Well. We intimated, in our preview of the Tour of Qatar, that the middle sibling of the Arabian tours can be a pretty exciting race, despite its gradient-free parcours. As it turned out, we were all on the edge of our collective seat, not least because our three picks — Alexander Kristoff, Mark Cavendish, and Edvald Boasson Hagen — were constantly and tantalisingly moving in and out of contention for the top spot on the podium. With the race now run, let’s take a look at the key events of this year’s tour.
Stage 1 set the tone of the whole week, with a fast pace set right from the gun. Expected winds blew in across the Qatari desert, which allowed 21 riders to work their way off the front. What was unexpected was the quality of the riders who made it away: amongst them were Kristoff and three Katusha teammates, Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Tyler Farrer for Dimension Data, as well as Greg Van Avermaet for BMC, Sam Bennett for Bora-Argon, Andreas Guardini for Astana, and Sacha Modolo for Lampre-Merida. In other words, this was a break comprising sprint superstars and their lieutenants.
Kristoff and Cavendish revealed their interests in this race by each winning one of the first two intermediate sprint contests. A change in direction meant a second blast in the wind tunnel, and BMC and Katuhsa used the opportunity to whittle down the front group again. Cavendish and Boasson Hagen held on for Dimension Data, and were primed to contest the sprint. That’s where Katusha fatally misjudged things. In what must have been an attempt to shed a few more riders, Katusha drove the pace too high from too far out, meaning that Kristoff’s sprint was launched far too early. He put in a huge turn of pace, but it was clear to all watching that he was taking too much of the wind and giving his rivals a sound opportunity to slip past. Enter Mark Cavendish, who’d been sheltering behind the Katusha train with Boasson Hagen, and who used his fresher legs to steal the opening sprint in Qatar. It was already a different story to Dubai. Modolo and Guardini also got by the unfortunate Kristoff, and they completed the day’s podium.
Stage 2 brought with it a test run of the circuits around Doha that we’ll be seeing in the World Championship road race in October. It was also a real test for spectators, who had a chance to hone their skills at making tea, looking at Twitter, and doing anything other than watching the dull racing up until the final sprint. It really does look like 2016 might be the World Champs to forget.
The peloton split into two in early crosswinds, and Cav was caught sleeping this time. Dimension had to chase on, allowing Kristoff to mop up the first intermediate sprint points. The peloton came back together well in time for the final run in, but it wasn’t to be a smooth and tidy sprint. Within the last half a kilometre, the strength of the winds took its toll and drove a handful of riders into the curb. They included Sam Bennett, who was once again ruled out of contending for the sprint, and the pile up slowed the remainder of the peloton behind them. This allowed a small front group to fight for the win, and gave up the thrilling sight of Cavendish and Kristoff opening up their sprints side by side, giving all they could to out power the other. Right to the line they were neck-a-neck, and the win only came thanks to Alexander Kristoff expertly hurling himself forwards. He crept across he line mere inches ahead of Cav, and, thanks to his work in the intermediate sprints, was now only second behind him on G.C. Boasson Hagen finished in a strong fifth, and was also consolidating a high place in the rankings.
Stage 3 was the mid-week time trial in Lusail, and a crucial moment in the campaigns of all general classification hopefuls: the sprinters knew they had to hold on to their leads, and the all-rounders knew this was their only chance to leave the sprinters in the dust. A flat, short (11km) course, but with plenty of tight cornering, meant that the race win could end up in either camp. Jesse Sergeant was the first of the highly-touted time trial riders to post a time, and his time, 14mins 29, was enough for him to hold on to the top spot for a long while. But it’s a testament to the performances of the winners that Sergeant finished the day back in 14th place, nearly a whole minute behind the eventual winner.
