By Yash Mudgal/Doha
Sprinter Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff and Lars Boom are some of the star attractions for the 15th edition of the Tour of Qatar which will start today.
The second stage of the five-day race will also serve as a preview for UCI Road World Championships that will be organised in the Qatari capital in October this year.
With Etixx-QuickStep, the overall winner in eight of the past 10 editions, not invited by the organisers on disciplinary grounds and other regulars, including the Trek-Segafredo squad of Fabian Cancellara, being absent, the focus is on the 2013 winner Cavendish and Kristoff, who took three stages out of six last year.
The 30-year-old rider is ready to get his season off to a strong start with his new team Dimension Data. The Manx rider wasn’t far off the pace at the Dubai Tour and will surely be better again here. Despite increasing challenges in his specialty for the past several years, the British rider hasn’t stopped winning.
After joining Dimension Data, Cavendish has been focusing on earning a spot with the Britain’s track squad at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio and as a result lacks road miles in his legs. Despite finishing second to Marcel Kittel in Dubai – who has a 100 per cent win record against the Manxman in one-on-one sprints – Cavendish said he could take some positives from the race.
“I’m obviously disappointed not to win, but I’ve taken a lot of positives from the race,” Cavendish said after the Tour of Dubai.
Accompanied by an all-star squad, with Edvald Boasson-Hagen and his old partner Mark Renshaw, who also triumphed on the Tour of Qatar in 2011, Cavendish could do it again on a course that suits him.
“We’d like to win. We’d like to win at least a stage. We want to be visible and if you are here, it means you’re going to be at the front. I believe we can be very successful with the riders we have here,” the Brit rider said on the eve of the race yesterday.
“I’ve only done four days of racing but I’m really, loving it. Our training camp was great. The atmosphere is brilliant. It’s really relaxed. The difference with Etixx is simple: one is Belgian, the other is South African. The difference is as big as that between the two hemispheres where both teams belong,” said Cavendish, who has the third highest number of stage wins (26) in Tour de France and second highest number of stage wins (8) in Qatar.
Cavendish will be led out by Renshaw, who returns to Doha with new ambitions. The Australian said: “The Tour of Qatar win is the biggest of my career. To win the general classification in a stage race is something rather difficult to do, especially for a rider like myself. I am very proud to have this among my achievements.”
In the final metres, Cav would have to battle with other sprinters like Sam Bennett, Yauheni Hutarovich, Andrea Guardini and Moreno Hofland. But in Qatar, where the roads are often swept by wind, the title isn’t always decided on mass sprints. This added difficulty will work to the advantage of the contenders for the top spots in the spring classics, who once again make the trip to Doha this year.
Winner of the last year’s Tour of Flanders, and also of three stages in Qatar, Kristoff comes in as Cavendish’s designated rival.
In the same regard, Greg van Avermaet might seize the opportunity to demonstrate that he can be a front-runner. It is the same for Boom, who is also looking to get his spring season on a high in Doha.
“The race will be different without our former team Etixx-QuickStep, but it won’t be any easier because the peloton is very deep and full of motivated riders. It is an important race for the favourites of the classics like Kristoff and Van Avermaet,” Renshaw said.
Norwegian Kristoff is targeting the sprints, Classics and the end of season world road race championships.
The 28 year-old Katusha sprinter won 20 races in 2015, including the Tour of Flanders, but missed out on victory at the Tour de France and was fourth in the world championships in Richmond behind Peter Sagan. A heavy race programme meant he was in action for 81 days in 2015.
“It’ll be interesting to see the World Championship circuit. It’s great for this race to go on the circuit. We’ll be able to see how to race there and how it feels. It’s always helpful,” Kristoff said.
Talking about his chances he said: “I start with the GC as an objective and then take it day by day. I’ll try not to lose time and try to win stages. Last year I was very close after winning three stages and having many bonus seconds. I lost it in the time-trial but didn’t lose too much. Hopefully I can do more or less the same. I will certainly try.”
In all, 18 teams are competing in the Tour that features five stages covering a distance of 626.4km with an eye on the rainbow jersey to be present in October.
All stages bring two intermediate sprints in which time bonuses of 3, 2 and 1 seconds are to be gained, while the first three riders in all stages (with the exception of the ITT) win 10, 6 and 4 extra seconds.
Strong wind makes the tour a perfect preparation for the spring classics in Europe. Often the individual time trial is decisive for the overall win. Last year, Niki Terpstra used the ITT to lay the groundwork for his overall win. Despite Kristoff winning three stages, and thus taking a time bonus of 30 seconds, the Dutchman blew the competition away by taking a bonus time of 44 seconds.
All courses are flat and, given the open terrain and winds, echelons are more than likely to occur, and quite literally, the overall winner should be able to take a blow.
FIRST: 176.5km — Dukhan to Al Khor Corniche
SECOND: 135km —Katara Cultural Village to Qatar University
THIRD: 11.4km Lusail Circuit Individual Time Trial
FOURTH: 189km – Al Zubarah Fort to Madinat Al Shamal
FIFTH: 114.5km – Sealine Beach resort to Doha Corniche
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