These days, you have no choice but to hit the ground running. Long gone is the era when a grandee of the peloton might show up for his first race of the season bundled up in arm and leg warmers, with just a few hundred kilometres in his legs, and then coax himself back into action along the French or Italian Riviera. But even by modern standards, the reintroduction to racing for those starting their campaigns at the Tour of Qatar on Monday was particularly brutal, with the opening stage run off at an eye-watering average speed of 51.938km/h.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was among the riders making their seasonal debuts in Qatar, and though he showed no signs of ring-rustiness when he made the decisive split that formed in the opening hour of racing, he would eventually have to settle for fifth place in a 16-man sprint won by Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).
“We did not make it today but at least we were there. We tried to do the lead-out and I was there fighting for the victory but in the end, I was not strong enough,” Kristoff told reporters by the Katusha team car at the finish in Al Khor.
Kristoff was glad simply to be able to race at all, of course, given that Katusha face a possible collective suspension after Eduard Vorganov became the team’s second positive doping case in less than a year. As late as Sunday evening, the Norwegian expressed concern that the apparently imminent UCI Disciplinary Committee decision might prevent the team from starting. When no missive arrived from Aigle in the early hours of Monday morning, Kristoff and his Katusha team were free to start, and they were prominent at the head of the peloton as crosswinds buffeted the race in the opening hour after the start at Dukhan.
The hinterland of the secluded oil-refining town of Dukhan is a particularly haunting one, with scarcely so much as a shrub on view, and only the occasional oil pipeline providing some relief to the unremitting flatness. With little by way of shelter in Qatar’s western fringe, the inevitable split duly materialised within 38 kilometres. After a further refining process 12 kilometres later, only 21 riders remained in the front echelon, but Kristoff had no fewer than three teammates for company in the move.
A slow lead out
Kristoff duly swept up the bonus seconds at the first intermediate sprint, then sat up during the much-later second sprint. As his red guard of Sven Erik Bystrom, Viacheslav Kuznetsov and Michael Mørkøv lined up at the front on the run-in to Al-Khor, he looked a likely victor.
“For me it was maybe a bit too slow when I was on the front there. We were planning to speed it up but I think all of the guys were a little bit tired,” Kristoff explained.
“I thought we had a bit more tailwind coming in but it was not actually so fast, so in the end it was maybe better to be a little further back and go in the draft. In the end we tried with the guys that we had.”
Kristoff claimed three stage wins in Qatar a year ago, and on the evidence of his showing in the fraught opener, he ought to be in the mix for the duration of the race, starting with Tuesday’s stage, which incorporates four laps of the World Championships course on the Pearl in Doha.
“Tomorrow is another day and we’ll try again to do better in the sprint,” Kristoff said. “But Cavendish, he is fast and it will be hard to beat him.”
Cavendish arrived in Qatar with five days of racing from the Cadel Evans Race and the Dubai Tour already in his legs, and while Kristoff was reluctant to cite that as the difference maker in the sprint, he was optimistic that he would improve as the week progressed.
“Cavendish has in many years been a little bit faster than me so maybe it’s just that he’s more of a pure sprinter but I will try to be better, of course,” Kristoff said. “I am not happy with fifth place. I have one [day of racing] now, so hopefully that will help for tomorrow.”