The 2016 Tour of Qatar concluded on Friday with Mark Cavendish engaging in a full-on sprint battle with Alexander Kristoff. It was a fitting end to what has been one of the most entertaining editions of the race.
Here are some of the major talking points from a memorable edition of the Tour of Qatar.
1. Mark Cavendish is on top form
Mark Cavendish has won the Tour of Qatar overall for the second time in his career, the first back in 2013.
Cavendish went into the race after taking part in the Dubai Tour earlier in February, which ended in him failing to defend his 2015 title against his sprint nemesis Marcel Kittel.
The 30-year-old Manxman seemed to have modest aims in Qatar: a test of form and a bit of early-season sprint work in among a heavy schedule of track training as he eyes the possibility of the Track World Championships in March, the Tour de France in July, and the Olympic Games beyond.
An opening stage victory for Cavendish was a welcome result for both him and his new Dimension Data team – his first victory for the newly-appointed WorldTour squad.
Perhaps an equally impressive result was Cavendish’s seventh place in the mid-race individual time trial. Although he lost the jersey to TT winner and team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen, Cavendish was back in it again after stage four.
Cavendish’s time trial result had as much to do with his overall victory as his stage win and subsequent high placings, including a very close second behind Kristoff on the final stage. He said that he was going to gauge his endurance during the race in order to decide on his Track Worlds participation. There can be little doubt that he is now in flying form.
2. Alexander Kristoff gets his 2016 tally underway
Norwegian sprinter Kristoff was last season’s most successful rider, amassing 20 victories through the season. No other rider won more.
Kristoff’s three stage wins and the points classification is an ominous sign for his rivals, as he totted up exactly the same winnings in the 2015 Tour of Qatar before going on to win the Tour of Flanders, and stages of Paris-Nice, Tour of Oman and Tour de Suisse, among many others. It looks like he’s setting himself up for the same run this year.
The only potential fly in the chamois cream was Katusha’s ability to carry on racing after two of the Russian squad’s riders failed anti-doping tests: Luca Paolini for cocaine and Eduard Vorganov for meldonium. However, the UCI ruled on Tuesday that they could carry on racing… and so Kristoff did, promptly winning on what will make up part of the 2016 World Championships route.
3. Crosswinds make the race
The Tour of Qatar is run in a flat, sandy environment that on paper looks like there’s not much to break up the peloton. But, of course, a stage profile does not take account of the weather. What it lacks in hills, the race always makes up for in cutting crosswinds that crack the peloton into pieces. It’s the sort of environment that makes Qatar race such a great warm-up for the classics riders, looking to face similar winds back in Europe.
Crosswinds created the decisive splits on stages one and four of this year’s race, the latter of which saw Boasson Hagen lose the race lead and Cavendish regain it.
Dimension Data’s recruitment of former British pro, classics specialist and Tour of Qatar stage winner Roger Hammond was a masterstroke. Hammond gave Cavendish advice the night before the opening stage of the race on how to ride in the choppy winds – something that Cavendish attributes to his winning tactics.
“I’m 30 years old and I didn’t think I needed to learn any more, but half the stuff in my head now I learnt only last night from Roger,” Cavendish said after stage one.
Thankfully, the racing, winds and tactics had as much of a defining factor in the overall result as bonus seconds.
4. Edvald Boasson Hagen continues his renaissance
During his days with Team Highroad in 2008-09, Boasson Hagen was widely touted as the Next Big Thing. In 2009 he won a stage of the Giro d’Italia, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Britain and the Eneco Tour. He could sprint, time trial and looked at home on climbs. Naturally, there was talk about the possibility of a Grand Tour general classification performance.
Then he joined Team Sky, and seemed to slowly settle into a support role for whichever Grand Tour leader the British squad appointed. It was telling that during the 2011 Tour de France, when Bradley Wiggins crashed out, Boasson Hagen immediately reverted to his previous self and took two stage victories.
His final year for Sky – in 2014 – was his worst as a professional, just when it should have been his best. After scoring no victories, he left Sky and joined MTN-Qhubeka. The 2015 season ended with the quiet, affable Norwegian taking his second Tour of Britain overall victory. And now he’s started 2016 as he finished 2015. Had he not been robbed of the Tour of Qatar race lead by a double puncture on Thursday, Boasson Hagen would have won with ease.
As Dimension Data have been awarded WorldTour status, so it seems Boasson Hagen – still only 28 years old – has once again risen to the challenge. Watch out for him in 2016.
5. Not much live TV coverage… but thanks social media
There was a distinct lack of live television coverage for the Tour of Qatar where CW is based in the UK (even on those dodgy web feeds that we never look at), which meant missing out on some scintillating racing.
Instead, those wishing to follow the race as it happened had to cobble together various bits of information from social media. The race’s official Twitter feed did a solid job of not only posting race updates every few minutes, but also short video clips to give you a sense of the race unfurling.
Journalists on the race, such as Cycling Weekly‘s own Owen Rogers and Gregor Brown, also posted up information, photos and videos from the roadside.
In some ways, it provided a more rewarding experience than simply sitting and watching it on television. But all the same, live TV still wins the day.