In hindsight, the hype surrounding Edvald Boasson Hagen was probably at its zenith during his first appearance in the early-season races in the Gulf back in 2010. Newly arrived at the nascent Team Sky, he clocked up three stage wins at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, and, were it not for an ill-timed comfort break in Oman, he would have claimed overall honours there to boot. The future belonged to him alone.
Then as now, Eddy Merckx was part of the organisation on each race, and it is difficult to find a contemporary report that didn’t draw an explicit comparison between the Cannibal and the man they used to call 'the new Eddy'.
"I think that he's the best young rider we have in cycling at the moment," Merckx told Cyclingnews at the time.
Six years on – five of them in the colours of Team Sky – it is undeniable that Boasson Hagen has not lived up to the lofty expectations foisted upon him as a youngster, eventually slipping into a supporting role in the Spring Classics as well as the Grand Tours.
Yet if Boasson Hagen's first season at MTN-Qhubeka – now Dimension Data – in 2015 was somewhat mixed, his fine run of form in the tail end of the campaign suggested that the Norwegian still has plenty more to offer. His displays at the Tour of Qatar this week have continued that trend.
After performing impressively in the service of Mark Cavendish during the wind-buffeted opening two stages in Qatar, Boasson Hagen moved himself into the overall lead on Wednesday by turning the clock back to 2010 with a dominant victory in the 11-kilometre time trial at Lusail.
Boasson Hagen finished fully 25 seconds clear of Jos van Emden (LottoNL-Jumbo), and put over a minute into all bar 18 riders, to take a commanding 26-second lead atop the overall standings with two days remaining.
"It didn't feel like I was going fast on the course, but I think when you suffer a lot, you don't feel like you're going fast," Boasson Hagen said. "I felt good earlier in the week and it's good to get the proof that I was going well."
In the overall standings, Boasson Hagen leads his Dimension Data teammate Cavendish by 26 seconds, with Manuel Quinziato (BMC) in third, a further 8 seconds behind.
Cavendish comments on Boasson Hagen's character
Cavendish raced with Boasson Hagen at Highroad in 2008 and 2009, and again at Team Sky in 2012, and he told reporters afterwards that the Norwegian's powers had never waned in the intervening period, despite the relative paucity of big results since his brace of Tour de France stage wins in 2011.
"He's the same rider he was at HTC. He was kind of in a service role more at Sky so we didn't really get to see what he could do anymore," Cavendish said. "I rode with him and he was still as strong as ever if not stronger but obviously they had other ambitions at Sky. But he's back in an environment where he can kind of flourish as a racer and he's definitely showing that."
Asked by a Norwegian television crew for an insight into Boasson Hagen's character, Cavendish quipped, "He's mental, he never shuts up!" but he had earlier explained how his teammate – who is still only 28 years of age – has matured into something of a quiet leader.
"One thing I've noticed since I rode with him at HTC is how he's grown as a leader. He's one of the old guys on the team now and for a quiet lad, he really motivates the other riders," Cavendish said. "He knows how to ride as a unit, he knows how to be a leader and road captain. It's superb to see him grow into a leadership role and he definitely inspires the young African lads."
Kristoff approves of Norwegian's move to South African team
Whispers about the feats of the young Boasson Hagen gradually developed into a clamour during his time at Norwegian Continental outfit Maxbo-Bianchi, where in 2007 one Alexander Kristoff operated very much in the shadow of his contemporary.
In recent seasons, of course, Kristoff's star has shone more brilliantly, but although he was soundly beaten by Boasson Hagen in Wednesday's time trial, the Katusha man welcomed his fellow countryman's apparent renaissance. Like Cavendish, Kristoff felt that the move away from a supporting role at Team Sky has been beneficial.
"He's gone back to his old trainer [Frederik Mohn – ed.] and I think that move was good for him because at Sky he had to work a lot, and they wanted him to develop into another rider," Kristoff said in Lusail on Wednesday afternoon.
"But now he is developing back to where he was before, I think. You can see from today that he has his power back. On the other days, he was in the first echelon, and he's doing good sprints again. He's starting to look like the good old Edvald we remember from a few years ago."
Asked of his own aspirations this Spring, the softly-spoken Boasson Hagen said simply: "The Classics and my main goal is to try to win one of them, but we'll see."
In the more immediate short-term, he is poised for overall victory at the Tour of Qatar, where, for now at least, his teammate Cavendish is the only man within striking distance when time bonuses are factored in. "As long as we win, it doesn't matter," Cavendish said. "We're going to try to win two more stages."
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