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AN ECHELON MASTERCLASS

The Tour of Qatar has been a fascinating masterclass in the art of racing in the wind.

I?m sure a lot of fans watching on Eurosport have been tempted to dismiss it as about as riveting as watching the snow melt, but the first three road stages have been absolutely superb.

I?ll admit the scenery isn?t particularly interesting, but there are days when it hasn?t looked dissimilar to the Vuelta a Espana. Dry, flat and dusty, but with one crucial difference ? the Tour of Qatar isn?t trying to con anyone into thinking it?s a grand tour.

Instead, it?s an early-season hit-out for the riders who want to be approaching form a month from now at Het Nieuwsblad (the new name for Het Volk), and peaking on the cobbles in early April.

And although it?s 25 degrees in the desert, the riders couldn?t have a better work-out. There?s every Classic ingredient bar the cobbles and the hills ? crosswinds and echelons, constant argy-bargy in the bunch, the need for total concentration all of the time, and the fear of crashing or being caught behind a split.

The aerial shots of the echelons forming have been works of art, and brought to mind the sort of footage you see on nature documentaries of swarms of insects going about their business, or migrating birds slotting into formation.

Instinctively the riders alter their positions according to the wind and watching them ride through and off with each man doing only a handful of seconds at the front, was hugely instructive.

The echelons form in a split-second. Riders who spot the danger in time still have to turn themselves inside out to join the back of the group. Those who hesitate are left stranded and once the gaps open, they often open for good.

A look at the scrunched up faces shows how hard some of the riders are trying. It?s raw, aggressive racing and anyone who thinks it?s easy is mistaken.

A few years ago I went to the Tour of Qatar and Jeremy Hunt told me that it?s the sort of race everyone at home assumes is straightforward. ?They look at the results and see a group of 50 have finished 19 minutes down, or whatever, and they think ?Oh, easy day, then?. Or if the bunch finishes all together they think nothing?s happened.

?But it?s some of the hardest racing of the year. There are absolutely no hills or rises, so there?s not a moment?s respite from pedalling. You?re just pedalling, pedalling all day. You can?t accelerate up a little rise and then freewheel. There?s no let-up.?

Dan Lloyd, who has been riding extremely well for a Cervélo team that has made quite an impression, said that Monday?s first road stage was brutal.

?Everyone knew where it would split. It was a block headwind for 30k at the start, and everyone knew there was one turn in the road coming up. It was crazy, everyone wanted to be at the front and because the roads are quite wide the bunch would spread all across. You?d feel like you were near the front, but when it singled out you could find yourself 60 places back, so it was a real fight. Then it started to split to pieces.?

I quite accept the racing may not be everyone?s cup of tea and could hardly make the argument that the event has engaged with the locals in Doha, but I have found it entertaining to watch.

Graham Watson captures the other-worldly quality of the Tour of Qatar. Howling wind not shown.

HOLIDAY IN THE GULF…

The Tour of Qatar may be a slog into the wind for the riders, but for those working on the race it resembles a luxurious break in the Gulf.

For a start, everyone working on the race stays in the same five-star hotel in Doha for the week.

Three years ago I enjoyed a trip to the Tour of Qatar and really enjoyed the experience, mostly because the hotel was superb.

Everyone seemed to be having a nice time. ASO employees you see with furrowed brows at the Tour de France in July were laughing and joking and generally enjoying their break from a cold Parisian winter.

And the local people who were drafted in to work on the race were very hospitable. So much so, that at the start one morning our photographer Phil O?Connor was offered a delicacy that apparently is something of an honour to eat. The buffet consisted of a whole lamb that had been cooked slowly. Phil said the meat was soft and delicious, but that he baulked at the offer of eating its eyeball, which had been helpfully removed with a big spoon.

Phil has emailed to correct my hazy memory of Doha’s delicacies. “It was a goat’s kidney rather than a sheep’s eye ball. This chap removed it with his bare hands and offered it to me. At that point I was feeling full.

“They offered me a spoon because everybody else was happy to eat the goat with their bare hands. This was the same guy whose truck blew up an hour later leaving us to flag down another truck on the motorway back to Doha. This complete stranger with goats in the back of his truck then took me to a market the wrong side of Doha where I spent ages trying to find a taxi which eventually I did.”

Sheep’s eyeball, goat’s kidney, whichever, they don?t do that at the Tour de France.

WHO’S THE GREATEST BRITON?

Last year, we revealed Cycling Weekly?s list of all-time British professional winners.

It was a straightforward league table of pro race victories, not including the Milk Race or other domestic events, Kermesses, criteriums or other chippers.

Thanks to his prowess in the time trials, Chris Boardman tops the list, with 41 wins. Even discounting his Milk Race victories, Malcolm Elliott is second with 31.

And at the start of last season Mark Cavendish was level with Brian Robinson with 11 victories. Twelve months on and following today?s win in Qatar, Cavendish has 29 wins and is closing in on Boardman. It seems inevitable he will top the table sooner rather than later.

We received some emails and comments that ranking the riders purely by their victories is not necessarily the best indicator, and there is no denying that.

Robert Millar, Britain?s best stage racer, was second in the Giro d?Italia in 1987, twice second in the Vuelta a Espana, and fourth in the Tour de France. But he won only 16 races, and is just ninth in the table.

That is hardly a reflection of his ability or his impact on the sport. If you look at his 16 wins, they are all significant ones.

