Five things we learned from Qatar and Oman

The racing was similar, the scenery was similar and a lot of the riders were similar, but the Tours of Qatar and Oman each had their own distinctive qualities
Tour of Qatar - Stage Five

Photo: Graham Watson

Eddy Merckx became a peacemaker under a motorway bridge in Oman, while the relatively unknown Sam Bennett made a name for himself in Qatar.

Here are five things we learned about the early-season desert races.

The glue on tubular tyres melts at 40 degrees

That’s the technical way to describe the fact that it was really bloody hot in Oman last week. So hot, in fact, that race organisers came to their senses and just gave up on stage five and neutralised the race.

A bit of heat is to be expected when you’re racing in a desert, but when your tyres start parting from the rim of the wheels, then you know you have some pretty serious issues.

Those issues came to a head when the peloton took shelter under a bridge on stage five and simply refused to keep racing in the 40-degree heat.

Vincenzo Nibali discusses a riders strike with Eddy Merckx on stage five of the 2015 Tour of Oman (Watson)

Vincenzo Nibali discusses a riders’ strike with Eddy Merckx on stage five of the 2015 Tour of Oman (Watson)

When the temperatures hit such ridiculous levels, it seems even more ridiculous that teams get fined for throwing away water bottles outside of the designated areas. The commissaires certainly did themselves no favours by rigidly enforcing such rules when riders were taking on 10 bottles of water on each stage.

The Classics riders love Qatar

It may be a complete coincidence, but recent winners of the Tour of Qatar have generally gone on to have stellar performances in the bigger spring races.

Tom Boonen took the win in 2012 before going on to dominate the cobbled classics, winning Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke.

The following year Mark Cavendish won four stages in Qatar before winning five stages at the Giro d’Italia on his way to the overall points classification.

Then, in 2014, Niki Terpstra took the famous Tour of Qatar/Paris-Roubaix double (also won by Boonen in 2008) and retained his Qatar title this year as well.

Niki Terpstra wins the 2015 Tour of Qatar (Watson)

Niki Terpstra wins the 2015 Tour of Qatar (Watson)

History alone dictates that Terpstra will definitely win Paris-Roubaix again this year (sorry Wiggo), and most likely any other race he puts his hand to between now and May.

But it wasn’t just the Etixx – Quick-Step rider who enjoyed an early-season run out in the desert. Katusha’s Milan-San Remo winner, Alexander Kristoff, also showed he’s on form to defend his crown next month.

Winning three stages in Qatar was one thing, but beating out Classics rivals like Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen each time showed the qualities of the Norwegian. He upped his game from 2014, where his best finish in the race was 12th, but let’s hope he’s not peaked too soon.

Oman has lost its appeal, for both riders and fans

For the casual cycling fan, the Tour of Oman must have been virtually impossible to follow. It wasn’t much easier for those of us in the industry, either.

There was no television coverage of the race in the UK, which is strange considering Tour de France organiser ASO are trying to globalise the race. So everyone outside of the race itself was reliant on mediums such as Twitter for the fleeting updates on the race.

For those old enough to remember it, following the Tour of Oman is much like trying to watch football on Ceefax. Except you could at least rely on Ceefax to provide accurate information, rather than passing on Twitter hearsay of who may have won the stage.

The interest in the tour outside of the country was seemingly no different to the interest in the tour inside Oman, with pictures of riders cycling down deserted highways with only the camels for spectators.

Journalists outnumber spectators at the top of the Green Mountains

Journalists outnumber spectators at the top of the Green Mountains

It is little wonder that some of the bigger name riders stayed away this year, with Chris Froome preferring to ride in the cold at the Ruta del Sol, Andre Greipel chose the Algarve and Philippe Gilbert chose the Haut Var.

Cycling legend Eddy Merckx is putting some of his reputation on the line by helping to organise the race, and the last thing the 70-year-old needs is to be mitigating disputes under motorway bridges with disgruntled riders.

We may see some changes to the race in 2015, because, from the outside at least, it doesn’t seem to be going too well as it is.

Lots of people had their say on Bradley Wiggins

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Sir Bradley Wiggins is leaving Team Sky this year? It’s been pretty hushed up, from all accounts, and another big secret is that he’s trying to add the Paris-Roubaix title to his palmares.

I jest. It’s literally the only thing anyone wanted to talk about when Sir Wiggo made his season’s debut in Qatar. Even Eddy Merckx had something to say about it.

The cycling media circus (yes, CW as well) couldn’t get enough of analysing the 2012 Tour champion’s every move, questioning whether Wiggins’ struggles would impact his Roubaix tilt.

Bradley Wiggins before stage three of the 2015 Tour of Qatar. Photo: Graham Watson

Bradley Wiggins before stage three of the 2015 Tour of Qatar. Photo: Graham Watson

Third place on a relatively short time trial, which took place on a road bike, was apparently a cause for concern, according to Stephen Roche.

But the overall lesson to learn is that every race Wiggins enters this season will be a preparation for Paris-Roubaix, so I hope he’s thought up a few more answers for the journalists’ questions over the next few months.

The races are great for lesser-known riders

Hands up who had heard of Rafael Valls before the Tour of Oman? The diminutive Spaniard took the overall win ahead of Grand Tour contenders Tejay van Garderen and Alejandro Valverde and made a name for himself.

Similarly in Qatar, Bora-Argon 18 sprinter Sam Bennett took a sensational victory on the final stage ahead of WorldTour fastmen Andrea Guardini and Peter Sagan. That ride booked the Irishman a place on Bora’s Tour de France roster and the chance to test his skills against the best sprinters in the world.

Sam Bennett celebrates his Tour of Qatar stage victory

Sam Bennett celebrates his Tour of Qatar stage victory

While slightly better known, Guardini continued his strong start to the season with a stage win in Oman and two second-place finishes in Qatar. The Italian is starting to show there’s more to his repetoire than being a Tour de Langkawi specialist, as we discussed after the Dubai Tour.

And in Qatar it was Polish time trial specialist Maciej Bodnar who had people reaching for Wikipedia when he secured second overall and a host of top-20 finishes over the six stages.

Valls and Bodnar are likely to see the rest of their season moulded around helping their respective team leaders at the Grand Tours, but Bennett and Guardini could have put themselves in contention as headline makers come the Tour.