Spotlight on Qatar

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Qatar is the world’s wealthiest country on a per capita basis. Last year locals were worried for the state of the economy after it grew by a meagre 15%. No typo, that’s fifteen percent. Whilst most Europeans long for the day their economy expands by 1.5%, the Qataris get richer by the day.

The reason is primarily the prodigious oil and gas reserves that lie under the country’s sands and off its shores. There’s so much of this valuable resource that the country has gone from nomadic desert dwelling to the highest per capita income in the world in one century.

You haven’t come here to read about Arab wealth, nor oil and gas. But this wealth is the reason why the country has a cycle race starting tomorrow with the Ladies Tour of Qatar and then the Tour of Qatar for men on Sunday. Here’s a look at the race.

The race began in 2002 as a means for the country to publicise itself. In Qatari style it spent big. They hired ASO, the company that runs the Tour de France and picked none other than Eddy Merckx to act as consultant. These roles continue today.

Many races were launched for promotional reasons. Famously the Tour de France was launched to sell newspapers; other races are funded from the national or regional tourist budget. Qatar seems to be saying “we’re here” with the race, there is little marketing effort to entice the cyclist. Not that the country needs a bike race for publicity. It is very politically active in the region and the home of arabic news channel Al Jazeera (“the lighthouse”). That said many know the giant towers, malls and ongoing construction projects where imported labour toils under the fierce sun for modest pay but I suppose race shows the inland areas are accessible.

The route
The country is flat, its highest point – if you exclude the skyscrapers – is 85 metres above sea level. So flat that the race organisers don’t even bother publishing altitude profiles for the race. This is a stage race for sprinters although the men’s edition has team time trial.

Better for riders than fans?
It’s not a great race to watch, there is little scenery and the action tends to come in the last ten minutes of a stage; although crosswinds and crashes do add to the drama. The attractions are greater for those taking part:

  • First is the weather, competitors are almost guaranteed warm and sunny conditions; whilst Europe endures “Siberian” weather.
  • The second reason is the weather too for the desert is windy. The prospect of crosswinds is an ideal tune-up for techniques ahead of the spring classics. Riders and teams can reacquaint themselves with riding in crosswind, only on long and relatively smooth roads. Drills can be practiced without the incessant street furniture more common in Europe.
  • The last reason is the comfort of the race. Teams and the media alike are hosted in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in capital city Doha and enjoy five star luxury. A nice touch ahead of a season of European chain motels.

Not the Hotel Ibis in Poitiers

Petit Prix
For all the country’s wealth the prize list looks modest. The total pot for the Ladies Tour is €18,680 with just €1,200 for the overall winner and €400 for first place on one of the three stages. The men fare better with €103,375 and €10,000 for the overall and €3615 for first place on one of the six stages.

Ambitions
Qatar is linked to many sporting ventures. It will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. But it is also linked to the Tour de France. National airline Qatar Airways is a partner of the Tour de France and when Cadel Evans took yellow in Grenoble last year, he and the rest of the peloton flew on a Qatar Airways jet to Paris to start the final stage to the Champs Elysées. There is even talk of the Tour de France starting in Qatar one day. It might sound crazy but everything has a price.

Gavin January 31, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Given that there is already a precedent of the Tour de France and Giro D’Italia starting on foreign shores I don’t see much distinction between starting the race in Denmark, UK or Qatar. All of them are external to the home of the race. If some of the money gained from this is used to subsidise smaller races then it may be a price worth paying.

Playvelo January 31, 2012 at 6:32 pm

“It’s not a great race to watch, there is little scenery” — This race is a big snoozer. Wake up me up 5 minutes before the finish. At least they are able to attract some top sprinters (Cav, Griepel, & Farrar).

I think the Tour of Oman, soon to have its 3rd edition, is the more interesting race. Same sprinters as above plus Goss, Sagan & Boonen. Add Cancellara plus a good field of GC riders including Rodriguez, Nibali, Christian Vande Velde, Peter Velits, Laurent Ten Dam, and Andy Schleck. Should make for a good race.

