By Gregor Brown in Doha, Qatar
Eddy Merckx welcomed the first ever women's professional cycling race to the Middle East, the Ladies' Tour of Qatar, February 8 to 10. The Belgian cycling legend and the founder of the successful men's race hopes the women's version will continue to spread the message of sport in the Islamic country.
"It is to promote sport and especially women's sport. The Qatar Cycling Federation, along with the royal family, would like to have more sport in Qatar," said Merckx to Cyclingnews.
Merckx worked with the same organiser of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), to bring the women's race to Qatar. The stage race's purpose is to promote sport in a country where some young girls wear abaya (cloak).
"I don't think the country has a problem with our culture here. You can see outside the sport that the women don't have to have to wear a veil on their head, I think it is really democratic."
Merckx introduced the Qatari royal family to the Amaury Sport Organisation and they worked together to create the first men's Tour of Qatar in 2002. This year's edition was won by Belgian Tom Boonen.
The inaugural women's race started Sunday with a 94-kilometre stage based out of Qatar's capital of Doha. Italian Giorgia Bronzini won the stage and holds the overall jersey.
Merckx competed in the 1960s and 1970s. He is a five-time winner of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, three World Championships and several one-day Classics.