Tom Boonen continued his rehabilitation after a disappointing 2011, claiming his fourth overall win at the Tour of Qatar. His performance at the race continued Omega Pharma-Quick Step‘s outstanding start to the season, having also dominated at the Tour de San Luis a fortnight ago. World champion Mark Cavendish took two stages on his Sky debut, but the Manxman started and finished in the wars, having been ill before the race and then crashing within sight of the finish on the last stage.
Qatar is a long way from being the most scenic race on the calendar. The parcours consists exclusively of pan-flat stages on long, straight highways scything through a featureless desert landscape. This uniformity is only occasionally interrupted by pristine conurbations or massive construction projects. But the field is always of a high quality, with sprinters and Classics riders well represented, as the flat courses and frequent crosswinds provide the perfect environment for honing techniques ahead of the bigger races to come. The race profile may be dull, but the racing is always intriguing and occasionally dramatic.
Stage 1: Barzan Towers to College of the North Atlantic, 141.5km
Lotto-Belisol’s Adam Hansen embarked on a long solo breakaway, but with all the sprinters’ squads eager to register a win he was easily chased down as several teams hustled to the front in the final kilometres.
The distinctive green-and-gold colours of Brazilian national champion Murilo Fischer (Garmin) led the way initially but Omega Pharma-Quick Step assumed control in the final kilometre, as first Francesco Chicchi and then Gert Steegmans provided the perfect lead-out for Tom Boonen to claim a two-length victory ahead of BMC’s Adam Blythe and Liquigas-Cannondale’s Peter Sagan.
It was a confidence-boosting win for Boonen – his 19th victory in Qatar and second of 2012, matching his win total from an injury-hit 2011, as he explained:
Last year at this time I was struggling with pains in my left leg, which stemmed from the knee operation I had. That dragged on for months and then I broke bones in my hand in the [Vuelta]. Today all that is behind me and at last I am free from injuries.
Still recovering from a fever, world champion Mark Cavendish did not contest the sprint and finished quietly in the peloton, as did VeloVoices’ nominated rider, BMC’s Martin Kohler.
Stage 2: Lusail, 11.3km team time trial
The city of Lusail, which will host both the opening game and the final of the 2022 football World Cup, played host to the 11.3km team time trial.
Garmin-Barracuda set the early benchmark of 12:38 to put Tyler Farrar in contention for the race lead. They then had to wait as the other top teams tried – and failed – to match their effort.
Despite the presence of four-time time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara, RadioShack-Nissan were 14 seconds slower. Sky were faster, nine seconds down on Garmin but good enough for third-fastest overall. BMC, the team of Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Martin Kohler, were eighth-fastest at 16 seconds.
But all eyes were on Omega Pharma-Quick Step, the last team to set off. They needed to finish within seven seconds of Garmin’s time to keep Boonen in gold and stopped the clock with just 0.03s to spare. However, with neither Tony Martin nor Levi Leipheimer present here, OPQS will be a force to reckon with in TTTs at the Grand Tours.
Stage 3: Dukhan to Al Gharafa Stadium, 146.5km
This west-east stage across the middle of Qatar saw a four-man group establish a lead of nearly 5½ minutes. They were gradually reeled in over the second half of the stage, however, as Garmin drove the chase.
30km from the finish the peloton was split by strong crosswinds, with a group of about 35 riders jumping clear and swallowing up the breakaway. With GreenEDGE and Rabobank setting a brisk tempo at the front, the lead peloton stayed clear to the finish.
Having recovered from his pre-race illness, the rainbow jersey of Mark Cavendish lurked towards the back of the lead group, seemingly uninterested in contesting what was always going to be a disorganised sprint, with no one having a full lead-out available. Only in the final kilometre did Cavendish stealthily move up the line, shepherded by teammates Bernhard Eisel and Juan Antonio Flecha. Into a headwind on a slightly uphill finish, Boonen found himself at the front too soon, and despite being momentarily boxed in Cavendish took the long way round to win by 1¼ bike lengths. Boonen just managed to hold off GreenEDGE’s Lithuanian Aidis Kruopis to extend his overall lead.
As an unabashed Cav fan, it was a huge thrill to see the rainbow jersey at the head of the field to take his first win of 2012. The man himself seemed quite pleased too:
It’s incredible to win [in the rainbow jersey]. I said I wanted to make the jersey proud. You never really get the season going until you get that first win under your belt. So now it’s there I can hopefully get on a roll now and we can win some things.
Martin Kohler finished in the second peloton and ended the day 55th overall at 1:54.
Stage 4: Al Thakhira to Madinat Al Shamal, 144km
A great team effort by OPQS blew the peloton apart as they turned into a crosswind with 26km remaining, with about 20 riders successfully making the front group. However, it was a typically gutsy attack by Fabian Cancellara 5.5km out which allowed Tom Boonen to establish a decisive advantage in the overall classification.
Cancellara’s acceleration was initially matched only by Adam Blythe, with Boonen’s right-hand man Gert Steegmans gritting his teeth to pull his leader up to the front. With Tyler Farrar unable to reestablish contact, Nikolas Maes made it three OPQS riders as he too rode across the gap with 1t4i’s Tom Veelers. Blythe punctured to leave six to contest the finish.
