Tour of Qatar: Punctures, echelons and Boonen

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Tom Boonen just keeps getting better (Image courtesy Wikimedia)

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The Tour of Qatar conjures up a series of contrasting images. The stunning waterfront and soaring skyscrapers of Doha give way to barren, sandy landscapes just moments after leaving the city.

The one constant though is heat and wind.

From a cycling point of view, this translates into pain. While the only climbs on the course are those that lead up to motorway overpasses, the harsh conditions ensure that the race is more than just a flat track jaunt around the country side.

Despite the sameness of each stage, the influence of untimely punctures, peloton splitting echelons and Tom Boonen have made the race an interesting one to follow. Like the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar often provides us with our first glimpse of the pros, and the wind soon sorts out who has put in a good pre-season and who hasn’t.

More often than not, it is Boonen who reigns supreme. Tommeke practically owns this event, having won a record 19 stages. He has also picked up eight points jerseys and four overall victories since the race began 12 years ago.

His shoot out with Mark Cavendish last year, as the pair traded stage wins, was fascinating to watch, and it is the race’s loss that Boonen will be unable to compete this year due to medical issues caused by an infected elbow.

His absence though does leave the door open for Cavendish to exert his authority over the race. Early season races haven’t been happy hunting grounds for Cav over the past few seasons.

Nasty crashes and a lack of condition have played their part, but things came together last year for the Manx Man. Tucked in safely behind his Team Sky team mates, he managed to conquer the wind and the heat to be one of the stars of the race.

Ironically, he’ll take to the race this year with Boonen’s Omega Pharma-Quickstep team. He will be keen to make an early impression on his new team mates and will be hoping to fill the void left by Boonen. If he can avoid the puncture lottery and steer clear of any bad luck, then there is no reason why he can’t embark on a Boonen like domination of the event.

A lot will depend upon his team mates though. Unlike Boonen, who has the strength to drive an echelon or battle the wind himself, Cavendish will need to be sheltered from the desert howlers if he is to influence the make up of the podium.

Still, Qatar could be on the edge of a new era of domination, which spells disaster for all of Australia’s Mark Cavendish fans. Further success in the Middle East will see the end of Cav at the Tour Down Under. With Australia’s race moving away from being one for the sprinters, the pancake flat Tour of Qatar will have much more appeal for the flat track bully.

Qatar is a great race. It attracts some of the best riders in the world, and entertains with fast and strong racing. The echelons keep things interesting and ensure that the sprinters don’t have things all their own way. The tragedy is that nobody is there watching.

Just as striking as the desert landscape and the oasis like waterfront is the complete lack of spectator support around the stage routes. Only a handful of followers hover around the start and finish lines, and most of these seem to be team staff.

While the UCI preaches that it is taking cycling to the masses outside of the European heartlands, races in places such as Qatar have more to do with dollars than mondialisation. It should come as no surprise then that the UCI have pledged the 2016 world championships to Qatar.

This is yet another poor decision by cycling’s controlling body – not because of Qatar’s ability to organise the event (which undoubtedly it would do well), but for the fact that an event such as the worlds needs to be held in front of those fans who love it most.

The world championships should be the UCI’s gift to the people and its race routes should be lined with spectators from start to finish. That will just not happen in Qatar and the event will suffer because of it.

But that is awhile off and who knows what may happen in the meantime.

For now though, I’ll be tuning into Eurosport each evening and enjoying the concluding stages of each day’s racing from Qatar. My money is on Cav picking up from where Boonen left off.

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