Edvald Boasson Hagen changed out of the gold jersey quickly at the end of stage 4 of the Tour of Qatar. As the Dimension Data post-mortem took place around him, he sat quietly in a deck chair by the team car, already laying the garment out on his lap and smoothing it absent-mindedly with his hands.
The Norwegian had entered the day as the race’s seemingly impregnable overall leader, but a double puncture with eight kilometres remaining, just as the race was splitting up, proved ruinous. He lost 45 seconds to the front group and slips to 5th overall, all hopes of final victory quashed.
Mark Cavendish finished safely in the front group but was a late arrival at the impromptu debriefing, sinking into the vacant seat beside Boasson Hagen. The Briton’s presence was required post-haste at the podium to take possession of the gold jersey vacated by his teammate, but before hurriedly changing into fresh kit for the occasion, Cavendish threw an arm around Boasson Hagen’s shoulder and offered a sympathetic smile. What use were mere words?
“To be honest with you, there’s not a lot you can do,” Dimension Data directeur sportif Roger Hammond told reporters of Boasson Hagen’s doomed attempt to chase back on. “They rode a perfect stage, they were in control all the time and then there was a puncture at the worst possible time. But what can you do only try to rectify it.”
For the first time all week, the wind was relatively gentle for most of stage 4 and Boasson Hagen had, for the most part, enjoyed an untroubled day in the gold jersey. Even as the bunch began to split on the final lap of the finishing circuit under the impetus of BMC’s forcing, the Norwegian was safely tucked into the front group when his race unravelled.
Boasson Hagen swiftly procured a replacement front wheel from the neutral service car when he punctured with 8 kilometres remaining, but no sooner had he remounted than he had to stop by the roadside once again. This time, teammate Youcef Reguigui handed over his bike, while Mark Renshaw, Tyler Farrar and Jay Thomson dropped out of the front group to aid his pursuit, but to no avail.
“First I got a flat on the front. Well, actually it was a double puncture but I only realised the front wheel at the time,” Boasson Hagen said. “I stopped, got a new front wheel and then I started going again, but then I realised I had a flat at the back too. A double flat and then the group was gone and it was too hard to chase back.
“It was too fast up front, they were too far away and it was hard to get back. But the guys did really well, a really good job. I’m impressed by the whole team. But shit happens.”
Boasson Hagen has endured such ill fortune in the Persian Gulf in the past. Six years ago, he lost the overall lead at the Tour of Oman when a number of squads – including, indeed, Hammond and Cervélo TestTeam – opted not to slacken their pace when he stopped for a comfort break 50 kilometres from the finish of the penultimate stage.
With BMC pushing on the front here long before Boasson Hagen punctured, it was already a tall order for him to chase back on, and LottoNL-Jumbo’s later forcing on behalf of their sprinter Moreno Hofland sealed his fate. The eventual stage winner Alexander Kristoff and his Katusha team could afford to wait in the wings and bide their time to set up the sprint.
“Katusha got a lot of help there in the front for some reason, I’m not really sure why,” Hammond said. “Riding against two teams when we’d been riding all day was always going to be difficult, but the guys did their best and limited the losses. Thankfully we had two in the front on GC.”
With the rest of his teammates dropping back to help Boasson Hagen, Cavendish was Dimension Data’s sole rider in the front group and, without help for the ensuing sprint, he had to settle for 5th on the stage, though he did enough to ensure the gold jersey remains in the team.
“They made that instinctive decision. They’re all professional bike riders, they’re not idiots,” Hammond said. “We had a game plan before the start, obviously, so they knew that if Eddy had any trouble, Cav as second on GC wasn’t going to stop.
“We were playing with Edvald for GC, Cav was our second option, but it’s not a bad place to be if your second guy is still leading GC. So it could have been a hell of a lot worse.”
Boasson Hagen, too, looked to draw solace from the fact that his team had, at least, retained the overall lead at the end of a trying afternoon. “That’s a good point from the day. We still keep the jersey, so I’m happy with that,” he said.
In victory and defeat, Boasson Hagen is a study in self-containment, but as the shadows lengthened in Madinat Al Shamal on Thursday evening, his disappointment was palpable, almost in spite of himself. “Yeah, it would have been nice to win,” he said quietly. “But now it’s gone. You can’t do much.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.