With two teammates for company, the odds were always stacked in Boonen’s favour. Allthough Cancellara attempted to get the jump on him with a long burst for home, Boonen easily came over the top of him to win by several lengths, with Veelers edging out Cancellara for second.
Farrar finished 14 seconds back, but after time bonuses his deficit to Boonen widened from six to 31 seconds, effectively handing the Belgian overall victory barring a major problem. Martin Kohler finished with the bulk of the peloton 1:45 down.
Stage 5: Camel Race Track to Al Khor Corniche, 160km
After two wind-swept days this was a straightforward bunch sprint, albeit one marred by a crash in which Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato broke his collarbone. The two survivors of the day’s five-man breakaway were swept up as they passed the 10km marker after a cat-and-mouse pursuit in which Tom Boonen’s OPQS team had deliberately slackened off to force other teams to commit men to the chase. It was a great example of the game-within-a-game that often goes unnoticed on flat stages.
In the closing kilometres, several sprinters’ teams jostled at the front. The veteran Robbie McEwen, however, missed out on the party as he punctured with 4km to go. Garmin-Barracuda took over around the final roundabout with 1.3km to go with, as usual, the Brazilian colours of Murilo Fischer to the fore.
However, we are accustomed to seeing the Garmin train disintegrate before the finish. Yet again they petered out and no one team was able to exert control on a rapid tailwind-aided run. In the hurly-burly the coolest head and hottest heels belonged to Mark Cavendish, who kicked 200 metres out and was able to sit up and cruise home ahead of the Liquigas pair of Daniel Oss and Peter Sagan.
The standings at the top of the GC remained unchanged, with Boonen retaining his 31-second lead over Tyler Farrar. Our man Martin Kohler finished safely in the peloton.
Stage 6: Sealine Beach Resort to Doha Corniche, 120km
20-year old Arnaud Demare (FDJ-Big Mat) claimed his first pro victory at the end of the 120km final stage on the Doha Corniche, but not before a dramatic crash felled Mark Cavendish 150 metres from the finish.
The peloton was in no mood to hang about on a day with an average speed of 51kph. The obligatory break – seven riders this time – was dispensed with 14km from home, and the sprinters’ teams took it in turns to drum out a fierce tempo on the front as they bore down on the finish. As the sprinters started their charge for the line, Cavendish appeared to touch wheels with 1t4i’s Roger Kluge before bumping into the back of Tyler Farrar and going down. Fortunately everyone else was able to avoid him, but the world champion collected a healthy dose of road rash for his troubles and later remonstrated angrily with Kluge. To be honest it looked like nothing more an innocent racing incident.
Meanwhile Demare was busy launching his sprint off the front of the bunch and won by a distance as Katusha’s Denis Galimzyanov nicked past a fading Mark Renshaw for second. Our man Martin Kohler finished 19th, just behind Tom Boonen, who ended an uneventful ride with his fourth overall Tour of Qatar victory. Congratulations, Tom. I’ll be kicking back this evening with a Belgian beer to mark your win. Mine’s a Kriek, by the way.
This was an absorbing race, even though Tom Boonen wore the gold jersey from start to finish and effectively cemented victory after stage four. The Belgian now has 20 stage wins and four overall victories in Qatar, and his early season form suggests he will be a serious contender in the Classics.
It was a great 2012 opening for Cavendish too. Sky haven’t got their lead-out train working yet – in reality they will never dominate as HTC-Highroad did – but Cav underlined that he can win in any situation, and his final-stage crash should not prevent him from contesting next week’s Tour of Oman. Juan Antonio Flecha‘s third place rounded off a good week for Sky, and he will now look to the Classics – in particular Paris-Roubaix.
Finally, most neutrals are always happy to see FDJ-BigMat doing well, and in Arnaud Demare they have a future star. Already the under-23 world road race champion – Cavendish junior, if you will – he has all the tools to develop into an accomplished multiple race-winner.
As for those who will leave Qatar licking their wounds, it is clear that – early-season timing notwithstanding – Rabobank’s Mark Renshaw is struggling to adjust to his new role. There is a world of difference between being the best in the world at starting your sprint at 600 metres and doing so at 200. His return of sixth, fourth, 11th and third places sums up his current difficulties. He will undoubtedly come good, but it will take time.
If the definition of madness is trying the same thing repeatedly and always getting the same result, then Garmin-Barracuda must be clinically insane. They didn’t have a bad week – they won the team time trial and Farrar was second overall – but they must be sick of spending so much time at the front in the final kilometres of flat stages, only to be swamped at the finish. At various times this week they effectively provided lead-outs for both Boonen and Cavendish, with Farrar floundering in their wake. So often the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Finally, VeloVoice’s adopted rider, BMC’s Martin Kohler, had a solid but largely uneventful week, finishing in 49th, 3:52 behind Boonen.
On to Oman next week …
1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 15:42:14
2. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:28
3. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) +0:33
4. Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:34
5. Tom Veelers (Project 1t4i) +1:00
6. Mark Cavendish (Sky) +1:05
7. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) +1:06
8. Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Barracuda) +1:09
9. Aidis Kruopis (GreenEDGE) +1:10
10. Adam Blythe (BMC) +1:14