After great days of racing by the women, it’s now time for the men to tackle the middle-eastern dessert. As always, cross wind and bonus seconds will be of huge important in Tour of Qatar. We should be in for a great show.
This year’s Tour of Qatar consists of six stages. Five for the sprinters and one individual time trial on the third day of racing. There will be 10-6-4 bonus seconds up for grabs on the finishing line on each of the regular stages while there are 3-2-1 seconds in the intermediate sprints. If you haven’t watched Tour of Qatar before, you might think it’s an easy sprint race. However, the cross wind always plays a big role and the forecasts shows that this year won’t be any different. Therefore, even though the stages are pancake flat, we often see breakaways make it all the way. Actually, the winners of the first stage within the last two years have been from a break.
Another important factor in the race is the 10.9 km time trial in Lusail. It’s the same course as the organizers used last year. The riders who are strong in these kinds of short time trials, exposed to the wind, will have a good chance of making the overall podium. Still, they can’t afford to miss the front group just one day during the week.
To do well in Tour of Qatar you need to be fast on the line, strong in the wind and solid against the clock. The riders targeting the spring classics possess these same qualities. Therefore, it’s no wonder that we often see those riders fight for the overall win in Qatar.
The expert view
To spice up the preview, I’ve asked Heinrich Haussler of IAM Cycling to explain what makes Tour of Qatar such a difficult race to ride and why it’s an important race for the riders having an eye on the classics later in the spring. Haussler is a multiple stage winner in Tour of Qatar and has finished on the overall podium twice. Here is the Australian champion’s take on the race:
If you look at the wind conditions predicted for the next week, you can expect to see a lot of “gutter action”, meaning cross winds like crazy. The strong winds in Qatar provide for very hard, hectic and stressful racing. You really need a strong team to make it at the front. Because of the similar style of racing, Qatar is the first stepping-stone towards the classics. You need to be able to rely on your team mates and they on you. Normally, if you flying in Qatar it’s a good indication that you will also be good during the classics.
Etixx-Quickstep has won this race for the last three years in a row and seven out of the last nine editions. Niki Terpstra won in 2014 and together with former four times winner, Tom Boonen, the Belgian team will be expected to control the race. Boonen always starts out the season in style and it would almost be a surprise not to see him win a stage in Tour of Qatar. However, if he wants to take his fifth overall win, Boonen needs this to be a tough race with big time differences before and after the time trial. Without any splits in the peloton, Tom Boonen needs to win at least a couple of stages to gain enough bonus seconds in order to keep his lead against the clock. Niki Terpstra should perform well in the time trial but I doubt he will be able to beat the top specialists. Therefore, he too needs to race aggressively.
My personal favorite for the overall win is Peter Sagan. This is the Slovakian’s first race for Tinkoff-Saxo and he’s very eager to start out with a bang. On paper, Sagan has all the right qualities to do well. He’s extremely fast, he’s good in the wind and he’s very strong in short time trials like this one. This is an important year for Peter Sagan. The big goal is to - finally - win a monument. His main rivals will be at the start in Qatar and if he can get a good confidence boost out of the race, it will serve him very well come April. Sagan may not be the fastest rider in the race but he shouldn’t have any problems making top3 on numerous occasions, gaining valuable bonus seconds. Then, in the time trial, he should be able to distance himself from the other fast riders. Peter Sagan also has a very strong team to support him with the likes of Michael Mørkøv, Matti Brechel and Maciej Bodnar.
The way I see it, the biggest threat to Peter Sagan may actually be a pure time trial specialist like Bradley Wiggins. The Brit is putting everything into winning Paris-Roubaix this year. He’s currently bulking up for the cobblestones but he still looks very trimmed at the moment. In shape, Wiggins should win the time trial on stage 3 with a solid margin and take the leader’s jersey. However, it’s always a bit of lottery picking winners this early in the season. It only takes one moment of poor positioning in the crosswind to lose the whole race.
In such an open race as Tour of Qatar, the list of candidates is long. Strong riders like Philippe Gilbert and Lars Boom are both fast on the line, good in the wind and strong against the clock when distance is only about 10 km. I would be surprised not to see them fight for the win as well. Especially Lars Boom looks to be in great shape at the moment. On paper, Fabian Cancellara is also a dangerous candidate but he always seems to have few off days in this race.
My personal outsiders for a spot on the overall podium is Edvald Boasson Hagen. After his career somehow stopped progressing the last years with Team Sky, the Norwegian now hopes to start shining for MTN-Qhubeka. The African team has already secured a wild card for this year’s Tour de France. Now it’s time for them to prove they deserve the invitation. They have signed well-known riders to boost their victory count. On paper, Boasson Hagen should be able to perform very well in this race. He has all the right qualities and he must be extremely eager to show that his nickname Eddy the Boss isn’t just a relic from the past. MTN-Qhubeka expects of Edvald Boasson Hagen and it will be very interesting to see what the Norwegian can do in dessert.
Another strong outsider is Heinrich Haussler. As mentioned earlier, Haussler knows this race very well. The inclusion of the time trial makes it difficult for Haussler to win Tour of Qatar but it all depends on what happens in the wind. If the peloton splits up, it would be a surprise not to see Haussler in the front group. The Australian champion has already proven to be in excellent shape and he will definitely be up there fighting for the stage wins and the bonus seconds.
If we forget about the wind for a second and say it all comes down regular bunch sprints in a big peloton, these are the remaining top sprinters to look out for: Andrea Guardini, Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Démare, Sacha Modolo, Alexander Kristoff and of course Marcel Kittel who, due to his past as a time trialist, may be able to make great overall result.
Due to travelling, I won’t be able to make daily stage previews for Tour of Qatar this year. However, I will name a few favorites and jokers each day on Twitter. Make sure to follow me at @mrconde.
For live coverage of Tour of Qatar 2015, go to steephill.tv.