The Tour of Qatar marks the mid-point of the early-season races around the Arabian peninsula, and it also marks the mid-point in quality amongst those races. Last week’s Dubai Tour is perhaps the least remarkable of these windswept, sandy, and barren sprint-friendly races, and the upcoming Tour of Oman is the most thrilling, which breaks up the monotony of flat and empty landscape with the inclusion of the famed Green Mountain climb.
In the meantime, though, we join the pros in Qatar, and, though it’s always a pancake flat sprint-fest around the arid Qatari coastline, the big bucks on offer have always been enough to make up for what is missing in the way of prestige in this race (Qatar has the highest per capita income in the entire world). It’s also worth noting that the World Championship road race will be held in Doha this year. You’d have every reason to expect a host of superstar sprinters lining up for this year’s Tour of Qatar, all looking for a test of form and a tour of the streets of the capital.
But that’s not the way it’s panned out this year. For the last four years, the Tour of Qatar has been won by a rider from the Etixx-Quickstep squad (although many rode under the OmegaPharma-Quickstep banner): Tom Boonen in 2012, Mark Cavendish in 2013, and Niki Terpstra for the past two tours. This fact makes it all the more astonishing that EQS are not sending a team to Qatar this year. Clearly, all the oil and gas money in the world can’t tempt Etixx to target another win here, and they will instead be looking to fine tune their spring classics squad (Terpstra, for one, will be looking for a big win in Belgium). Etixx aren’t the only major squad who aren’t sending a team to Qatar this year, and you’d be forgiven for thinking a boycott was taking place when you consider the teams who won’t be making the trip: Lotto Soudal, Trek, Tinkoff, Cannondale, Movistar, Orica-GreenEdge, FDJ, IAM and Team Sky. It’s going to be lonelier than ever in the deserts of the Persian gulf this year.
N.B. It was announced yesterday, by the Tour of Qatar race organisers, that EQS hadn’t been invited back this year due to a “lack of respect” and “problems with discipline”. A perceived case of Belgian boys behaving badly!
We are left, instead, with a strong line of pro continental and local teams in this year’s tour, and that’s not such a bad thing after all. These are teams who will be grateful for a chance at a win or two, and who will be looking to maximise their exposure on the world stage. Expect plenty of riders clamouring to get into breakaways that are destined to be pulled back before the sprint finishes. And expect those sprint finishes to be chaotic, with the less seasoned and drilled teams flinging their fast men off the front in the hopes of glory. Without the careful control of a team like Etixx, the finales could be unruly affairs this year.
One world tour team that is signed up to start might not be racing at all for the foreseeable future. The Russian team Katusha’s participation is in doubt, based on their recent doping issues. This might rule out the spectacle of Alexander Kristoff breezing his way to sprint victory this week. However, appeals and politics are likely to delay any official action against Katusha for the time being, so the Norwegian has reason to remain hopeful. Kristoff hasn’t raced at all so far this year, so we can’t be sure of his form going into Qatar. He won three out of the five stages last year, though, and that was against a much tougher field including Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Marcel Kittel, and Fabian Cancellara. Even with the question mark hanging over his condition, we’re looking at him as odds on favourite for stage wins.
Mark Cavendish will be present on behalf of Dimension Data, and he’ll be looking to make amends after a disappointing Dubai Tour, by his own standards. Cavendish has spent his winter training on the track for this year’s Olympic Games, and he’s clearly not yet got used to the roads again. He was up against a hugely motivated Marcel Kittel in Dubai, and, alongside the improving pair of Elia Viviani and Giacomo Nizzolo, Cav couldn’t find a win of his own. He’ll also have a stronger team around him, with the additions of Tyler Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen alongside old stalwart Mark Renshaw. Bernie Eisel is off the list this time, after a collarbone break in Dubai. We suspect Cav will be looking to find form before Milan-San Remo, given that John Degenkolb, and now possibly Alexander Kristoff, won’t be racing. This week’s racing will be an important stage in his training.
Sam Bennett will be another rider gunning for a win. He got one last year on the final stage, and, with this year’s weaker field, he’ll surely fancy his chances for another. He comes to the race with the full backing of Bora-Argon, and he’s their main focus this week. He beat Kristoff to the line last August during the Arctic Tour of Norway, which is recent proof if proof be needed that Bennett can perform with the best of them. A good Tour of Qatar might be the beginning of a great year for the Irishman.
BMC come with a solid classics trio of Greg Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss, and Jempey Drucker, all of whom have a decent kick to the line. They are not, however, in the superstar sprint league alongside the Kristoffs and the Cavendishes. But if the wind blows with the force we saw in last week’s Ladies Tour of Qatar, then the BMC powerhouses will find a great opportunity to punch their own hole through the gale and to sneak off up the road. The experienced echelon riders will be hoping it’s a breezy week.
Giant-Alpecin come here with a weaker team than they’d hoped, as the result of a truly horrific training accident in Spain a few weeks ago. The absence of John Degenkolb might have signalled the chance for Nikias Arndt to lead their sprints, but he’s also been ruefully pulled from the roster now, courtesy of a knee injury. In many respects the team are coming without focus, and seem sadly to be there to make up numbers.
Lampre-Merida come to Qatar with Sacha Modolo, Davide Cimolai, and Marko Kump. The latter performed well at the Tour Down Under, and Modolo and Cimolai have proven themselves in the past as excellent middle-tier sprinters. However, Lampre can only look for opportunistic wins this week, as the power of their sprinters will be drowned out under the deafening roar of the top men.
Ex-Lampre man Andrea Palini, now riding for the Skydive Dubai Team, had two top-five finishes in the Dubai Tour last week, so has some form coming into this race. If you fancy a tall odds outside bet for the podium on sprint stages, you could do worse than consider Palini.
Despite all the above emphasis on sprinters and the sprint stages, we’re likely to see a different general classification outcome than the Dubai Tour, and it’s doubtful that a sprint purist will top the podium. Stage 3 is an 11km time trial, which is completely flat but also twisting and technical. Nine corners in 11km means that it won’t come down to a pure time trial rider or sprinter, but a skilled bike handler and all-rounder. Astana are favourites for this, with Lars Boom and Lieuwe Westra looking fit for the time trial. Also look to the previously mentioned Boasson Hagen and Van Avermaet to shine on stage 3. A good time trial from any of these men means they’ll just have to stay in the finishing group on the sprint stages to take the tour in its entirety. A good outsider for the time trial and the general classification would be Jessie Sergeant or Jens Mouris, neither of whom lack the requisite power and skills to stay strong and upright on a short and technical time trial.
This is a actually a pretty tough race to call, as it’s a coin toss between powerhouse sprinter and solid time trial rider.
Consequently, James is going somewhere down the middle and picks Edvald Boasson Hagen; he’ll be a key lead out man for Cav, which will mean he’ll be finishing in the main bunch. He’s also looked to have carried on his form from 2015 with some strong performance at the Challenge Mallorca in January.
Chris is hoping Katusha don’t get suspended before Qatar, and is opting for Alexander Kristoff; in theory, Kristoff shouldn’t lose anything on the time trial that four good placings in the sprints — and bonus seconds — won’t counter. He came third last year, 11 seconds off the pace of Terpstra.
Andy, however, is rooting for Mark Cavendish. Dubai was just a warm up to the main event, and there’s no reason to think Cav couldn’t win in Qatar if he gets the sprints just right. We all know that he sprints better when he’s angry!