By Gregor Brown in Doha, Qatar
The Tour of Qatar will pit two of cycling's top sprinters Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen for the first time since June. Briton Cavendish is prepared to start the season Sunday and face his Belgian rival after a winter focused solely on winning road races.
"You can say that we have the strongest teams, so maybe it is a fight only between us. However, it is not just to beat Boonen, but to win a bike race. It doesn't matter who it is, my job is to win races," said Cavendish to Cyclingnews.
Team Columbia-High Road's Cavendish is racing in the Tour of Qatar, February 1 to 6, for the first time in its eight-year history. He faces Boonen winner of 14 stages and two overall classifications in Qatar and other top sprinters in what is a race that consists of mainly flat, fast stages.
Cavendish ended his 2008 season with the Tour of Missouri in September, where he won three stages. Over the winter he kept focus on training for 2009 instead of racing on the track like in past years.
"I am excited, absolutely," he said about starting the 2009 season. "It is the first winter that I have ever trained on the road without having to do anything on the track. I think I have super-good form, I hope I have super-good form."
Cavendish starts his season in Qatar to be ready for the Tour of California, February 15 to 22. Columbia-High Road owner Bob Stapleton wants his star sprinter to be in good form for racing in California, where the team is based.
"In California last year, I was fast, but not going so good. Last year, I went in and it took me five days to become acclimated. That is what this race is about, it is the perfect race to do that in, and hopefully get a result as well."
Cavendish had his best season to date in 2008. He won two stages at the Giro d'Italia and four in the Tour de France.