How Eddy Merckx put the Middle East on the cycling map

The Cannibal takes pride in a significant race that's now in its 14th year, and stronger than ever

Eddy Merckx’s rule has shifted from the roads of Europe to Qatar, where he created a stage race across the petroleum-rich state in 2002. Yesterday, Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick Step) won the 14th edition in a close bonus-second battle under the king’s watchful eye.

“I’d say this is more than a classics preparation race,” Merckx said with pride.

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“Look at how they raced. You see that guys are racing all out to win the overall. It’s a good preparation, but also a nice race win to have on your palmarès.”

Merckx’s palmarès is filled with almost every race in cycling. He dominated the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, winning every Grand Tour and every monument.

Terpstra also won the Tour of Qatar overall in 2014 and went on to win the Paris-Roubaix classic. Like many others in Qatar, including Bradley Wiggins, he included the Qatari stage race this year as part of his early season schedule towards the spring classics.

The six-day stage race grew from 2.3 to 2.HC-ranked, running six days in 2015. Even if it is partly preparation, the 100 UCI points and £8200 [€11,000] on offer to the overall winner make it an important event.

“It’s important for the team, so it’s important for me,” Terpstra said. “Every pro bike race is important for the team.”

Niki Terpstra leads stage five on the Tour of Qatar on his way to overall victory

Niki Terpstra leads stage five on the Tour of Qatar on his way to overall victory Credit: Graham Watson

Terpstra can thank cycling’s king, or ‘The Cannibal’, for the now well-established early-season race.

Qatar’s former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, contacted Merckx via his business partner Dirk De Pauw after he saw Paris-Nice finish in the south of France. Merckx explained that the emir wanted an event to showcase his tiny but rich peninsula state in the Persian Gulf.

“Cycling is the only sport that shows off the country,” said Merckx, sitting in a throne-like gold and red velvet chair under Doha’s sun.

Merckx, who this year turns 70, contacted the former president of cycling’s governing body, Hein Verbruggen. Verbruggen inspected the roads and said that the body would like to have its first proper race in the Middle East.

The next call Merckx made was to cycling’s biggest organiser, ASO. The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) runs the Tour de France, a race he won five times.

“I asked Jean-Marie Leblanc [the Tour’s former director] to see if they wanted to work together for the logistics and for the organisation,” Merckx said. “He asked his boss, the Amaurys, and got the OK one week later. That was in 2001, and that’s how it started.”

Lesser known riders won at first before the stars began to dominate. Besides Terpstra, the winners’ list includes Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen.

Mark Cavendish wins stage five of the 2012 Tour of Qatar

Mark Cavendish wins stage five of the 2012 Tour of Qatar

When had a lower ranking status, participants included a national team sponsored by Al Jazeera, and Merckx has said that in time, Qatar could produce cyclists to race at the top level.

“The young riders, also the young ladies are here watching the race,” Merckx said.

“It takes time. Cycling is not in the culture of the country. The royal family wants to promote sport for the kids. It’s a good thing. I don’t think that there’s another country spending so much money for sport.”

Merckx organises the race, which he co-owns with De Pauw. It helped put Qatar on the world’s sporting map, along with other top events like the short-course swimming world championships and the upcoming 2022 World Cup.

As part of its quest to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to grant it the 2024 Olympics, Doha will also host cycling’s 2016 World Championships next year. Inevitably, Merckx played a significant role in making that happen, and he also designed the course.

His next project, something he has been working on for a few years, is to convince Qatar to build a velodrome among its ever-growing countryside dotted with skyscrapers and football stadiums.