PREVIEW: Tour of Qatar: February 1?6

Tom Boonen?s formidable record in the desert is about to be put to its most extreme test yet, with a challenge from British sprinter Mark Cavendish.

Boonen has won 14 stages in the event since his debut there in 2004 ? but he could be toppled this time.

Cavendish and Boonen are set to go head-to-head at the Tour of Qatar, which starts on Sunday with a six-kilometre team time trial and then consists of five stages which will probably all end with a sprint finish.

This is the eighth edition of the Middle Eastern race, which is organised by ASO, the company that owns the Tour de France.

The sprinters have only been denied a bunch gallop four times in the seven years the race has been run. In 2003 Servais Knaven was part of a 25-man group that broke clear and stayed away thanks to a howling tailwind. At the finish, the Dutchman attacked and held off the rest of the group to win. The following year, Robert Hunter broke away as they bunch passed under the red kite with a kilometre to go and caught the rest of the sprinters on the hop.

In 2005, a break got clear and Lars Michaelsen won the stage to set up his overall win, and in 2007 Greg Van Avermaet won a stage after a breakaway.

That makes it 31 sprint finishes, four successful breakaways and two team time trials in seven years of the race.

Boonen?s record in the desert since his first visit to the race in 2004 is remarkable. The Belgian has won 14 of the 25 road stages and been part of the Quick Step squad that has won the team time trial in 2007 and 2008. Boonen also won overall in 2006 and last year.

In the past year, Cavendish has proved he?s faster than Boonen, even if their head-to-head record doesn?t prove it beyond question. Boonen was kept out of the Tour de France after he tested positive for cocaine during an out-of-competition test. Although not an anti-doping rule violation, the Quick Step team and Tour de France organisers came to an agreement not to drag the race into controversy.

Boonen is still a long way from his best with the court case over his alleged use of cocaine looming.

The race starts with a six-kilometre team time trial on the corniche road in Doha. Time trial bikes are not allowed, so the effect is rather like a sprint lead-out. It?s likely to be a three-way fight between Garmin-Slipstream, Columbia-High Road and Quick Step for the first gold jersey of the race.

Then time bonuses won in the intermediate sprints and at the finish will decide the final overall classification.

imageA familiar sight… Boonen wins a stage in the 2008 Tour of Qatar

THE BRITISH RIDERS

Mark Cavendish (Columbia-High Road)

Will be the man to beat in the sprints. If Columbia do well in the team time trial and he wins a couple of stages, will be in the hunt for the overall and points prizes too.

Roger Hammond (Cervélo Test Team)

Capable of making the top ten in the sprints, as is his team-mate Heinrich Haussler of Germany.

Jeremy Hunt (Cervélo Test Team)

Another good sprinter, riding his first race for the new Cervélo team.

Daniel Lloyd (Cervélo Test Team)

Makes his debut for the Cervélo team.

Ben Swift (Katusha)

Makes his professional debut for the Russian squad. Their job will be to get Danilo Napolitano to the line for the sprints. Filippo Pozzato is also riding for them.

Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream)

Key member of Garmin?s squad for the team time trial as they target the gold jersey. If Garmin win the stage and Wiggins is first across the line, he would be the race leader.

CAV v BOONEN: HEAD-TO-HEAD

The pair first rubbed shoulders in the sprints when Cavendish rode the 2006 Tour of Britain as a stagiaire for T-Mobile. Boonen got the better of him in London.

We?ve listed all the races when the pair have both finished in the top ten of a race that?s ended in a sprint and current score is Boonen 5, Cavendish 2.

However, Cavendish got the better of the Belgian in spectacular style at the Scheldeprijs last April. Boonen thought he?d won the one-day race and raised his hands to celebrate, only for Cavendish to nip past him on the line.

September 2006

Tour of Britain
stage 6, London

Boonen 1st, Cavendish 3rd

July 2007

Tour de France
stage 3, Compiegne

Boonen 4th, Cavendish 9th

Tour de France stage 4, Joigny

Boonen 8th, Cavendish 10th

February 2008

Tour of California
stage 2, Sacramento

Boonen 1st, Cavendish 4th

Tour of California stage 7, Pasadena

Cavendish 6th, Boonen 9th

April 2008

Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen


Cavendish 1st, Boonen 2nd

June 2008

Ster Elektrotoer
stage 4, Nuth-Schimmert

Boonen 1st, Cavendish 5th

TOUR OF QATAR PAST WINNERS

2002 Thorsten Wilhems (Ger) Team Coast

2003 Alberto Loddo (Ita) Lampre

2004 Robert Hunter (RSA) Rabobank

2005 Lars Michaelsen (Den) Team CSC

2006 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step

2007 Wilfried Cretskens (Bel) Quick Step

2008 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step

image

THE STAGES 2009

Sunday, February 1

Doha, team time trial, 6km

Monday, February 2

Khalifa Stadium ? Al Khor Corniche, 134km

Tuesday, February 3

Al Zubarah ? Doha Golf Club, 137.5km

Wednesday, February 4

Doha Old Souq ? Madinat Al Shamal, 141km

Thursday, February 5

Camel Race Track ? Qatar Foundation, 147.5km

Friday, February 6

Sealine Beach Resort ? Doha Corniche, 121km

ON TV

British Eurosport will be showing the Tour of Qatar

Monday, February 2

11.30am Tour of Qatar (review of stage one)

12 noon-1pm Tour of Qatar (stage two live)

6pm-7pm Tour of Qatar (review of stage two)

Tuesday, February 3

1.30pm-2.15pm Tour of Qatar (stage three live)

7.30pm-8pm Tour of Qatar (review of stage three)

Wednesday, February 4

11.30pm-12noon Tour of Qatar (stage four live)

Thurday, February 5

8.30am-9am Tour of Qatar (review of stage four)

12noon-1pm Tour of Qatar (stage five live)

7.15pm-8.15pm Tour of Qatar (review of stage five)

Friday, February 6

8.30am-9am Tour of Qatar (review of stage five)

12noon-1pm Tour of Qatar (stage six live)

7.15pm-7.45pm Tour of Qatar (review of stage six)

RELATED LINKS

Cavendish hopes for a winning start in Qatar

The all-time list of British pro winners: Where does Cavendish stand?

EXTERNAL LINKS

Tour of Qatar official site