In its desire to expand both its geographical and commercial boundaries in recent years, cycling has never been afraid to break new ground. As virgin territories go, they don’t come any richer than Qatar, the country with both the highest GDP per capita and the highest economic growth rate of any nation on Earth. Although the Tour of Qatar does not hold WorldTour status, it will nonetheless welcome many of the pro peloton’s biggest stars to its 11th edition, with a particular emphasis on elite sprinters.
What kind of race is it?
Like the host country itself, the six-day race is run over a pancake-flat parcours, with the vast majority of its stages geared towards sprint finishes. Indeed there is barely a speed-bump to be seen, let alone anything that would merit even the most generous definition of the word ‘hill’.
Having said that, the race is not without its difficulties. The desert heat provides good practice for the summer races ahead, while the flat, featureless expanses of land are frequently subject to crosswinds which will prepare the teams for the kind of conditions they may encounter in some of the spring Classics.
Nonetheless, the sandy highways of Qatar are tailor-made for a sprinter to win the overall. Tom Boonen has been victorious here three times, with the most recent winners being:
2007: Wilfred Crestkens (Quick Step-Innergetic)
2008: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
2009: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
2010: Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil)
2011: Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad)
What happened last year?
The 2011 edition opened with an ultra-short 2.5km prologue won by Rabobank’s Lars Boom on which several riders struggled on a sandy, slippery surface, most notably Mark Cavendish, who fell. However, time gaps here would ultimately prove irrelevant as the race was ultimately decided on the basis of end-of-stage sprint bonuses.
Tom Boonen won stage one to take over the race lead, but back-to-back sprint wins by Garmin-Cervelo’s Heinrich Haussler saw him assume pole position after stage three. However, Mark Renshaw won the following day to move into the overall lead, and he was comfortably able to defend his eight-second advantage as Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini took the laurels in the closing stage.
1. Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad) 15:31:04
2. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) +0:08
3. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) +0:17
4. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) +0:26
5. Roger Hammond (Garmin-Cervelo) +0:38
You can find stage-by-stage summaries of last year’s race on my other blog, The Armchair Sports Fan, here.
This year’s race
As usual, the race comprises six largely short and punchy stages covering a relatively short distance of 724km, with only one day longer than 145km.
There is no prologue this year, but in its place we get a short (11.3km) team time trial in a circuit around Lusail, Qatar’s newest city, which will host both the opening game and the final of the 2022 football World Cup. Other than this, it should be bunch sprints all the way, unless a breakaway is successful in staying away (unlikely on Qatar’s long, straight roads) or the peloton is shattered by crosswinds.
The race will be contested by a strong field comprising 16 teams of eight riders each, including 11 of the 18 ProTeams.
Who to watch
Unsurprisingly, the provisional start list includes a glut of elite sprinters, but also several Classics riders who will be using the race to ease themselves into their 2012 campaigns.
The sprint field is particularly mouth-watering, and arguably the strongest we will see outside of the Tour de France all year. Sky will be proudly displaying the rainbow jersey of world champion Mark Cavendish, who will be targeting at least one stage win. However, it is difficult to predict what shape he will be in so early in a season where he will want to peak in July for the Tour de France and Olympics. He has also been ill and reportedly had to miss training rides over the past day or two.
Massed against Cavendish, however, will be the combined might of Liquigas’ Peter Sagan (a triple stage winner at last year’s Vuelta), former HTC teammates Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) and John Degenkolb (1t4i), Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Francesco Chicchi (fresh from two wins last week’s Tour de San Luis), former world champion Thor Hushovd (BMC), Garmin-Barracuda’s Tyler Farrar and Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini (winner of last year’s final stage). Sadly Lotto-Belisol’s Andre Greipel, who dominated the sprints at the recent Tour Down Under, will be absent due to illness.
As if that isn’t enough, three-time overall winner Tom Boonen (OPQS) also makes a welcome return to Qatar [Jack will be pleased – Ed], along with Classics demons Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd (both BMC) and Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Nissan) [is that the sound of Kathi being slapped with a restraining order again? – Ed], 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren (Garmin) and the never-shy but soon-to-be-retiring Robbie McEwen (GreenEDGE).
In addition, VeloVoices readers randomly selected number 24, BMC’s Martin Kohler, as our rider to watch during this race. The reigning Swiss national time trial champion is in his fourth season with BMC and will be an important cog in the BMC machine during Monday’s team trial. More generally, he will be tasked with looking after senior teammates Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert.
The general classification will probably be influenced but not determined by the short team time trial. It is more likely that the most consistent sprinter in the other five stages will win the overall, but with as many as ten men able to stake a reasonable claim to winning a bunch sprint it should be a fiercely competitive race. Do not be surprised if some of the young bucks upstage the old hands, with different riders at different levels of form this early in the season.
February 5th: Stage 1 – Barzan Towers to Doha Golf Club, 142.5km
February 6th: Stage 2 – Lusail, 11.3km team time trial
February 7th: Stage 3 – Dukhan to Al Gharafa Stadium, 146.5km
February 8th: Stage 4 – Al Thakhira to Madinat Al Shamal, 144km
February 9th: Stage 5 – Camel Race Track to Al Khor Corniche, 160km
February 10th: Stage 6 – Sealine Beach Resort to Doha Corniche, 120km
The Tour of Qatar starts on Sunday 5th February and ends on Friday 10th. Daily live coverage and highlights will be shown in the UK by British Eurosport.