Fresh from basking in the warmth of Australia and Argentina, the world’s best cycling teams head to the Gulf for another dose of sunshine at the Tour of Qatar.
Now a firmly established stopping point on the early-season schedule, the tiny Arabian state’s pan-flat roads will once again provide a haven for sprinters, while also presenting a stern enough challenge to attract a host of Classics contenders.
Indeed, the racing can be among the most competitive of the opening part of the campaign, with straight and open roads driving the pace up and crosswinds putting everyone on alert against splits in the peloton.
With Tour de France organisers ASO taking care of logistics, the Tour of Qatar’s stature continues to grow and has duly attracted another top-class field.
The race takes place over six stages, from February 3-8,with all but a team time trial on day two set to end in bunch sprints.
Sunday 3 February – Stage one: Katara Cultural Village to Dukhan Beach – 145km
The opening stage of the race traverses the Qatari peninsula on an east-to-west route containing a series of tight turns that could prove tricky with the peloton riding at such a high pace. There are two intermediate sprints – at Oryx Farm after 40km and at Dukhan with 35km to go – with each offering three, two and one-second time bonuses for the first three riders. Another 10, six and four seconds are up for grabs for the top three in the sprint to the finish line.
Monday 4 February – Stage two: Al Rufaa Street (team time trial) – 14km
With the race often decided by seconds, the chance to put time into your rivals is too important to pass up. The team time trial is a perfect opportunity to do so, but it poses a unique challenge to teams given that only road bikes are allowed by the organisers. The course takes the riders on a 14km loop that is just far enough outside the built-up streets of Doha for the wind to come into play.
Tuesday 5 February – Stage three: Al Wakra to Mesaieed – 143km
The race heads to the south of Doha for two-and-a-third laps of a triangular-shaped circuit that sees the pack ride towards and away from the coast on two occasions each, meaning winds will almost certainly play a part at some stage and splits could open up. There are also two intermediate sprints where vital bonus time can be collected, as well as a final dash to the line.
Wednesday 6 February – Stage four: Camel Race Track to Al Khor Corniche – 160km
The famous Camel Race Track sees the peloton head 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. Mark Cavendish won this stage in 2012 and Edvald Boasson Hagen will no doubt be keen to make it two in a row for Team Sky.
Thursday 7 February – Stage five: Al Zubara Fort to Madinat Al Shamal – 154km
The penultimate stage starts in the north-west corner of Qatar and heads south-east for almost 50km, before heading back in exactly the same direction. The road is straight but exposed, so teams will have to be on their guard should the gusts build up. Once back at the Al Zubara Fort, the route heads towards the northernmost town in the country for three laps of a 13km circuit that ends in a sprint to the line.
Friday 8 February – Stage six: Sealine Beach Resort to Doha Corniche – 116km
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.
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), as well as also looking to build on the two stage victories that Mark Cavendish secured in 2012.