Lieuwe Westra, who we fancied as an outsider for the contest overall, managed a very respectable 6th place on the day, but he wasn’t even the fastest Astana rider; teammate Dmitriy Gruzdev went one place better, and three seconds faster, than Westra. A solid performance from Greg Van Avermaet brought him fourth overall, and, given GVA’s own powerful sprinting capabilities, marked him out as a new threat to the top spot. Eventually, though, the show was stolen by Edvald Boasson Hagen. EBH flew along the course, taking each bend with grace and speed, and powered his was to the top of the podium, both on the stage and on general classification. He rode the fastest time trial by an enormous 25 second margin — there was around another 25 seconds back between 2nd place Jos van Emden and 11th place Nils Politt, by way of contextualising Boasson Hagen’s success. Cavendish finished strongly, 44 seconds back on his teammate and now second on general classification. But Kristoff lost over 90 seconds, and found himself in 5th overall. The last two sprints were going to be crucial, but we admit that at this point we were thinking only one thing: that Edvald Boasson Hagen had this tour sewn up.
We were to be proven wrong, and our man James, who’d pick EBH for the tour win overall, was to rue the events that went down on Stage 4. Two key things happened in the last 10km. One was that Katusha tried their hand at splitting the field again, and they pulled it off successfully as they sped towards the finish in Madinat al Shamal. BMC looked good in the front group, with Greg Van Avermaet guarded by a handful of teammates, and Cavendish had also made the selection. But the second major event of the stage took place moments after the split: Edvald Boasson Hagen suffered not one, but two punctures with less than 8km to go.
Despite being towed back to the race by teammates including Mark Renshaw, Boasson Hagen was ultimately to lose 45 seconds to the front group — and insurmountable gap in a tour with only one sprint stage left. And Cavendish was left to his own devices in the sprint, with his teammates falling back to defend their leader. Arguably, this is what cost Cav the sprint — the lack of supporting train — and it was up to Katusha and BMC to take the top spots. Once more, Alexander Kristoff took the top spot, and he was followed over the line by Greg Van Avermaet. This meant that, because of his excellent time trial the day before, GVA was now second over all. But, despite only managing fifth in the sprint, Cavendish was still head of the G.C.
Stage 5 wasn’t quite a victory parade for Cavendish, but it lacked the explosive action of the previous day, and it came down to a much more controlled sprint. Dimension Data were no longer investing firepower in protecting Edvald Boasson Hagen, so Cavendish got the full force of his team in the run up to the finale. But even this wasn’t enough to topple Katusha and Alexander Kristoff. Once more, the men in red blazed past the competition and took maximum points on the line, by the smallest of margins. Cavendish, though, managed a strong second place, ensuring his win in the general classification. Even though Kristoff took three times the amount of stage wins as Cav, consistency and a superior time trial paid off. It’s also worth noting that Kristoff looked like he was taking the day off during the time trial, whilst Cavendish worked like a Trojan — it’s quite possible that Kristoff’s target was stage wins above general classification all along.
It’s hard to know how Cav will be feeling. Taking G.C. is no mean feat, especially when the likes of Greg Van Avermaet are sneaking their way towards the podium all week. But Cavendish likes to win, and he likes to win consistently — he’ll be feeling sore that Kristoff beat him when it mattered most, in a display of sheer and raw power. It’s also worth considering Dimension Data’s gameplay. They split their assets between Boasson Hagen and Cavendish, which gained them two shots at the overall win, plus two stage wins. But really, Boasson Hagen was only contesting the general classification against Cavendish during the mid-week time trial, and the decision to bring Boasson Hagen back to the race after his puncture may well have cost Cav — and Dimension — their third stage win. It was, no doubt, a tough call to make, and it might represent the difficulty in nominating a team captain for these smaller races; as we noted, the win could have either gone to a supreme time trial rider or a consistent sprinter, and stage 4 saw the leader’s jersey pass from precisely the former style of rider to the latter. We also have to take into account that Cav spent the winter training for track racing — so on sustained power output, rather than the intense bursts we see in road races. However you read Dimension’s plan, though, it’s impossible to deny their ability as a team, and it will be a pleasure to see what sort of squad they develop for their grand tour campaigns later in the year. For now, we’ll see you in Oman.