulling it into line. Then Sky took over, towing Elia Viviani. Still, Brent Bookwalter and a pair of Swiss breakaway companions held their gap. It was less than 30 seconds at 3 kilometers to go and the announcer spoke mostly of their doom.
But the wind had turned, slowing the closure of the narrow advantage. At 300 meters the sprint opened up. Two sprints actually, one of tired legs in front and one of fresh ones behind, closing like a train. But the train was late, misjudged, the wind misunderstood. A single meter was the difference. Not enough, even, to give the trio a time gap. Bookwalter, very much not a bunch sprinter, won the first stage of the 2013 Tour of Qatar.
“You would’ve thought that we would’ve come back really fast,” Bookwalter said that day. Indeed, that is what we all thought. “I think no one really knew what the wind was going to do in the last 4km.” No, we didn’t. We still don’t.
They say that the world championships in Qatar will be snoozy, that the heat and a comprehensive lack of elevation change will turn the 257km race into a Joycean slog punctuated, as such slogs are, only in its final moments. But they said the same about that stage in Qatar three years ago, didn’t they?
In holding off the field, Bookwalter provided a useful illustration of the desert chaos that could greet the world championship peloton in 11 days time.
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It’s a special sort of chaos. In Belgium and the Netherlands, old directors with cigarettes for fingers know their own brand of the stuff. They know the corners, cobbles, wind, and weather in the same way that we might understand evening commute traffic, that the middle lane is fastest until the speed limit sign, where it’s time to merge hard left. In the desert, far from home, their powers are as useless as ours would be in a new city; these sands are their kryptonite.
This is not to say we are guaranteed chaos. Based on weather data, the chance of chaos is about 20 percent. (That’s 20 percent higher than the chance of rain.) So the world championship road race this year has an 80 percent chance of predictability, a simple sprint, and 20 percent of madness.
So, whom do we pick for either scenario?
The Eneco Tour just finished and provided a handy glimpse into both who is sprinting well (Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel, and Dylan Groenewegen) and who is simply riding well (Niki Terpstra, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Greg Van Avermaet, and Rohan Dennis). Eneco was the last real tuneup, as anybody with a shot at winning hilly Il Lombardia this weekend will not win in flat Qatar. That would be even weirder than Bookwalter.
In a full-chaos, crosswind-type scenario, worlds will be down to the classics fellas. The final, nasty stage of Eneco suggests Terpstra, Boasson Hagen, and Van Avermaet will be there. Fabian Cancellara won’t, he’s done. Add to that list Arnaud Demare and John Degenkolb, both winners of Milano-Sanremo. The usual suspects.
Plus, of course, Sagan.
The Slovak has to be the overall favorite, regardless of which scenario plays out. This is despite the fact that he keeps telling us he’s tired. There isn’t really a situation that doesn’t suit him. Big group? Cool, no problem. He just outsprinted Greipel head-to-head. Small group, split by wind? Hard to believe he won’t be there, too.
A bunch sprint is easier to predict. Cavendish has a good team. Bouhanni was sprinting well at Eneco, but was not on top form. Marcel Kittel, though, is a total mystery.
What about Groenewegen? He won Eneco’s first stage. He’s unproven over 260km, but he has a strong Dutch team (including Tom Dumoulin, who will be on flying TT form) around him. Tough call.
Based on Eneco, Greipel is a solid pick. He didn’t win a stage, but he has a few things in his favor. First, he’s good in the wind and has a very strong German team, assuming they decide to ride for him and not Kittel. They should. Second, we know he can go the distance. This is a 257km race, and if it’s echeloned out for four or five hours that will pull the sting out of most sprinters’ legs. The “Gorilla’s” attacks at Flanders every year indicate that he’s not scared of a long, hard day.
What else did Eneco teach us? Well, the final day saw about half the field DNF, thanks mostly to miserable conditions and excessive Dutchness (more road furniture than you can shake a stick at, crashes, wind, rain, and misery). Kittel pulled out, so did Bouhanni. One has to think that any rider who truly believed he has a chance at rainbow stripes would stick it out for the training alone.
Or, perhaps, they’d drop out to stave off illness?
I’m still picking Sagan. Yes, for the world championship double that has eluded the sport since Paolo Bettini. Can you come up with a scenario that doesn’t suit him?
On October 16 of last year, exactly 366 days before the elite men’s race, it was 95 degrees with sustained winds of 5mph and gusts to 13mph in Doha. That’s not bad. But a few days earlier, winds were sustained at 13mph and gusting to 25mph. That’s chaos. This is the Doha wind lottery. If we win, and the winds are high, anything could happen. If we lose, pick up a copy of Ulysses and settle in for a nice, long nap. Either way, you might just wake up to find out your new world champ is the same as the old one.