However predictable it might have been, the sight of Tom Boonen and his Etixx-QuickStep team hitting the front at the start of stage 2 of the Tour of Qatar still sent the majority of the peloton running for cover. With the wind up, Belgium’s premier force split the race in the opening kilometres with a volley of accelerations that saw only thirty riders make the initial front group.
After an hour of racing, the peloton finally re-grouped but the early skirmishes through the barren sandstorms of Qatar were merely a taste of what was still to come. After Movistar had resumed their position at the front of the field in support of race leader José Joaquin Rojas, Etixx were on the march once more.
It may not have been pretty but it was mightily effective. With 123 kilometres covered, the Belgian team cut through the bunch, splintering it into echelons once more. “From the start it was really tough, with this sand storm early on,” Tom Boonen told the press at the finish.
“The first sixty kilometres were full on, then it came back together. Then the Movistar team wanted to control from then on, and it worked for a while. But we started racing again. On the right turn, we took control and upped the pace. The bunch ripped and the finale was on.”
By the time the leaders reached the final five kilometres only 15 men remained. Lurking near the back was Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). Despite being isolated from his team and with only a day’s racing in his legs so far this season, he couldn’t be ruled out.
“We tried with the echelons but in the end some of the guys had cramps in the finale. Today was really hard and there’s a lot of tired legs,” said Etixx’s Wilfried Peeters.
“The stage was longer here than in other years, with the weather, and crosswinds, maybe we were pulling a bit too much in the final but that’s the reason why we lost today. We tried but Kristoff was fastest.”
And so it proved. Despite Etixx’s might, it was Kristoff’s will that won the stage. Boonen picked up three seconds at the second intermediate sprint of the day but even a nine-second provisional buffer on the Norwegian wasn’t enough.
“I never missed an echelon in Qatar,” the Belgian said at the line. “But when we turned back towards the finish line, the first small attacks came and straight away I felt the lactic acid in my legs. I had nothing left after the hard work earlier.”
Boonen would eventually finish out of the time bonuses in fourth. Kristoff claimed ten seconds to go with his stage win and he now leads the Ettix leader by a single second.
“That was a great day for me and a great victory. It’s a little bit unexpected but I’m happy,” Kristoff said when he came to a standstill.
“Everyone knew it was going to be hard but I was there and felt good all day. There were some attacks but everyone was tired. I managed to keep it under control for the sprint.”
Tuesday’s time trial will ultimately shake up the standings in the overall but Etixx, according to Boonen, still have a number of cards to play.
“I missed the GC lead by one second, but that's no big deal. After the TT tomorrow I will be behind a lot more. But in the last two stages there's cards to play. In this race the GC is not over until you cross the finish line of the last stage.”