Patrick Gretsch knew that a four-man break had little chance of success at the Tour of Qatar.
He was proved right as his move, the longest of this year’s race, was swallowed by the pack inside the final 10km of today’s fifth stage.
You’re left wondering why any rider would bother spending over 100km at the front of the race with a break facing such little chance of success.
But for the German on Ag2r-La Mondiale, being part of a move all but doomed from the start was about five Ps: purgatory as penance and punishment for poor performance.
“My goal was to actually be part of the race,” he explained to CW at the finish.
“I was not satisfied with the way that the race had gone for us and for me; I wasn’t satisfied with myself in the time trial.”
Gretsch, a lithe former world U23 time trial runner up who switched from Argos-Shimano over the winter, finished 55th in the stage three time trial and his French team have had little success in a race made for strong men.
“I thought, how can I achieve something,” he added “I am not a sprinter and I think that breakaway was my only chance.”
It is hard to describe the mind-numbing monotony of Qatar’s north-south road, the country’s four-lane motorised spinal column that formed much of the route of Thursday’s stage.
Looking up the road is like gazing out to sea; the heat haze shimmers and the asphalt melts away into the horizon with the curvature of the Earth.
With a block headwind, the stream of road markings turns to a slow drip and the ticking over of the kilometres slows to the pace of an exam room clock. Gretsch was doing his time.
“When you are on a big highway with four lanes, the wind in your face, and it’s slightly uphill, yeah of course it’s pretty hard,” Gretsch added.
“But you know that the bunch have to ride the same parcours and there are some riders who have to be at the front of that too.”
The difference was that the bunch had a steady stream of fresh riders ready to send to work at the coalface, whereas Gretsch had just three.
His quartet included NetApp-Endura’s Daniel Schorn and Vladimir Isaychev, Katusha’s enormous Russian champion who turned the pedals in slow motion as if he was riding through golden syrup.
With Stijn Devolder, the Belgian champion and double Tour of Flanders winner whose stocky, hunched frame punched out every stroke, they knuckled down to build a lead that at one point stretched over ten minutes.
“It’s actually mentally more stressful for me to stay in the bunch and always be fighting for position than to be in a breakaway and working hard,” said Gretsch.
“With 20km to go I had quite a good feeling about the situation, we had more than two and a half minutes and I still felt really good,”
“But at the end you saw the big teams like BMC and Quickstep going really fast, and if you are alone and far away in the desert you have no chance.”
Sure enough, that ten minute lead was run down by the juggernaught of rouleurs before Lotto-Belisol cleared the way for Andre Grepel to take his third win of the season.
And yet as Gretsch wiped himself clean by the side of the road while his compatriot went to receive his prize, he could still reflect on a job well done.
“I went for it,” he added, “and I’m still satisfied with today even if it finished like that.”