The men's 2010 road season clicks up another gear on Sunday, as many of the best sprinters and classics riders in the men's peloton gather in the Persian Gulf for the Tour of Qatar. Following a terrible winter in Europe, many riders are worried they are behind schedule with their training but six days of warm weather racing in Qatar, followed by another six days of racing at the new Tour of Oman race the week after, will surely for get everyone back on track for the early spring classics.
Understanding who is on form and who is not will make the Tour of Qatar fascinating to follow. The opening team time trial on Sunday will give a first indication of which team has the best lead out train, while the subsequent sprints and possible echelons during the stages across the windswept Qatar peninsular, will give the winners some early-season bragging rights.
Both the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman are organised by Tour de France owner Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), and so Team Sky, BMC Racing Team, Cervelo Test Team and new French squad Saur Sojasun will all be looking to impress and boost their chances of wild card invitation to the Tour de France.
Last year's race was marked by the tragic death of Belgium's Frederiek Nolf, who died in his sleep between stages. He will be remembered this year, especially by his former Topsport Vlaanderen teammates and the many Belgian riders in the race.
Can Boonen win again?
Tom Boonen (Quick Step) wears number one at the Tour of Qatar after winning the race for the fourth time in his career in 2009. He has won 15 stages at Qatar over the years and must be hoping for more this year, especially after Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) was forced to delay the start of his season due to his January dental problems.
"I can’t wait to start racing," Belgian Boonen said in a statement from Quick Step. "This type of race represents an important test to measure your level of preparation and the work undertaken throughout the winter.
“In Qatar it's important to always stay in the first positions of the group in order to avoid any surprises,” he added. “Our team is competitive and motivated. We’re ready."
Although Boonen seems confident, he has struggled to win sprints following his positive test for cocaine and there are plenty of riders in this year's race who will be looking to take his scalp.
The 128-rider start list, which will be finalised on Saturday, is packed with sprinters. The Cervelo Test Team impressed on their debut last year and has Heinrich Haussler, Roger Hammond, Jeremy Hunt, Italian neo-pro Davide Appollonio and former world track sprint champion Theo Bos in its line-up. The Dutchman is still learning how to survive on the road and nobody in the peloton has forgotten how he brought down Daryl Impey in last year's Tour of Turkey, but he surely has the pure speed to beat Boonen if he can be at the front in the sprints.
Quick Step has brought its best lead out riders to chaperone Boonen but Garmin-Transitions will be looking to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them to set up Tyler Farrar. The big American will have Brazil's Murilo Fischer and Canadian time triallist Svein Tuft to lead him out.
Other sprint contenders include Katusha’s Danilo Napolitano and Filippo Pozzato, Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Jimmy Casper (Saur-Sojasun), Baden Cooke and JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank), Gerald Ciolek (Milram), Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi (Liquigas) and Matt Goss (HTC-Columbia).
Edvald Boasson Hagen is expected to be Team Sky's protected sprinter as he makes his debut with the new British ProTour team, although Russel Downing could also get his chance after traveling directly to Qatar from the Tour Down Under.
The sprinters and their teams will dominate the finale of the stages but watch out for Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) to throw a spanner in the works with possible late attacks.
It will also be interesting to see the United States of America Under 23 Trek-Livestrong team in action against major ProTour teams. The Qatar and Oman races are key preparation for Taylor Phinney before the track worlds and the young guns will surely want to get a result in their biggest race of the season.
Six days of racing
The 2010 Tour of Qatar follows the established pattern that has been in place since the event was first held in 2002 to promote Qatar hosting the Asian Games. The racing begins on Sunday February 7, with a short but intense 8.2km team time trial around the West Bay Lagoon, just north of the capital Doha.
Quick Step has often dominated the TTT and laid the foundations for Boonen's overall victories. However last year Garmin used its time trial expertise to win the stage and Bradley Wiggins pulled on the first leader's jersey.
That could happen again in 2010 as the Briton makes his race debut with Team Sky. Wiggins has opted to ride the Tour of Qatar instead of the Etoile de Besseges in the South of France to catch up on missed training. He will only ride the Tour of Qatar before heading to Spain for the Ruta del Sol but could inspire Team Sky to another moral boosting opening victory.
The Team Sky roster also includes pursuit riders Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, Downing, Boasson Hagen, Lars-Peter Nordhaug, Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Juan Antonio Flecha. Whoever beats them will have to be on great form.
The team time trial will be about pure speed and slick teamwork on the fast and flat 8.2km course. For logistical reasons teams have to use their standard road bikes. Deep section rims and skin suits are allowed but the rider's ability to work as a unit will be the decisive factor.
The other stages start and finish in different parts of Qatar, including the now traditional Camel Race Track, but no stage is longer than 147km. However it will be the wind direction on each day, the aggression of the sprinters in the finale and their hunger for early-season victory that will decide who comes out on top on each of the six days of racing.