The 10th edition of Qatar's national tour promises to be yet another sprinters battle in the desert. Some of the race's best-known names return while several of last year's protagonists make another trip under slightly different guises.
One of those who makes another appearance in Qatar, albeit wearing different kit is Heinrich Haussler, the Australian rider now part of the Garmin-Cervélo fold and making his comeback after a 2010 season riddled with injury problems that he'd rather forget.
Another is Theo Bos, the Dutchman leading Rabobank's charge as he looks to further consolidate his position as a road sprinter after making the transition from the track at the start of 2009. He moved from Cervélo following its demise and has been steadily improving over the past two seasons - he could well be a threat in the desert.
There are the usual faces too, with sprinters such as QuickStep's Tom Boonen and mercurial HTC-Highroad Manxman Mark Cavendish making the trip to Amaury Sport Organisation's week of sand, sheiks and camels.
There could be some intrigue within the Quick Step camp too, with last year's sprint rivals Francesco Chicchi and Boonen now both riding for the Belgian outfit; they'll either be two possible winners for the team or possibly create some disharmony in the squad. Patrick Lefevere will hope it's the former, given Boonen's record at the race in the past.
The surprise champion of last year's edition, Wouter Mol, won't be returning to defend his title, although his example - where the sprinters' teams allowed a breakaway containing Dutchman get enough time to garner him the overall lead which he defended until the final day - will serve as warning for those squads looking to take home overall honours this year.
New boys on the block, Leopard-Trek, will boast a quality sprinter and time trial world champion in its ranks for its second big race of the season, with Italian Daniele Bennati and Swiss maestro Fabian Cancellara kicking off their 2011 campaigns with over 700km in the desert. Cancellara is an unbackable favourite for the prologue before its off to the open road stages, starting with the 145.5km run from Dukhan to the Al Khor Corniche on February 7.
There are a few dark horses in the field, too, with Slovenian sprinter Grega Bole of Lampre-ISD getting better every year and Farnese Vini - Neri Sottoli rider Oscar Gatto proving he has form with a stage win in the recent Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria.
With so many quality sprinters making the trip, this year's Tour of Qatar will be a team game, as we saw at the recent Santos Tour Down Under, where a star-studded field fought for sprint supremacy, although ultimately Cameron Meyer took overall honours by a miniscule two seconds.
The flat, wind-driven stages call for maximum protection from the teams' domestiques, so look to the likes of powerhouse outfits such as QuickStep, HTC-Highroad, Garmin-Cervélo, Leopard-Trek and Team Sky to be the big movers and shakers.
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