Over the six stages of last week’s Tour of Qatar, there was not a single climb. It was therefore no surprise that the race was dominated by sprinters.
Tom Boonen, supported by a powerful and well-drilled Omega Pharma Quickstep team, collected his fourth overall victory in the race, along with stages one and four.
Team Sky’s ‘Manx Missile’ Mark Cavendish claimed two stages in his debut race for his new team, proving that he can win without his former lead-out man Mark Renshaw.
This was not a race for the cycling romantics. For the casual cycling fan, two of the most captivating features of professional road racing are the many decades of tradition, and the breathtaking scenery. The romance and sheer aesthetic joy of a brightly-coloured column of riders snaking through an Alpine pass, or across the fields and vineyards of Europe. The monasteries and chateaux. The cobbles.
The Tour of Qatar has only been running since 2002. It’s hot, it’s windy, and there’s lots of sand. The race is flat as a pancake and has scenery you could draw one-handed with an Etch-a-Sketch. It’s not a race for the traditionalists, but it’s worth a look if you want an early peak at who’s in form for the spring classics.
Boonen, a classics specialist, has won the Tour of Qatar three times previously, in 2006, 2008 and 2009, was second in 2007 and third in 2010. In two of those winning years, 2008 and 2009, he also won the legendary Paris-Roubaix single-day classic, the ‘Hell of the North’.
When Boonen is in good form in Qatar, he’s likely to be a serious threat in the European spring. His victory in stage four, defeating classics rivals Fabian Cancellara and Juan Antonio Flecha after a long breakaway in difficult conditions, was particularly impressive.
Other sprinters (and their teams) used the Tour of Qatar to fine tune their lead-out trains and develop team tactics before the really important racing starts. Many top sprinters have new teams or new team-mates, requiring new approaches.
The sight of Cavendish in good early-season form will please British cycling fans. In his best form, Cavendish is virtually unbeatable, but it was important to calm the new-team nerves with a win. Two wins was even better. A crash in the final stage was an unfortunate finish to the race, but he suffered no major injury.
Last year’s overall winner, Australia’s Mark Renshaw, is one who has yet to fully click with his new Rabobank squad. Renshaw managed to get onto the podium in the final stage, but Cavendish’s crash in the final kilometres had left the peloton in some disarray, so it’s difficult to read too much improvement into the result.
GreenEDGE showed only moderate success in the race, with Aidis Kruopis finishing third in stage three, and ninth overall; Allan Davis picking up some top-ten finishes; and Baden Cooke twelfth overall.
This week’s Tour of Oman promises another glimpse at the form guide before racing begins in Europe at the end of February.