News Feature, February 9, 2009
Christian Prudhomme believes that one day Qatar could seriously bid for a Tour de France start. Having been in the affluent middle eastern nation recently as Tour of Qatar director, the man who also calls the shots at Le Tour is not ruling anything out. One of Amaury Sport Organisation's most dynamic and influential players, Prudhomme explained to Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown why he's not saying 'Never'.
Now in its eighth year, the Tour of Qatar was another battle of the sprinters in 2009. Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen dominated the race, with the latter recording his third overall victory.
There was another story to emerge, albeit off the road - the possibility that Qatar could one day host the start of the world's biggest annual cycling event, the Tour de France. Sound far fetched? Tour de France - and Tour of Qatar - boss Christian Prudhomme doesn't think so. He cites the organisation of cycling and other sports within Qatar in a short period of time as proof that the nation could aspire to bigger things.
"It could be completely crazy, but we can never say 'never'. Twenty years ago, it would have been crazy to say that there would be a Grand Départ in London in 2007." -Prudhomme explained that the Tour has broken new ground in recent times.
Cyclingnews: What did you think of the race this year?
Christian Prudhomme: It was different this year. The rivalry between Boonen and Cavendish was very good. It was a very nice race with the wind.
If you told someone that the whole race is flat they wouldn't imagine that it would be that interesting, but with the wind there really was a race. It wasn't certain that this would be the case when the event began in 2002. Then, they would've said, 'Okay, it's [a race] to prepare for other events.'
CN: Do you think that Tom Boonen's Qatar titles are important to him?
CP: It means something for a sprinter. Boonen has won 15 stages here, Mario Cipollini took one of his last victories here, Robbie McEwen has won three stages, and Robert Hunter too... It is really a race for the sprinters in January and February, at the very beginning of the season.
CN: How has the race grown since you took over in 2007?
CP: We have Mitsubishi and Aspire Sports Academy as sponsors for the first time; in the past there was only the Qatar Cycling Federation funding the race. It is like a puzzle - six years later it's coming together.
CN: What is Qatar gaining from this race?
CP: The police here are learning, for example. We have our Garde Républicaine working with the local force; they are learning from the western police on how to follow a race.
CN: Why does the country of Qatar put on this race?
CP: They want sport and do a lot to have it. In the beginning they decided to naturalise champions [from elsewhere], but they realised it was not the good way to progress. Therefore, eight or ten years ago it was decided to create events like the [Dubai] Golf Open, tennis tournament and the Aspire Sports Academy.
It is very impressive; they want Qatar to be a name in international sports. I am sure it is already a name and will continue to be so. The Tour of Qatar is one piece of the overall puzzle.
CN: Do you think we could see the Tour de France come here in the future?
CP: I don't know. We have an official bid from the heir apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. His bid is not for a particular year - it is almost never for one specific year - but they are a candidate.
It could be completely crazy, but we can never say 'never'. Twenty years ago, it would have been crazy to say that there would be a Grand Départ in London in 2007 and that it would be so huge that it would be unforgettable.
CN: Is the Tour of Qatar the first step to hosting the Tour de France?
CP: It is the first step. Sunday is the first Ladies' Tour of Qatar, and in the future they want to have track racing. If you see only one part of the puzzle you would say that 'it is crazy', but when you put all of the pieces together you don't know.
CN: How would the race, the riders and the infrastructure travel to France?
CP: There are many things: the heat, the crowds... Look at London in 2007: there were three million people. Obviously, there were attractions like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, however.
You cannot have a great departure of the Tour de France without the crowds. However, we cannot say 'never'. It is an official bid, we have to work on it and try it.
CN: What was it like your first time in Qatar?
CP: This is my fifth time here. The first time I was here was as a spectator for the 2006 Asian Games. Then there was only the Sheridan Hotel and the Olympic Committee building, so we can't imagine how it will be in two or three more years.
In Europe we are hit by the economic crisis, but here it is so impressive. They have the resources of oil and gas to last for hundreds of years.
Note: Cyclingnews conducted this interview the day before 21-year-old Frederiek Nolf died in his sleep at the Tour of Qatar, hence the lack of discussion surrounding the young Belgian's death. We apologise for any offence caused as a result.