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Qatar still king for classics prep

The top spring classics stars, like Alexander Kristoff and Greg Van Avermaet, agree that Tour of Qatar is an ideal tune-up race.

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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Not all the top stars may have aligned in Qatar last week, but those who raced in the desert agree that the national tour is important preparation for the spring classics, which begin in March.

Desert winds, be they cross or head, and the racing speed, serves cyclists well for the classics from Milano-Sanremo to Paris-Roubaix, a short three-week period from March 19 to April 10.

“Definitely the punch you get out of the Tour of Qatar is different to what you can get elsewhere,” Mark Cavendish said after securing his second overall Qatar victory Friday. “There were some of the top teams not here this year, but there was still really good racing this week. Every single rider who’s here got stuck in. It’s a race that I’ve missed since I was last here in 2013.”

The Dimension Data sprinter won 2009 Milano-Sanremo. His primary rival in Qatar was another monument champion, Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, winner of the 2015 Tour of Flanders and 2014 Sanremo.

Up until this year, many classics cyclists sung the Tour of Qatar’s praise. However, Etixx – Quick-Step, with four-time winner and Belgian classics champion Tom Boonen, was excluded after upsetting the organizer in previous editions. Other teams, for various reasons, decided to skip Qatar. Swiss classics star Fabian Cancellara raced in Mallorca and Dubai. Manager of the Trek-Segafredo team Luca Guercilena explained, “It’s a little complicated. We were criticized last year because of the conditions [and protests in the Tour of Oman]. We decided to create an alternative program.”

Their loss is our gain, said cyclists who completed the five-day, 625-kilometer race Friday in the Persian Gulf.

“I like this kind of racing, where there is always a big fight to be in position and at front,” Belgian Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) said. “It’s really good preparation. I prefer to do my preparation here because it’s kind of the same type of racing as Flanders and the other classics.”

The classics, whether it is Italy’s Milano-Sanremo or Flanders and Roubaix in northern Europe, demand that contenders be in perfect position before the key sections. If one is not at the front for the Poggio or the Paterberg, then his race is lost.

“You get a lot of speed here, but it’s that positioning,” Van Avermaet added. “You have to fight for your position and every corner you have to be there. It’s good to work together with the team on positioning, this race is preparation you don’t find in another race.”

Kristoff sprinted through the strong gulf winds to take three stage victories. In 2015, he won three stages, as well. Dutch 2014 Paris-Roubaix champ Niki Terpstra won the overall last year in a field that also included Boonen, Cancellara, and Tinkoff’s world champ, Peter Sagan.

“I hope this becomes important for us and that they are worse off for missing it!” Kristoff said, referring to his absent rivals. “It was great preparation for me because I gained a lot of confidence. It was perfect for my classics preparation to go deep some days with the crosswinds and to fight for position like you have in the classics.”

Many of the cyclists in Qatar will continue with the Tour of Oman this coming week, Tuesday through Sunday, in the nearby Arab sultan state.