By Shane Stokes in Doha, Qatar
Chris Sutton was pleased at the end of stage four of the Tour of Qatar, even though he finished sixth in the sprint and thus did not take any bonus seconds back from young rider leader Greg Van Avermaet. The reason for the Australian's satisfaction was the work done by his Slipstream Chipotle-H3O team, which sparked off a major split in the peloton.
Shortly after the 60 kilometre point, the Argyle-clad riders hit the front and broke the main bunch into three pieces. Other teams combined with them to preserve the gaps and those left behind didn't see the first portion until after the finish. Over half the field lost between 3'16" and 8'37".
"The boys were unbelievable today. I have never seen a team ride like they did today," Sutton enthused. "Everyone was pulling. I saw a spot [to go for it]... Quick Step were controlling the race, I said ‘boys, we are going to have to do something here to split it up.' We just put it in the gutter and the boys just swapped off hard. It made my job a lot easier. I was pulling some turns as well. We had Magnus, Dave, Killian, Huub, Martijn, pretty much the whole team up there.
"Once we put it in the gutter, Quick Step could see what we were doing and so too did Liquigas. I spoke to Boonen after we did it and the group was down to about 20 or 30 riders. Tom said that they were just getting ready to do the same thing, so he said that it was great that we actually initiated the move."
After the finish, the Slipstream riders congratulated each other on their performance. David Millar, Magnus Backstedt and the others were all buzzing after showing committed work as a unit, and underlined that they were more than justified in being invited to Qatar.
"We have shown that we are one of the strongest teams out there... I think that was proved today," Sutton continued. "We tried to get the sprint finish down perfect today but it wasn't to be - I think that everyone was a bit heavy from swapping off. But it was worth a try. We hit the front and JD [Julian Dean] took me to about 150 to go... I tried to kick but ran out of legs a little bit. It was no-one's fault but my own. But the boys rode excellent today, hats off to them."
Having been already granted a ride in the Giro d'Italia, Slipstream are chasing a place in the Tour de France. Riding well in the Tour of Qatar - an ASO organised race - is important for them, and Sutton believes that their showing this week will help their case. "We are not here to mess around. I think a lot of teams can see that we are serious now, we are not a joke of a team. We are vying for a wildcard slot at the Tour de France... If we can show ASO and Christian Prudhomme that we are actually a force to be reckoned with, then for sure I couldn't see why we would not get a wild card."
Slipstream were chasing victory in the team time trial at the start of the race, but finished just behind Quick Step. Sutton still believed that the champagne will be sprayed sooner rather than later. "We will get a stage win, I am sure of it. Even if it is not here, it is definitely going to be at the Tour of the Med.
"I am feeling really good on the bike, the sensations are good, and I have got a lot of strength in the legs. That is something that my coach Shane Sutton, myself and the new director Matt White have been working on over the winter. I was doing specific training, core stability work and all that. I have built a bit of strength and obviously it is working, because I am staying up there in the sprints."
Spirits were high, and the team was set for a fun evening on Wednesday. "We have Magnus' birthday tonight," he said, just before heading back to the hotel. "I am sure we might have a glass of wine to mark the occasion. I would buy the guys wine because they worked their arses off today and they deserve it."