DOHA, Qatar (VN) — What if you held a world championship, and no one showed up?
Well, that’s the way it was looking all week until a determined band of hardcore fans turned up Sunday to witness a scintillating elite men’s race that surpassed expectations. It wasn’t four-people deep at the finish line, but there was a palpable energy waiting for the final sprint between champions.
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Despite the heat, the Doha world championships finally started to look like what a world championship should. While it was bleak out in the barren, wind-swept desert flats, and almost no one lined the circuit, the grandstands started to fill up as the peloton roared onto the Pearl for the final laps. The 2016 worlds were no longer being held in a vacuum.
“We found cheap tickets, and decided to fly down,” said Henrik, a Norwegian student who was cheering on Alexander Kristoff. “Next year it will be in Norway, with more people, but also colder. This sun is nice.”
Henrik the Norwegian was a lot like other fans Sunday. Doha was far away from the world’s cycling hotbeds, but bike racing is bike racing, and those who made the trek to Qatar were rewarded with something special. Peter Sagan out-kicked Mark Cavendish to defend the stripes. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Heat and an embarrassing dearth of fans were the talking points all week. Social media was burning with pointed comments that Qatar was an inappropriate venue for the worlds, suggesting the event was little more than a money-grab by the UCI. Newly crowned world time trial champion Tony Martin joined the chorus of complainers this week about a lack of crowds.
Despite that, or maybe because of it, a few die-hard fans showed up Sunday. Who were they? Mainly expats and a smattering of Dutch, Norwegian, British, and Danish fans gathering at the finish line. A group of Ethiopian “guest workers” showed up to watch. A pack of boisterous Peter Sagan fans were chanting in Slovakian while Norwegians polished their Viking horns.
A gang of rowdy Belgian fans dressed in costumes roamed the finish area, but what was wrong with that picture? They were carrying plastic water bottles, rather than cans of Jupiler. The one downside of the worlds in Qatar: Alcohol is banned on the Pearl-Doha island that hosted the finishing circuits.
“We would walk across the desert to see Boonen!” laughed one of the Belgians, before they started applauding, and chanting “Tommeke! Tommeke! Tommeke!”
Noticeably absent were local Qatari fans. One Dutch expat tax attorney at the line pointed out that Sunday was a working day in Qatar (Friday is considered the week’s holiday), so he said he took the day off of work to watch the men’s road race.
“The locals don’t get too excited about any sport event, so this isn’t a surprise,” he said. “I can buy tickets to a Nadal-Djokovic tennis match two days in advance, and when you go, it’s half-empty anyway. I had two friends fly in this weekend, and we’re having a nice time.”
While it’s true that almost no fans showed up to watch the junior and U23 races earlier this week — who would in 100F temperatures at mid-day? — that’s hardly atypical for a worlds. Even in Ponferrada two years ago in Spain, big crowds didn’t turn out in force until the men’s road race.
“We’re U23s, so we go to some hole-in-the-wall places,” said American Geoffrey Curran earlier this week. “Maybe the pros are used to racing in that wall of sound. We don’t get that. We just have our thoughts, riding alone for 170km. We’ll be in France, and there will be two people; ‘hey, it’s a big day!’”
As far as facilities go, the fans that did show up were well looked after. There was ample grandstand seating, with several big-screen TVs to watch the action as well as first aid and water stations. A massive VIP area was filled with local dignitaries and cycling insiders, while another large tent area for fans offered shade and air-conditioning. It was all practice for the soccer World Cup in 2022.
Europeans agreed the flight wasn’t too expensive — about $600 round-trip from most major continental cities — and said they could find reasonably priced accommodation. One group of Italians, however, complained loudly after paying to be part of a tour group.
“To have the worlds here is a scandal, it must be acknowledged,” said one Italian fan, dressed head to toe in azzurri blue. “The worlds should be held in a place where the fans can go, and the people want to see racing. Here, there is nobody.”
A Dutch couple nearby had scoped out a primo spot at 150 meters to go. They’ve been here all week, arriving early each morning to cheer on the juniors, women, and U23 riders, hiding under the shade of an umbrella. Until Sunday, they had the place to themselves.
“We were the only ones out here all week. Today there are many more,” said Martina, who flew in from Rotterdam. “We’ve been to the last 12 world championships. This one is different, but we did not want to miss it. The race is OK, even if there is almost no one here to see it.”
Earlier this week, UCI president Brian Cookson defended the decision to bring the worlds to Qatar, while at the same time confirming that the cycling federation received a payment of nearly $11 million from Doha officials.
“Obviously, this is a part of the world where cycling is not a popular sport, but some riders have said some good things, too,” Cookson said. “I don’t think we’re going to be in the Gulf every three years for the worlds. We’ve got to bear in mind it’s not just about the spectators on the ground, but about television images and the television audience as well.”
Cookson also reminded skeptical fans and media that the worlds will be in Europe for the next three years. What’s sure is that there will be a lot more Belgians fans, too, and they won’t be carrying around plastic bottles of water.
Were the Qatar worlds worth it? From a distance, maybe it didn’t seem so, but anyone who was here on Sunday, the racing was as hot as the temperature.