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MADRID (VN) — In little more than three weeks, the elite international peloton will converge on the barren, windswept peninsula of Qatar for the 2016 world road cycling championships.
Flat roads, heat, and wind will be the three elements that will mark the Middle East’s first cycling world championships. And despite near-universal consensus that the road races will come down to bunch sprints, local organizers say the Qatar worlds could deliver some surprises.
“We can expect some surprises,” said John Lelangue, technical director of the Qatar worlds via telephone Friday. “It is a very technical circuit, and even if it is flat — that’s something that we cannot change in Qatar — we cannot guarantee it will be a bunch sprint.”
Sprinters such as Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, and Alexander Kristoff will be the five-star favorites for the men’s road race, but Lelangue said the script could be upturned by Qatar’s unique mix of heat and wind.
Jutting like a thumb into the Arabian Sea off the Saudi peninsula, Qatar is buffeted by gusting winds nearly year-round. Classics-bound riders love racing the Tour of Qatar each February to prepare for races like Flanders and Roubaix. And though the heat won’t be scorching as it can be in July or August, long-range forecasts call for temperatures in the mid to high 90s.
Wind, heat, and a world-championship distance over more than 250km will make for a demanding race, even if the highest point of the race will be bridges.
“The wind can change a lot in Qatar, and this can make for some surprises,” Lelangue continued. “There can be a lot of wind, and sometimes it can change direction. There is also a technical finishing circuit, and at the worlds, we have teams of nine, of six, of three. It’s not like at the Tour de France, when the sprinter teams can control everything. I think we can expect many things to happen.”
Some course changes made earlier this year will see the men race on a longer loop that will carry the peloton across barren flats that dominate the landscape beyond the glimmering skyscrapers and air-conditioned shopping malls in Doha. UCI rules require at least 100km of racing on the finishing circuit, so Lelangue and his team of advisers worked to include more racing out in the desert to take advantage of Qatar’s unique desert landscape before the final seven 15.2km laps.
“We have seen in previous editions of the Tour of Qatar, this is where interesting things can happen in the race,” said Lelangue, referring to the open desert roads. “The wind can change very fast. If there is a lot of wind, there can be a big fight in the road races. It’s a good balance of what we could do here in Qatar.
After the big desert loop, all of the road races will end on a technical, turn-heavy circuit on the Pearl Island. Wind could be less of a factor because the area has many of buildings, but if the wind kicks up, it will still be a factor. More important, said Lelangue, is the technical, non-stop turning nature of the final loop.
“There are not a lot of straightaways,” Lelangue said. “Once a group goes, they do not have them in their vision. And with the varied teams, it will be difficult to manage. The worlds are always a different race.”
It is still very likely a reduced-bunch sprint should contest for the rainbow jersey. Some of the confirmed line-ups are naturally centered on sprinters. Following Zolder in 2002, and Copenhagen in 2011, sprinters know this could be their last chance for at least another half decade to race for the rainbow jersey.
“And if it is a sprinter who wins, well, that is part of cycling, too,” Lelangue said. “I was happy to see a guy like Cavendish to be world champion. To see a good sprint is always exciting. Like we saw at Rio, no one expected Greg Van Avermaet to win on that course, so others can take their chances here as well. There are others, like [Tom] Boonen, who is not a pure sprinter but very fast. All of this mix will make for an interesting race.”