By Gregor Brown in Doha, Qatar
Amaury Sport Organisation's Christian Prudhomme welcomed the expected sprint battle amongst the likes of Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish in the 2009 Tour of Qatar, February 1 to 6. He joined cycling legend Eddy Merckx Saturday in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday to open the eighth edition of the stage race that also includes a first-ever women's event.
"This had been going well since 2002. It is pleasure and an honour for us to be here this year for the battle of the king of the sprints. There are the most famous sprinters in the world here in Qatar," said Prudhomme, cycling director of the same organisation that owns the Tour de France.
There are 17 teams, 135 riders, who will race in the six-stage event. Some of the top sprinters include Boonen (Quick Step), Cavendish (Columbia-High Road), Francesco Chicchi (Liquigas), Angelo Furlan (Lampre-NGC), Robert Förster (Milram), Danilo Napolitano (Katusha) and Magnus Backstedt (Garmin-Slipstream).
The sprinters "are the reason why the Tour of Qatar exists. One of the last victories of Mario Cipollini was here and Robbie McEwen won here. Tom Boonen has a record 14 wins here. Mark Cavendish, who is the new star of the sprints, will create a real fight and battle between these two men. It means that Qatar is a great race and the race for the start of the season."
"Every year we have seventeen teams, but we have never had the quality of riders that we have here," said Merckx, an honorary member of the Qatar organisation. "Also, there are around 28 nations represented in the Tour of Qatar."
Qatar will also host the start of the season for many of the female cyclists. This is the first year it organises a women's stage race, February 8 to 10.
"We are proud for the first ladies' Tour of Qatar. There are around 15 teams of six riders, and 17 different nations."
The men's race starts Sunday with a team time trial of six kilometres. The following five stages are mostly flat, sprinters' stages.
Former World Champion Boonen won the race overall in 2008 and 2006.