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Boonen, Gilbert, Greipel, and Démare headline
Belgian Champion Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma - QuickStep)
In yesteryear, February racing was a distinctly Mediterranean affair, with the peloton easing its way back into action in frigid temperatures on the French Riviera or in Mallorca. Those races are still there, thankfully, but in an era of ever-increasing globalisation, the peloton's early-season centre of gravity has shifted eastwards, to the Persian Gulf.
After the inaugural Dubai Tour draws to a close on Saturday, the Middle Eastern road show continues immediately with the Tour of Qatar, from February 9th to 14th. Since its inception in 2002, the race has gradually evolved from somewhat of a novelty to something of a necessity - a growing number of riders have been persuaded that the road to success on the cobbles in April runs through the desert in February.
The embodiment of that belief is Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), who has won the Tour of Qatar outright on four occasions - in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012 - and in each of those years, he has gone on to win the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix or both. Of course, the week that begins with the Ronde and ends in Hell is the most important of Boonen's season, and victory in Qatar will not be an end unto itself.
That said, after an injury-plagued 2013, Boonen will doubtless jump on any opportunity to confirm the form he displayed at the recent Tour de San Luis. In the absence of 2013 winner Mark Cavendish, Boonen leads a strong Omega Pharma-QuickStep delegation, which also features Niki Terpstra, Iljo Keisse and Gert Steegmans, as well as fast man Andy Fenn.
Boonen's great rival on the pavé, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) will also be in Qatar, as part of a three-leg Middle Eastern stint that also includes Dubai and the Tour of Oman. The 10.9km time trial on the Lusail motor circuit should be to the Swiss rider's liking. While he struggled in a similar test in Dubai, one imagines Cancellara will be a very different proposition with a week's racing in his legs.
Indeed, the start list of the Tour of Qatar reads like a who's who of the spring classics. Double Tour of Flanders winner Stijn Devolder joins Cancellara in the Trek line-up, while Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet have both decided to start their seasons in Qatar. Third in last year's Ronde, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) is also in action, as well as Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and Lars Boom (Belkin), while part of Sky's classics unit has jetted in from Australia, including Bernhard Eisel and Ian Stannard.
The stiff crosswinds of the Qatari peninsula make the race an ideal warm-weather test site for the elbow-to-elbow combat of the spring classics, but the flat nature of the parcours means that there are ample rewards on offer for the sprinters, as Cavendish and Mark Renshaw (2011) have demonstrated in recent years.
While Cavendish and Marcel Kittel are both absent this year, there is still plenty of sprinting talent in the Tour of Qatar peloton, with André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) topping the bill. Remarkably, the German has not raced here since 2005, but after opening his account in Australia last month, Greipel will be expected to add to his running tally in Qatar.
Other fast finishers in the race include Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) – a man who also harbours ambitions for the classics, of course - Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr), Theo Bos (Belkin), Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Irish youngster Sam Bennett (NetApp-Endura).
As ever, the route in Qatar will be a flat one, but in the absence of any discernible shelter on the roadside, the effects of the slightest crosswind are amplified enormously. Because of their numerous sharp changes in direction, stages 2 to Al Khor Corniche and 5 to Madinat al Shaminal could prove the most demanding. That said, whoever wins the individual time trial at Lusail on stage 3 will be in a commanding position to go on and claim overall honours.
*Tour of Qatar 2014: Stages*
Sunday February 9, Stage 1: Al Wakra - Dukhan Beach, 135.5km
Monday February 10, Stage 2: Camel Race Track - Al Khor Corniche, 160.5km
Tuesday February 11, Stage 3: Lusail Circuit, 10.9km - individual time trial
Wednesday February 12, Stage 4: Dukhan - Mesaieed, 135km
Thursday February 13, Stage 5: Al Zubara Fort - Madinat Al Shamal, 159km
Friday February 14, Stage 6: Sealine Beach Resort - Doha Corniche, 113.5km