When Doha first announced its candidacy to host the 2016 World Championships, there were fantastical tales aplenty of plans to construct artificial climbs on a finishing circuit built especially for the occasion.
Perhaps those rumours weren’t altogether far-fetched, considering how skyscrapers seem to spring up almost as quickly as mushrooms on the Doha cityscape, or how, for example, Qatar’s hosting of the Handball World Championships last year was enough to warrant the construction of a new 15,500-seater arena in Lusail.
No matter, two years ago, the head of the Qatar Cycling Federation, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Al Thani, confirmed that no such climb would be built and the Worlds course would instead rely on a natural resource – wind – to provide the obstacles.
On the evidence of Tuesday’s opening stage of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, billed officially as the test event for the 2016 Worlds, however, it seems that the greatest challenge facing riders in October will in fact be the technical nature of the 15-kilometre finishing circuit on the artificial island of the Pearl.
Stage 1 of the Ladies Tour of Qatar saw the 90-strong peloton tackle an 80-kilometre opening loop on desert roads that is due to feature on the Worlds course, before completing one lap of the sinuous circuit on the Pearl, an artificial island filled with swanky residential complexes and high-end shops.
Though the 80-kilometre preamble is on exposed roads and features four sharp changes of direction, it is also completely flat. The still conditions on Tuesday afternoon made for a relatively straightforward opening two hours of racing.
By contrast, the circuit on the Pearl sowed an understandable degree of trepidation in the peloton, though it was pity, perhaps, that there was not an opportunity for the women to tackle multiple laps of the course as the men will do next week.
“None of the peloton really knew what was coming when and it was the first race of the season for most of the girls, too, so they were really nervous,” said Hosking, who placed second in the intermediate sprint at the proposed finish line of the October Worlds. “But I think it will be the same at the World Championships, so it’s going to be interesting.”
The finishing circuit is composed of a series of sweeping bends and includes four roundabouts, and there is scarcely a straight worthy of the name over the 15 kilometres. Even the finishing straight itself curves gently and judging an effort in the final sprint will require some finesse.
“It’s a difficult course, I think,” said Kirsten Wild (Hitec Products), who would go on to win the stage, which finished off the Worlds circuit at Qatar University.
“There are a lot of corners – well not really corners – and if you’re not in front, it’s really hard to get in a good position again. It will be a race where you need to stay on the front all the time, and you’ll need your whole team on the front.”
Speaking on the eve of the race, Eddy Merckx, part of the organising committee of the Doha 2016 Worlds, was adamant that the race would not be afflicted by the same high temperatures experienced at the Abu Dhabi Tour at the same time last year, and insisted that the wind would be a significant factor.
“You can’t compare Abu Dhabi and Qatar: Abu Dhabi is the desert, Qatar is virtually an island,” Merckx said. “The riders won’t have problems with the heat, I can tell you. But they will have problems with the wind. All around the Pearl is water, the wind comes from every side, so it’s not like you’re in the middle of a city. There is wind is on the all the parts of the course.
“I’ve been here in October and I can tell you that the riders will suffer, the wind will be there.”
Neither Hosking nor Wild were convinced, however, that the wind would have that much of an effect on the manmade island of the Pearl, where high-rise apartment blocks and haute-couture stores ought to provide ample shelter from the elements.
“On the circuit, the wind won’t have an effect, I don’t think,” Hosking said. “For the Worlds you’re going to have to hope that it’s really windy on the bigger loop before the circuits.”
Wild, winner of the Ladies Tour of Qatar on four occasions, with a running tally of 10 stage wins, appears a natural favourite for the Doha Worlds, but like the four-time winner of the men’s race Tom Boonen, she is not convinced that the racing in October will bear many similarities to the fare typical of the Tour of Qatar.
“Today there wasn’t so much wind, so it’s hard to say. I’m wondering how it would play out in the wind. It’s not as open [on the finishing circuit] as the parts in the desert,” Wild said. “I expected it to be more like the straight desert roads, but it was quite built up. It’s more like the Champs-Élysées.”
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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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.