Larry T. January 31, 2012 at 6:59 pm

At least you didn’t write “EVERYONE has his price.” but as someone whose first visit to LeTour was back when the cars were Peugeots and the water Perrier, the idea that Qatar airways flew the race to Paris just seems WRONG! Same with starting the Giro in Denmark while ignoring the lower half of ITALY.

Ian January 31, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I like these handy little guides to the events that you have done for this race and the previous GP d’Ouverture – La Marseillaise, helps me to place where things stand in the scheme of things and what the teams and riders are looking to get out of the events. Cheers

Guadzilla January 31, 2012 at 8:48 pm

The Tour of Qatar is basically one giant PR exercise for the Qataris. There is *no* cycling culture to speak of in most of the Middle Eastern countries. Not surprising, given the environmental conditions.

Oman is a little better for riding – some nice mountains and, for the most part, saner/more courteous drivers (unlike, say, Emiratis whose luxury automobiles give them to drive like maniacs).

But I am curious – how come so many riders/teams were bitching about the Tour of China last year and no one really bats an eyelid about the Tour of Qatar?

Peter January 31, 2012 at 9:50 pm

First, Chapeau! to you. These are truly one of the main reasons that I come to your column every day, and that I have used Competitive Cyclist to buy toys. The background to races and stages is well presented from a cyclist perspective. It is so much more fun than the press materials. Thank you!!

Second, comparing this race to China shows two key differences. For teams, this is a luxury trip to train without fewer UCI political travails. For riders, well I have one word: smog. That is a sign of my personal bias – I will ride in the desert but I will not ride in Beijing. I admit to prejudice there.

The Inner Ring January 31, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Guadzilla: it’s got a better vibe to Qatar because it’s early season and in sunshine, people can practice and fine tune their form. Come October and Beijing and many riders are tired and want a break, plus riding in the smog to help the UCI earn some revenue isn’t appealing. Plus Qatar is known, this is the 10th edition.

Ian and Peter: thanks, I’ll try to cover a few races like this. Oman is a more interesting one.

Megacountax February 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

I would be interested to know where this race sits in terms of world ranking points – especially in relation to TdU, Oman, San Luis and other early season races.

The Inner Ring February 1, 2012 at 10:26 am

Megacountax: mens’s race is a “2.HC” category race. See http://inrng.com/2012-race-calendar/ for the points comparison (scroll down a bit).

Oman is also 2.HC whilst San Luis is 2.1. TdU is World Tour so different points scale.

Kasper February 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Starting the Tour de France in Qatar is only a problem of transport. The Giro starts in Denmark and the have a rest day on the fourth day, in order to travel to Italy. The distance from Denmark to Italy is four times shorter than the distance from Qatar to Tour de France. And Le Tour will be much more reluctant to include a rest day so early in the race.

I see it unlikely in the near future, but as you say, everything has it’s price. And the tour de france can also change.

Derailleur Quartet February 1, 2012 at 4:15 pm

How about the tour of Eritrea?

It’s been running since 2001 adn, from the below wikipedia page, appears to have been won by an Eritrean cyclist each year. Sounds like there’s something of a cycling culture to celebrate there -even if it would be hard to sell bikes worth thousands of pounds…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tour_of_Eritrea

Chris February 2, 2012 at 12:55 am

@Kasper

Along with transport comes the fact that temperatures in Doha (Capital and only city in Qatar) in July sit at 45-50C every day. Overnight lows are well above 30C. Racing a bicycle just isn’t practical at that time of year. The population of the country ebbs at that time of year as all the Europhile expats and most of the citizens leave town, leaving mainly the dirt-poor workers there to toil in the heat. There will be no-one to watch the riders (that is the case now, though. Have a look at the pics of the Ladies Tour of Qatar on cyclingnews).
I’m Australian, and I’ve been to the TDU a few times. The heat is crazy, and I’d hate to race in it.
I lived in Qatar for four years, though, and their heat from June to September is a whole new ball game. You just don’t go outside.
The football World Cup bid rested on two things: air-conditioned stadia and enormous bribes. Usually it takes just enormous bribes to get things done, but the Qataris have a really bad environment to contend with.

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