The Tour of Qatar has become a traditional early season stopping point for the best teams in the world. Hard racing and warm temperatures are just what every team needs as the year gets into full swing. With organisation duties fulfilled by Tour de France organisers the A.S.O the race has grown in stature and routinely attracts a top-level field.
The pan-flat roads mean the six-day event is a haven for the sprinters, yet long exposed roads and the threat of cross-winds have often thrown up a surprise when it comes to the overall winner. This is a race which really can be won and lost in a split second.
The entry list often combines a who's who of sprinting talent with the cream of Classics contenders. The likelihood of crosswinds combined with riders of the propensity to put the race in the gutter means the racing can be some of the toughest in the early season.
The race also sees a couple of significant riders making their debut for Team Sky as world champion Mark Cavendish and Bernhard Eisel get their season under way.
Sunday 5 February - Stage one: Barzan Towers to Doha Golf Club – 142.5km
The race kicks off at the foot of the historic Barzan Towers before heading north along the aptly named North Road. Roughly a third of the stage is fought out on this one road with a figure of eight shape seeing the riders loop back around via two sprint points before heading back towards the coast. Doha Golf Club is the venue for a likely bunch kick to decide the first recipient of the gold jersey.
TV coverage: Live on British Eurosport 2 from 1215-1300 with highlights at 1830-1900.
Monday 6 February – Stage two: Losail Circuit (team time trial) – 11.3km
With the race often decided by seconds the chance to put time into your rivals is too important to pass up. Back after a one-year absence the team time trial returns, posing a unique challenge with only the use of regular road bikes allowed by the organisers. The course takes place on the Losail motor racing circuit, most famous for MotoGP event it hosts. The winning team after 11.3 kilometres could well be in a position to defend a race lead until the finish.
TV coverage: Live on British Eurosport 2 from 1200-1300 with highlights at 1600-1700 and 1900-2000.
Tuesday 7 February – Stage three: Dukhan to Al Gharafa Stadium – 146.5km
The action switches to the opposite coast for the stage of stage three in Dukhan. The day begins with an out-and-back drag down to Umm Bab before returning on the other side of the road with the stage then heading east. Two sprint points in Umm Al Qahab and Al Otouriya should be contested by a breakaway before a blustery run along Dukhan Road to the sprint finish.
TV coverage: Live on British Eurosport 2 from 1200-1300 with highlights at on British Eurosport at 2045-2145.
Wednesday 8 February – Stage four: Al Thakhira to Madinat Al Shamal - 147.5km
The day begins at the most northerly point of Qatar on the shore of the Arabian Gulf in Madinat Al Shamal. The route hugs the coast before cutting inland and heading south-east for Al Thakhira. Riders will again need to be on the lookout for splits in the peloton ahead of a more technical finish just to the north of Al Khor which has now been extended with a short final lap after crossing the finish line for the first time.
TV coverage: Live on British Eurosport 2 from 1200-1300 with highlights at 1600-1700 and 2300-0000.
Thursday 9 February – Stage five: Camel Race Track to Al Khor Corniche – 160km
The famous Camel Race Track sees the peloton depart for the final stage, heading back in the direction of Umm Al Qahab and north via a feed zone at Al Otouriya. Exposed roads and 90-degree direction changes could again play their part ahead of another brief drag along North Road. The picturesque Al Khor Corniche should be more straightforward than 2011 which saw only 14 riders finish on the same time.
TV coverage: Live on British Eurosport 2 from 1200-1300 with highlights at 1600-1700 and 2330-0030.
Friday 10 February – Stage six: Sealine Beach Resort to Doha Corniche – 120km
The final stage is the traditional run north along the coast into Doha. Once on the Corniche the riders must complete 10 laps of a 6km loop. With a sprint finish almost guaranteed, extra spice could be added if the leaderboard is close enough for bonus seconds to come into play. 10, six and four seconds respectively are available on the line for the top three finishers.
TV coverage: Live on British Eurosport 2 from 1200-1300 with highlights at 2230-2330.
Cavendish will be looking to open his account for the team in the sprints, while repeating 2010's victory in the team time trial is also a big goal for the squad. With cross-winds often having a huge bearing on the general classification, Jeremy Hunt will play a key role in marshalling the team on the exposed roads.
Team Sky history
In 2010 the Tour of Qatar provided the first chance for Team Sky to perform a team time trial in a road environment. With Great Britain a dominant force on the track, all eyes were on the team to see if they could apply that expertise to the road. The result was a resounding ‘yes’ as the team won by eight seconds to put Edvald Boasson Hagen into the leader’s jersey. In true Qatar style the race was turned on its head on stage two with huge cross-winds allowing a two-man break to steal nearly two minutes and effectively end the race there and then. The team will be looking to improve on their best previous result of fourth overall (Juan Antonio Flecha, 2011), with Sports Director Steven de Jongh holding the bragging rights after twice finishing on the podium.
What they are saying
Ian Stannard: “Qatar is perfect. It’s flat out racing and everyone is giving it full gas. There’s cross winds just as we get in Belgium and we’re all racing at our threshold limits so it’s great for overall conditioning.”