October 16 feels a long, long way away, but the Tour of Qatar peloton will have plenty of food for thought between now and the World Championships road race in Doha after they sampled four laps of the finishing circuit during stage 2.
The wind was stiffer on Tuesday than it had been for the women’s test event a week ago, and while it failed to break up the peloton on the 15.4-kilometre course, the early consensus was that this Worlds will be altogether more complicated in practice than it appears on paper.
Manuel Quinziato has been a mainstay of the Italian national team in recent seasons and when the BMC man rolled to a halt after the finish of Tuesday’s stage, he seemed almost addled by what he had seen.
“I’ll need 24 hours to think about it,” Quinziato joked to Cyclingnews. “It’s a bit different to what I’d expected. It’s a criterium, like the ones they do after the Tour de France.”
The 15.4-kilometre circuit on the manmade island of the Pearl includes no fewer than 24 roundabouts and scarcely features a single long straight worthy of the name. Although the buildings on the course offer less shelter from the wind than one might expect, the changes in direction are so frequent that its effects could be neutralised.
“There are so many turns that it’s going to be difficult for it to break up,” Quinziato said. “I mean, it was windy today, and even if the group splits in a crosswind, you’ll turn into a headwind soon afterwards and you won’t be able to stay away.”
Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data) echoed Quinziato in doubting whether the peloton would fragment on the Worlds circuit, though he noted that the wind certainly made itself felt on the Pearl.
“There’s more of a wind effect on the circuit than when I rode it easy in training, definitely,” Farrar said. “Whether it will actually split the bunch on the circuit, I don’t know. But from training on it, I thought there would be more protection from the buildings than there is.”
Farrar’s Dimension Data teammate Mark Cavendish, always cogent in his analysis of a race parcours, pointed out that regardless of whether the bunch splits up or not, there is precious little scope for saving energy throughout the day.
“I don’t think the final circuit will create any splits but it’s definitely going to be uncomfortable no matter where you are in the group,” Cavendish said. “There may be a split, though I can’t see it happening, but it’s definitely going to be gnarly wherever you are in the peloton. It actually makes for quite a good World Championships.”
Farrar, meanwhile, added the caveat that riding four laps of the Worlds course on the back of two very demanding days in the crosswinds at the Tour of Qatar is an entirely different proposition to lining out for 15 laps at the end of a 260-kilometre one-day race.
“It’s pretty tough, but it’s hard to say based on the stage today,” Farrar said. “It had already blown to pieces the past two days and it’s different in a one-day race with 200-whatever guys at the Worlds. It’s going to be an interesting race, that’s for sure.”
Tuesday’s stage was eventually won by Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who beat Cavendish in the sprint, though as in the case of the women’s race last week, the finale took place at the Qatar University, away from the Worlds course.
“Hectic,” was Kristoff’s first impression afterwards. “It’s not really like the usual Qatari race, with big straights in the desert and echelons. It’s more a race with corners, like a criterium, but still it’s going to make the race hard with all those corners.”
The Worlds will begin with an 80-kilometre preamble that brings the peloton from the start at Sealine Beach Resort to the finishing circuit in Doha, but, regardless of conditions on the day, Kristoff did not feel that any sort of decisive echelon would form at that point. “It's a long way before the finish, so usually it will come back together,” he said.
Most riders canvassed on Tuesday afternoon felt that a bunch finish was the likely conclusion at the Doha Worlds, even if the route to that end result will be a tortuous one.
“It’s complicated, very complicated. But in the end, it should be a bunch sprint, full of explosive, pure sprinters – guys like Cavendish and maybe young riders like Caleb Ewan, even though it’s a long distance,” Quinziato said. “It’s going to be hard to organise a lead-out train for that sprint. I think it will be a sprint for guys who know how to get by without a sprint train.”
Tuesday’s stage, incidentally, featured an intermediate sprint on the finish of the Doha Worlds, though neither Cavendish nor Kristoff contested it, preferring to save their energy for the stage finish.
Asked about the almost imperceptible rise on the planned finishing straight, Cavendish, in his inimitable style, preached against over-analysis at this point: “Come on, man. It’s not fucking Alpe [d’Huez]. That’s a flat road, that.”
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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.