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Believe it or not, the often-derided Tour of Qatar is going to be missed this week.
The event that shuttled in the era of Middle Eastern racing was supposed to have been the second stop this week of the expanded 2017 WorldTour calendar. Instead, it was hastily canceled in December (along with the Ladies Tour of Qatar), and its absence leaves an important and surprising hole in the calendar.
Despite being disparaged in some corners, most teams and riders actually liked the five-day Tour of Qatar. Here’s what Mark Cavendish told VeloNews’s Gregor Brown about racing in Qatar: “Definitely the punch you get out of the Tour of Qatar is different to what you can get elsewhere. Every single rider who’s here got stuck in.”
Qatar was once Tom Boonen’s preferred spring classics warm-up — at least until his Quick-Step team was not invited to return last year — because of the one thing that Qatar offered in surplus: crosswinds. Here’s what he said about Qatar: “You don’t find these windy days anywhere else in the world. It’s a hard man’s race. It’s 60kph in the first hour of the race sometimes. So it’s logical, when you’re good here, you will be good at the front and fighting for the victory in the classics.”
On paper, the flat, barren, and desolate landscapes of Qatar seem to be an unlikely setting for a bike race, but when the wind kicks up, the classics hard men dropped the hammer — and the results were often spectacular. Last year’s largely booed world championships in Doha actually ended up delivering a tantalizing men’s road race because crosswinds helped deliver a rare scene of a shattered peloton.
The abrupt decision to cancel that race in December left many scratching their heads about what really happened. Officials floated the implausible idea of a budget crisis, but that hardly rings true for a nation overflowing with natural gas and oil reserves. Instead, insiders hinted at a behind-the-scenes power struggle on who controlled the race — it was owned by the Qataris, promoted by Eddy Merckx, and organized by ASO. The arrival of a new federation president leaves officials hopeful the race could return to the calendar in 2018.
The expanded Middle East offerings — which now includes races in Oman, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi in February — also put the pinch on existing, early season European races. Teams said they’ve had to adjust to not having Qatar on the calendar, perhaps giving the strapped Euro-side races a reprieve this season.
“The main problem for the teams about Qatar is that the decision came so late. There was already planning and everyone had their race schedules set, so for this late decision, it did throw in a bit of a wrench,” said BMC Racing’s sport manager Allan Peiper. “There are also good races in Europe that deserve merit. That doesn’t mean we cannot broaden out to the rest of the world, to Australia, or to the Middle East or wherever, but those organizers have been around 60-70 years, and every year they keep coming up with a race at the same time.
“If the historic races go, and then the new WorldTour races fold after a few years, then we have a real dilemma. It is an interesting situation that has arisen.”
Like many teams, BMC had to adjust with the hole left by Qatar. Instead of battling crosswinds and staying in five-star digs along Doha’s corniche, BMC sent its classics star Greg Van Avermaet to the Volta a Valenciana.
And the lure of the desert crosswinds is prompting Movistar to send its Colombian climber Nairo Quintana to Abu Dhabi later this month in order to improve his chops in the echelons as he prepares for the Giro-Tour double.
Qatar might not rank as one of cycling’s greatest stage races, but the classics-bound big hitters will be missing it this week. Qatar’s legacy speaks for itself. Every year Boonen won the overall title at Qatar, he won either Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.