Professional cyclists should be racing in the exposed wind-swept roads of the Tour of Qatar this week – just as they have done for the past 15 years. Qatar’s decision to call off the race this winter, however, has left a hole in the calendar and in the hearts of cycling fans.
The UCI scheduled the 2017 edition for February 6 to 10, with the women’s race the week before. The race provided many classics stars the race preparation that they needed. Without it, they are lining up in various smaller races around Europe, in training camps or – as in Iljo Keisse’s case – riding more on the track.
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The only good news is that it may return in 2018. Until then, here is why we miss the Tour of Qatar.
1. Lost momentum
The UCI is trying to create a season-long WorldTour narrative, going from the Tour Down Under in January to the Tour of Guangxi in October.
It appeared to be going well: Richie Porte (BMC Racing) won the Tour Down Under and Nikias Arndt (Sunweb) the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Now, however, it feels as though someone slammed the brakes as we were speeding 120kph down the Autoroute and the Autogrill cappuccino went all over the dash.
Looking up, we are wondering what happened. How can a WorldTour skip from January 29 to February 23, the start of the Abu Dhabi Tour, and leave the biggest gap in the calendar? With the gap, the momentum is lost.
Now fans must wait until next Wednesday, when most of the big stars start in the Volta ao Algarve and the Ruta del Sol stage races – neither are WorldTour events.
No other race would guarantee such strong winds like the five-day stage race over the Qatari peninsula. The winds, coming from a right angle, would rip the peloton apart and form cyclists into echelons immediately. It helps explain why Belgian super-team Quick-Step dominated the race, winning eight of the 15 editions.
3. All-star cast
Because of its flat and often wind-swept roads, the race attracted an all-star cast of top classics cyclists and hard-man sprinters.
Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) went almost every year, winning in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012. In 2015, he placed ninth in a field that included Niki Terpstra, Alexander Kristoff, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet – all in the top 10 – Fabian Cancellara and building for his Paris-Roubaix farewell, Bradley Wiggins.
4. The bleakness
The bleakness of the white rocky desertscape would be a turn off for most, but the Qataris had a winning formula with a colourful 144-rider strong peloton on the horizon.
That plain canvas made the modern cycling warriors pop to life more than they would in France or Italy, where one’s eyes could wonder to the standing mountains, deep-blue lakes or lively fans.
5. La Doyenne
This was La Doyenne for Middle Eastern racing. When it debuted in 2002 with a Thorsten Wilhelms win, many were scratching their heads. Thanks to organiser Eddy Merckx and the ASO connection, the race was able to keep bringing back big teams. Its success led to the Tour of Oman, the Dubai Tour and most recently, the Abu Dhabi Tour.
This year, the four races were due to come together in a ‘Gulf Swing’ – back-to-back races from the Dubai Tour starting on January 31 to the Abu Dhabi Tour ending on February 26. Qatar left a hiccup in the swing, but it must not be forgotten that without the Qatari tour, the other tours may have never existed.