Chloe Hosking (Hitec Products UCK) scarcely put a foot wrong during her spell as leader of the Ladies Tour of Qatar and yet she finds herself out of the golden jersey with three seconds to make up on Kirsten Wild (Argos-Shimano) ahead of Friday's final stage.
Hosking had already given an exhibition of her physical condition and presence of mind on the opening day: she made the decisive split, sniffed out the winning move and then coolly dispatched her breakaway companions in the sprint to take the stage and the golden jersey.
In the crosswinds of stage two, Hosking again showed her tactical acumen by positioning herself in the first echelon and defending her overall lead, and she continued in the same manner on stage three. Mindful that Wild was by now the major threat to her golden jersey, she limited her losses the Dutchwoman to the minimum at the intermediate sprints, and was again perfectly positioned when that most Qatari of hazards, the crosswind, once again reared its head midway through the stage.
As the lead group entered the closing three kilometres in Madinat Al Shamal, Hosking knew that a place in the top three on the stage would ensure she retained the golden jersey going into the final day, but 1.5km from the line, as she positioned herself alongside Kirsten Wild, she suffered the most inopportune of punctures.
On wheeling to a halt beyond the finish line, Hosking was unsure of her status and although it was soon clarified that she would be awarded the same finishing time as the lead group, Wild's victory and ten-second time bonus meant that she had moved into gold ahead of Hosking. "That's bike racing, what can I say," said Hosking flatly. "I got a puncture."
Hosking's disappointment was understandable given the considerable groundwork she had laid during the stage and the two days preceding it, although she sounded an optimistic note when she learned that she trails Wild by just 3 seconds. With 16 bonus seconds on offer on Friday, the race is still in the balance, even if Wild's powerful finishes in the past two days make her the favourite to claim a third overall victory.
"That means it's still open, so for sure I'll contest the intermediate sprints and the finish. I think all the days here have been really aggressive too, so it's well within my reach," Hosking said, adding a word of praise for her new teammates: "They were really, really good today. Emilia Fahlin brought the break back that had Gracie Elvin in it, so for the first race of the year, I think we're meshing well."
For Wild, meanwhile, it was her fifth stage victory in total at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, and she is now on the brink of a third overall victory in the race, after winning the first two editions in 2009 and 2010. After adroitly managing the finishing sprint alone on stage 2, Wild had greater support from her Argos-Shimano teammate in the finale on Thursday.
"I was still suffering from yesterday but my teammates were able to control it on the front. I knew there were some fast girls in this group," she said.
Argos-Shimano had already shown their mettle in the day, particularly when Charlotte Becker narrowly missed out on denying Hosking second place behind Wild at the first intermediate sprint at Al Zubara after putting in a mammoth lead-out. "Charlotte was so strong, like a machine," Wild said.
On Friday's final stage along Doha's Corniche, Argos-Shimano will doubtless be glad to let a breakaway hoover up the bonus seconds, but, as ever, Wild stuck to her familiar mantra from the previous day. "We'll plan for it tonight," she said. "I really don't think too much about it, we've been going stage by stage."