Road

Qatar gold: A gift from the Sky, or the wind?

At the Tour of Qatar, a two-man suicide breakaway on stage 2 ended up defining the entire event when the peloton did not chase until it was too late and Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil) and Geert Steurs (Topsport) survived until the finish.

As Mol wins Qatar, others wonder about what might have been

Even in the carefully calculated world of professional stage racing, sometimes things go askew.

Steurs and Mol on the run in Stage 2.
Steurs and Mol on the run in Stage 2.

At the Tour of Qatar, a two-man suicide breakaway on stage 2 ended up defining the entire event when the peloton did not chase until it was too late and Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil) and Geert Steurs (Topsport) survived until the finish.

While Steurs’ stage victory was a feel-good story for most — he dedicated the win to his former teammate Frederiek Nolf, who died at this event in his sleep last year — the resulting overall victory for Mol was a point of contention for some in the peloton. Fingers were pointed at Team Sky, which did not initiate an early chase on stage 2 while their Norwegian star Edvald Boasson Hagen held the leader’s jersey.

“Sky messed the whole race up for everybody; that’s a pity,” said Cervélo’s Roger Hammond. “I guess they knew they weren’t very strong when they came here, so they just let the front group go on the first (road stage) day. I don’t quite know what their tactic was. But now it seems like they knew they couldn’t ride at the front. So why chase the first day if they’re not going to do it the rest of the week.”

Team Sky director Scott Sunderland fired back. “If that is their thinking, that it is up to someone else to do the work, well then they’re already defeated before the race started,” Sunderland said. “If you want to win a bike race, you take responsibility when you see it necessary. You don’t put the blame on someone else. We had our race plan, they stick to theirs. If they want to sit back and let everyone else do all the work and deliver it on a silver platter, that’s their prerogative.”

Team Sky won the opening team time trial in convincing fashion, putting Boasson Hagen into the gold jersey for stage 2. Literally minutes into that second stage, however, Sky’s road captain Kurt-Asle Arvesen crashed, breaking his collarbone and abandoning the race. Sky’s Bradley Wiggins said the team was temporarily disoriented without their leader. Ahead, Mol and Steurs put their heads down into the wind and steadily built up a gap that peaked at nearly 23 minutes.

Too little, too late? A leaderless peloton picks up the chase.
Too little, too late? A leaderless peloton picks up the chase.

After about an hour of the peloton just rolling along, and the breakaway’s gap ballooning out of control, Garmin-Transitions went to the front. Team Sky added a few men to the effort.

As the race proceeded across the desert, changes in direction meant changes in the strong wind. When the race turned into a crosswind, Cervélo amassed at the front of the field and punched it. The fight for the front echelon began, and naturally there were more losers than winners. Boasson Hagen initially made the split, but then flatted out of the group.

After the selection was made, there were 24 men in the front group, being chased by 17 in the second and then most of the rest of the field following in third and fourth echelons. Going full gas, the front group steadily began to close on the two-man breakaway, but as the finish neared, it was clear they had left too much until too late.

Then, instead of keeping a concerted chase going all the way to the line, the members of the front group began attacking one another, and Mol and Steurs were home free.

After the stage, none of the big teams seemed too concerned about the two-minute gap the breakaway had left to everyone else. With four days of racing to go, many reasoned, that split would be erased in the Qatari wind.

But then, following a fiendish sandstorm during the women’s race the prior week, the wind died out. It was as if mountains had been removed from a climbing stage — Mol’s competitors suddenly found themselves lacking a point of leverage to try to pry the jersey free.

“If there is no wind, then there is a problem,” said three-time race winner Tom Boonen (Quick Step) after winning stage 3, which finished in a bunch sprint. Stages 4, 5 and 6 also concluded with the field basically intact.

Before the final stage even began, racers agreed that the overall competition was over.

“It’s a pity we didn’t have wind,” said Hammond, whose team was dinged with a one-minute penalty for one rider allegedly pushing another during the TTT. “Qatar is a very difficult race to win with a three-minute deficit and no wind. It’s really hard to make that up. It’s a pity. C’est la vie.”

The wind did pick up slightly on stage 5, with a small group going clear before being caught before the line. But even then, the wily Mol had made the selection.

The race concluded the next day with flat finishing circuits along the gulf water in Doha, and Mol safely in the group at the end.

But whether it was the result of Team Sky, Qatari wind or any other factor, Mol was just happy to take home the jersey. Indeed, by riding a 140km two-man time trial across the desert on stage 2, he had earned it.