If Flanders is the school of cycling, then Qatar is its satellite campus. Some harsh lessons can be handed down in the bare expanses of the desert, and on stage 1 of the Tour of Qatar, Omega Pharma-QuickStep gave something of a seminar in the art of riding in a crosswind as they propelled Niki Terpstra to stage victory.
Led by Tom Boonen, the triple Tour of Flanders winner and the team's professor emeritus, as it were, Omega Pharma-QuickStep were to the fore in the first echelons after just 20 kilometres and were even more prominent in forcing a second split around the 50km mark, when no fewer than five of their number were in the leading group of 22 riders.
Then, following a general regrouping as the race turned from a crosswind into a headwind, Terpstra and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck duly clipped off the front in a five-man break that would stay clear all the way to the finish at Dukhan Beach.
"The first part of the stage was crosswinds and that was the hardest part," Terpstra told reporters afterwards. "In the end we had headwind and the speed was going down. We attacked with five riders and luckily we could keep a small gap to the finish."
Although Van Keirsbulck was briefly dropped on the run-in to the line, he summoned up the wherewithal to latch back onto the leading group within sight of the flamme rouge, and his mammoth turn on the front inside the final kilometre helped to set up Terpstra's textbook victory.
"I'm really happy that Guillaume was in the front group with me, because he rode really hard and gave me some motivation," Terpstra said. "Then, in the end, I still had enough energy to do the sprint and it worked out well."
While Terpstra and Van Keirsbulck were busy working over Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) in the front group, Boonen lay in wait in the event of a bunch finish, and he duly led the peloton home, just seven seconds down on the winner.
Boonen Tom, as the race speaker calls him, may be the darling of the few local fans who turn out, thanks to his haul of 20 stage wins and four overall victories at the Tour of Qatar, but as an ensemble outfit, his QuickStep teammates have also been redoubtable performers over the 12-year history of the race.
"Maybe it's a surprise for you, but it's not for me," Terpstra told a local reporter of his victory. "We're here with eight riders who are all capable of winning a stage in the Tour of Qatar. Of course, Tom is a good captain and because of that, he could defend us in the peloton when we were out in front. He was defending and the peloton had to chase and that was a big advantage."
Last year, it was the turn of Mark Cavendish to claim the spoils for Omega Pharma-QuickStep, and this time around Terpstra looks to have already placed a significant down payment on final overall victory. The Dutchman holds a 23-second buffer over most of the peloton after winning both intermediate sprints on the day, and with a 10km time trial to come on Tuesday, he is in a commanding position even at this early juncture.
"Yes, we are now 23 seconds in front of the strongest riders, guys like [Fabian] Cancellara, who is also a specialist over 10 kilometres," Omega Pharma-QuickStep directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters told Cyclingnews. "Hopefully we can make it, but every day is different in Qatar. On any day, you can finish in the second group and lose everything."
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