The Ladies Tour of Qatar was the first race for the 2014 season and my first race with the Hitec Products women’s team. However, it was my sixth time to the desert state and was definitely one to remember.
The race offers a fantastic environment to begin the season, with warm weather perfect for racing, a fabulous five star hotel – the Ritz Carlton – and some of the toughest conditions for flat racing in the world; that being strong winds that can blow the bunch apart in just a couple of kilometres.
This year my Hitec Products team – led by Chloe Hosking – had the opportunity to meet and give advice to the new Qatar women’s cycling team. During our pre-race day training we met with 22 young women, aged between 14 and 25, who are making history for their country by riding a bike.
The Qatar women’s cycling project has only existed for three months and while we were initially nervous to ride with an inexperienced group we were all very impressed with their skills and strength and were left wondering how far they will come in the following year.
Their goal is to have a team ready for the Qatar World Championships in 2016 and with a recently retired pro rider, Pia Sundstedt from Finland, leading the charge plus the support of the affluent Qatari sports academy anything seems possible.
On our final evening we were invited into the home of one of the athletes of the new team for a tea party. This was an eye opening and truly memorable experience; being in an Islamic home and learning about the differences in culture was something I’d definitely not had the opportunity to experience on my five previous visits to Qatar.
Yes, the race through the desert has been the start of my season since I began cycling at the elite level in 2009. Having been part of every edition of the race so far I have seen the race grow from a luxury desert adventure into one of the most prestigious Tours of the early season calendar.
The crosswinds prove to be unforgiving and it’s a case of if you miss the echelon you most likely won't see the front of the race again that day. This results in chaos when the peloton approaches a corner; every rider knows they have to be one of the first few through the turn just in case the wind changes so they have a fighting chance to make that elite group which goes on to fight for the stage honours.
More often than not, the strongest girls finish at the front. There is nowhere to hide and no free rides. While hard, the race provides a perfect opportunity to see exactly where everyone is at and how much work has to be done before the spring Classics begin in a few weeks' time.
Run by the ASO and held only a couple of days before the men’s Tour begins the Tour is very important for the development of women’s cycling. Live television coverage which can be streamed worldwide offers cycling fans the rare opportunity to witness just how exciting 100 kilometre races can be. What's more, many media outlets send press over a few days early so they can cover both the women’s and men’s races.
We all know the opportunities to showcase women’s racing are few and far between and the Ladies Tour of Qatar is at the forefront of showing how it can be done, and well.
Interest in and coverage of women’s cycling, however, is growing and the exciting new race ‘La Course’ by Le Tour to be run in Paris on the final day of the Tour de France shows the belief and growth potential the ASO see in our sport. I’m very excited to be seeing the change in women’s professional cycling and look forward to experiencing the Champs-Élysées in July with the women now part of the biggest annual sporting event in the world.