Road

Men’s Tour of Qatar kicks off Sunday

If the classics are known for the cobbles and the bergs, the Tour of Qatar is known for the wind. The six-day men’s race is dead flat, yet the field can often be shattered by ferocious desert crosswinds. The preceding three-day Ladies Tour of Qatar has already had a taste of the sideways forces, with stage 2 shortened for conditions Thursday.

If the classics are known for the cobbles and the bergs, the Tour of Qatar is known for the wind. The six-day men’s race is dead flat, yet the field can often be shattered by ferocious desert crosswinds. The preceding three-day Ladies Tour of Qatar has already had a taste of the sideways forces, with stage 2 shortened for conditions Thursday.

Many of the biggest names in the sport are here in the Arabian Gulf’s peninsular country to contest for the overall win and prep for the classics. Based on the provisional start list, three-time race winner Tom Boonen will headline Quick Step, and world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara will lead Saxo Bank in the opening 8.2km team time trial on Sunday that factors heavily into the final GC.

Brad Wiggins’ Team Sky has fielded a deep squad. Joining him are accomplished strongmen Edvald Boasson Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Kurt-Asle Arvesen, among others. Spring-race standouts Philippe Gilbert and Leif Hoste headline Omega Pharma-Lotto.

Garmin-Transitions, which won the opening TTT last year, returns but without Dave Zabriskie or David Millar. However Svein Tuft, Danny Pate and Roubaix revelation Martijn Maaskant are no slouches in the race against the clock.

Former world and Tour of Flanders champion Alessandro Ballan is in the Middle East with BMC. Other American teams in Qatar include HTC-Columbia (sans Mark Cavendish) and Trek-Livestrong. Taylor Phinney is among the riders suiting up for Trek.

“I am super stoked to be here in Qatar; the hotel is extremely nice, the food is great and the people are very accommodating,” Phinney said. [Unusual for a stage race, the riders stay in the same Ritz-Carlton in the capital of Doha for the entire event.] “This type of flat racing suits me very well since I am a tad larger than most professional riders. I know the racing will be very hard as it is my first ProTour [level] race, but my team and I are very motivated and looking forward to knocking it up with the big guys.”

THE SPRINTERS

Beginning Monday, the sprinters will have five chances for wins, and, if their teams rode well in the TTT, a chance for the overall, too.

HTC-Columbia’s Cavendish had planned to open his season here, but a post-dental-surgery infection changed his plans. His absence, however, does not mean Boonen will have a field day in the sprints.

Cervélo’s Heinrich Haussler, second overall last year, is in fine form and has Dutch track star Theo Bos as a teammate this year.

Saxo Bank has not one but two fast Haedos on the start list, brothers JJ and Sebastian, plus the veteran Stuart O’Grady, who has found the finish line first more than once in his storied career. Saxo’s Frank Hoj, who came to Qatar from the Tour Down Under, said he’s eager to get some more fast race miles in his legs.

Team Sky brought fast man Russell Downing for the finishes. (Teammate Chris Sutton, already a stage winner at the Tour Down Under this year, was listed as a reserve in the provisional start list.)

American Tyler Farrar is eager to start his season with a W for Garmin, as is Katusha’s Danilo Napolitano. American criterium champion John Murphy (BMC) won’t get to show off his national jersey here, but he could show off his finishing speed.

And Liquigas-Domo’s Daniele Bennati and Cav’s former lead-out man Gerald Ciolek (Milarm) round out the list of sprinters.

THE HISTORY

Amaury Sport Organization, which owns the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix and others, founded the Tour of Qatar in 2002 in conjunction with the UCI’s efforts to expand professional cycling outside its traditional European home. Qatar sits on the Arabian Gulf, jutting out on a peninsula from Saudi Arabia towards Iran. For the tour, cycling legend Eddy Merckx signed on as an adviser. This year his son Axel Merckx, a former pro himself, is directing the Trek-Livestrong team in Qatar.

Whether it’s the familiar crosswinds or the presence of a man named Merckx, the Belgians have adapted well for racing in Qatar, notching more stage victories (16) than any other country. (Granted, 15 of those were Boonen’s.) Italy trails for second with seven stages.

This year, three jerseys are contested by 16 teams of eight men each. The leader’s jersey is gold; the points jersey is silver; and the best young rider’s jersey is blue.

VeloNews.com will continue daily coverage throughout the Tour of Qatar.