Mark Cavendish returns to racing after a four-month break over the off-season. The 23-year-old from the Isle of Man will lead Team Columbia-High Road in the sprinter-friendly Tour of Qatar, February 1 to 6.
"It's been quite a while since I raced," said Cavendish, who last raced and won three stages in the Tour of Missouri. "I'm in good shape, I've had a good winter and I'm feeling excited about the new season."
The 8th Tour of Qatar consists of an opening team time trial and five stages that are suited for sprinters. It will be Cavendish's first participation in the stage race organised by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).
"On paper Qatar is favourable for the sprinters, but the roads are really exposed and you've got to watch out for crosswinds. Before you know it, the bunch can have split into 15 different groups."
The Tour of Qatar will host 17 teams of eight riders. Team Columbia will send a team to keep Cavendish fresh for the sprint: Michael Barry, Marcus Burghardt, Bert Grabsch, Gregory Henderson, Frantisek Rabon, Vicente Reynes and Marcel Sieberg. New Zealander Henderson will be the last lead-out man for Cavendish.
"Mark Renshaw will have that role sometimes in 2009. But Mark's just come out of racing the Tour Down Under and we didn't want him to take on Qatar as well before doing the Tour of California, which is one of our team's biggest goals for 2009."
The opening six-kilometre time trial will provide a chance for Cavendish to take the early overall race lead and set the tone for his rivals, like Tom Boonen.
"We've got some of our top time trialists coming out there, guys who know how to keep up a high pace in the final kilometres of each stage," said Cavendish
Boonen won the race overall in 2008 and 2006.
Team Columbia will also send a team for the women's race. It is the first year for the women's stage race, February 8 to 10.