Reading the runes at the Tour of Qatar in search of solid indications for the spring Classics is never a straightforward task. The language of peaking for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix is not a universal one, and everyone, it seems, has his own dialect.
Tom Boonen and Omega Pharma-QuickStep have daubed a statement of intent across the desert by winning two of the first three stages and holding the gold jersey in Qatar. Fabian Cancellara and his Trek teammates, meanwhile, have been less conspicuous, as if quietly jotting down preliminary notes on their plans for the Classics.
Cancellara came home over seven minutes down on stage 2 after missing the crucial split in the final hour of racing, and though his showing in Tuesday's time trial was an improvement on his display in a similar test in Dubai last week, he was still six seconds off the time of winner Michael Hepburn (Orica-GreenEdge).
Pausing to speak to a group of reporters before pedalling the 20 or so kilometres back to his quarters for the week, the Ritz Carlton in Doha, Cancellara was unconcerned by his result in the Lusail time trial, explaining that he is in the Middle East simply to accumulate racing miles.
"I'm not surprised with that," Cancellara said. "It's not my goal to win the race. I have other ambitions, other goals. I just do what I have to do, which is just making race kilometres and coming out of this race without crashes."
For both Cancellara and Boonen, the objective is the same, to peak for the first two Sunday in April, and their performances to date in Qatar are in keeping with the tenor of their traditional approaches to the early season. A four-time winner in Qatar, Boonen likes to start his campaigns with a bang, while Cancellara tends to ease his way in, gathering momentum as the calendar turns to March and the Classics build-up begins in earnest.
"Of course, today is not April," Cancellara said. "I see many riders today already in great shape. Whether I am bad or they are too good, I mean, that's always the calculation you make by yourself.
"Maybe they are really well prepared to come here to do high-intensity racing, and then go a bit slower towards Omloop [Het Nieuwsblad] or the races that come after. Everybody is doing his own thing. I don't stress about it. I'm just focused and I'm working."
Three weeks in the Gulf
Having competed at the Dubai Tour last week, the Tour of Qatar is Cancellara's second race of the year, but he believes that Boonen and Lotto-Belisol leader Jurgen Roelandts' seasonal debuts – at the Tour de San Luis and Tour Down Under, respectively – were higher-intensity affairs.
"I mean, Dubai was nice, the last kilometres were intense, but generally, the race was not super intense, it was more under control," said Cancellara, who added that the difference in Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Trek's approaches to the Tour of Qatar was self-evident.
"They came here for a goal. I don't think they came here just for riding and to see how it goes, and that's the opposite of us. We came here to ride, get into the first races and then grow," he said. "You need a lot power in the legs or else you don't stay in the front. That's how simple it is. That's not a secret in cycling – without power, you go nowhere."
Along with Astana's Evan Huffman, Cancellara is one of only two men pencilled in to line up in all three stage races in the Persian Gulf this month, the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman. "There's different reasons," Cancellara said. "I had good training at home, but we saw four days more racing [in Dubai] and thought, why not? When you do more race days, your condition can kind of grow. We chose something new, something different and let's see how it works."
Before he rode off, Cancellara was asked if he felt worried that his direct rivals for the Classics, and Boonen in particular, had begun the season so strongly. "It's every year the same. Every year the same," he sighed, and then smiled. "We know what we want to do and what we want to achieve. I don't say we can stay quiet, but we are working on what we want to achieve."