For more than a decade, after all, Tom Boonen and company have insisted that nothing quite matches Qatar’s windswept interior as a testing ground for the Spring Classics, yet, for whatever reason they – and other regulars, including the Trek-Segafredo squad of Fabian Cancellara – have opted out of Tour de France organiser ASO’s early-season event.
That is not to say, however, that the Tour of Qatar is bereft of star power, with Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), 2013 winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Lars Boom (Astana) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) among the leading lights on the start list.
Kristoff, dubbed by sectors of the Flemish press as a “new Boonen” after his success on the cobbles last spring, certainly seems the man most likely to inherit Tommeke’s crown in Qatar, too. Of the sprinters on hand, the Norwegian is expected to fare best in the 11km Lusail time trial on stage 3, and he will be accompanied by a strong team including Jacopo Guarnieri and the talented young Sven Erik Bystrom – though it remains to be seen what impact news of Eduard Vorganov’s positive test and the possible suspension of the team will have on morale.
Although much of Mark Cavendish’s winter was devoted to training on the track – and he will return there for the World Championships next month – the Manxman wasn’t far off the pace at the Dubai Tour and will surely be better again in Qatar. His off-season of omnium and pursuit training, meanwhile, could bear fruit in the flat, fast Lusail time trial. He will be joined in a solid Dimension Data line-up by 2011 winner Mark Renshaw and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
For Van Avermaet, the Tour of Qatar is a means to an end, but backed by the spine of BMC’s Classics team, including Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato, the Belgian will expect to make every decisive split over the course of the week.
Lars Boom’s time trialling ability, meanwhile, makes him a very obvious contender for overall victory and he arrives in Qatar with both the Tour Down Under and Dubai Tour already in his legs. His Astana teammate Lieuwe Westra and new Ag2r-La Mondiale arrival Jesse Sergeant could also shine at Lusail.
The absence of the injured John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) ensures that the slate of established Classics stars is reduced in comparison to years past – Johan Vansummeren (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Kristoff, Cavendish and 44-year-old Davide Rebellin (CCC-Sprandi) are the only Monument winners in the field – but there is a decent spread of fast finishers on the start list.
Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) showed signs of form at the Challenge Mallorca and the Irishman will relish the chance to rub shoulders with Cavendish and Kristoff in bunch finishes here, while Andrea Guardini (Astana), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Yauheni Hutarovich (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) should also be in the mix.
The Tour of Qatar has been reduced to five stages from its usual six this season, getting underway with a long, cross-country haul from Dukhan Beach to Al Khor Corniche that – provided the wind is up – ought to provide an early idea of who is here to win now and who is here simply to prepare for April.
Stage 2 offers the peloton an early look at October’s World Championships road race course, by incorporating the opening 80km loop and three laps of the sinuous finishing circuit on the Pearl, while the rapid time trial at Lusail on day 3 ought to define the general classification race.
The traditional finish at Madiant Al Shamal in northern Qatar features on the penultimate day, where the multiple changes in direction lend themselves to the formation of echelons, before the usual grandstand bunch finale on Doha’s Corniche brings the curtain down on the race on stage 5.
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