Greg Van Avermaet began the final stage of the Tour of Qatar just two seconds behind overall leader Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), and the rising winds along the coast on Friday morning temporarily raised the prospect of a BMC raid on the gold jersey.
It was not to be, however. After the race left the start at Sealine Beach Resort and turned past an unsightly oil refinery whose belching chimneys seemed transposed from a L.S. Lowry painting, the bunch was faced by a block headwind all the way to the finishing circuit in Doha.
Sagely, Dimension Data opted to allow a three-man break featuring Jesse Sergent (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Steven Tronet (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) and Tim Declerq (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) slip clear early on to hoover up the bonuses, and for all his qualities, Van Avermaet was never likely to make an impact in the eventual bunch finish, where Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) pipped Cavendish for the stage honours.
“There wasn’t a whole lot we could do today with that headwind, and we knew that this finish was perfect for Cavendish or Kristoff,” Van Avermaet said afterwards. “Maybe if we’d caught the early break before the two bonus sprints, I could perhaps have tried to pick up the two seconds on Cavendish.”
Van Avermaet finished safely in the main peloton but slipped to third overall, 8 seconds down on the eventual winner Cavendish, due to the time bonuses accruing from the bunch sprint. “I’m still satisfied with my Tour of Qatar, though. Third on the general classification is a good result,” he said.
The Belgian had come close to a stage win of his own on stage 4 at Madiant Al Shamal, where he was overpowered in the sprint by Kristoff, but he was optimistic that the Tour of Oman’s punchier finales might prove more amenable to his style as a finisseur.
“There are a lot of stages there that might suit me better because they tend to have hills in the finale,” he said. “The sprints over there might be better for me. It’s a bit hillier and a bit more relaxed. Every day here it is stressful with the winds and the speed.”
The victory that really counts for Van Avermaet, of course, would be a maiden win in a big Spring Classic in Belgium, after a string of near misses in recent seasons. To that end, his first five days of racing of the season in Qatar were more about the process than the final result.
“I got a lot of speed work in here, and you have to fight for your position here at every corner, and you work together as a team to be there in a certain position. That’s a good preparation that you don’t find in other races,” Van Avermaet said.
This will mark the fourth year in succession that Van Avermaet has chosen to start his season by racing both the Tours of Qatar and Oman. Though – for varying reasons – many of his probable Classics rivals have eschewed these races this February and are instead competing in southern Europe, Van Avermaet had no doubts about his own preference.
“I like this kind of racing,” he said. “It’s always a good fight to be in position and it’s good preparation. Whether it makes a difference or not I don’t know, but I prefer to do my preparation here because it’s similar racing to Flanders and the Classics.”