Similarly, Tom Simpson is equal fourth in the league table, yet he won the world title and three of the races accepted as the true monuments of the sport ? the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy.

If quality, rather than quantity, of wins counted for anything, Simpson would be considered Britain?s best rider.

So, in spite of the fact that any attempt to create a ranking system to sort out once and for all the pecking order of Britain?s best male road riders, we?ve done just that.

In creating Cycling Weekly?s All-Time Ranking we?ve taken into account the biggest pro races in the world and awarded points accordingly. We?ve weighted the points in favour of big performances in the grand tours and major one-day races.

But we?ve also awarded points for wearing the leader?s jersey in the three grand tours and winning the points or king of the mountains competitions because it can surely be argued that in terms of prestige those achievements far outweigh finishing 10th overall.

Anyway, it?s bound to spark debate, but the intention was to reflect as accurately as possible the impact on cycling successive generations of British riders have had.

And now the ranking has been produced, it?s going to be just as interesting to see how Cavendish and the other riders currently racing measure up in the coming years.

You can see the outcome, and assess the points system, here

HELL FREEZES OVER

As the snow fell during Sunday?s Hell of the Ashdown, there did come a point when I began to question my sanity.

It wasn?t as if I travelled to Kent in blissful ignorance that the weather was going to be cold, windy and snowy. I knew full well what I was letting myself in for. Perhaps I should see it as further evidence of my growing mental fortification that I did not cry off with a feeble text message to my colleague Ed explaining that I couldn?t make it.

The seeds of discomfort were sewn early on Sunday morning. My porridge was eaten by 7.30 and with a start time of 9.55 every instinct told me to eat again before the start of the ride.

But the louder voice in my head spoke so much sense. It said: ?Don?t worry, you?ll be alright.? How can you argue with reason like that?

The kiss of death came about just an hour into the ride. Ed and I were bowling along towards the back of a small group that was setting a nice pace. A glance at the Garmin told me we?d averaged 18 miles an hour, a statistic that satisfied and terrified me in equal measure.

Keep that up and we?d finish the 63-mile ride in a time just outside three-and-a-half hours. Ed turned to me and said. ?This is a good group. We should stay with it.?

With that I could feel the strength drain from my legs and I?m sure my stomach growled. On the next hill I was dropped and even though I spent a frantic 15 minutes chasing in the certainty that they?d be ?just around the next corner?, I never saw them again.

It was a bit of a crawl from then on. I had a horrible hour-long spell during when I felt weak and uncomfortable. I slowed down and concentrated on eating and drinking as much as I could. The long drag up to Ashdown Forest itself was the absolute nadir, but by the time I reached the second checkpoint at Ide Hill I was starting to recover. A cup of coffee made by a very nice lady went down a treat.

In the end, the goal of finishing inside four hours was missed by 24 minutes and eight seconds. I could perhaps have made up 15 of those minutes had I not stood around feeling sorry for myself at checkpoint one and drinking coffee at checkpoint two.

Some question the trend of the old traditional, and cheap, reliability trials transforming themselves into more expensive ?sportives?, but the fact almost 600 riders completed the long route in pretty discouraging conditions shows there is definitely an appetite for these events ? even in early February.

However, I must say that the true stars of the day were the volunteers who signposted the course so well, and those who stood out in the cold to marshal the junctions and the checkpoints.

Others who braved the cold was former CW photographer Phil O’Connor and his www.sportivephoto.com team who snapped every rider in action. I saw Phil on Star Hill and didn’t catch what he shouted, but I’m sure it was a cutting critique of my climbing style. All I’d say to Phil is that three years ago he was photographing the Tour of Qatar in the warm and eating sheep eyeballs a goat’s kidney with a spoon.

You want to finish inside four hours you say? Probably need to pick it up a bit. Fatty.

Picture by Phil O’Connor, www.sportivephoto.com

CROSS FALLS FLAT

I was riding around in the freezing cold on Sunday so missed Eurosport?s coverage of the World Cyclo-Cross Championships.

I managed to find some time on Monday to watch it and was struck by the lack of imagination when it came to the course.

They weren?t helped by the cold, which made the going very firm and turned the race into a sort of off-road criterium.

A couple of winters back, I spent a day with the fanatical members of the Sven Nys supporters club, a group of cross devotees who set out every Saturday and Sunday (and some midweek days too) to watch their hero in action.

Some of them even make the trip to watch the World Cup races in Milan or the Basque Country or the Czech Republic.

The big topic of conversation was whether Nys would win another world title. For a man who has dominated for so long and won just about every race going, he has only one rainbow jersey in his locker.

One of the reasons for his lack of success, according to his die-hard fans, was the UCI?s fondness for such fast courses, which make fewer technical demands of the riders.

Certainly Hoogerheide had long stretches of asphalt. The mud hardened and the grass was firm too. Where was the sand? Where were the challenges to the rider?s bike-handling skills?

Treviso last year was a hard, fast course, although 2007 in Belgium was muddy and sandy and featured some steep hills and Nys didn?t win then either.

Cyclo-cross is enjoying a boom in television viewing figures in its heartlands, but to appeal further afield it needs to get back to its roots and show us some mud.

The UCI really pulled out all the stops to design the World Cyclo Cross course. Here Britain?s Gabby Day tackles some steps! Steps, I tell you!

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009

January 28 ? The Snore Down Under

January 21 ? The Second Coming

January 14 ? So, Sir Alan rides a bike?