There’s little to preview in the Tour of Qatar. The race doesn’t even bother with profiles as each stage profile is a horizontal line. Every finishing straight is wide enough to land an aircraft.
But at the same time this race matters. First as a tactical training ground, a literal sandbox to test skills and technique and if it’s not compulsive viewing, it’s the equivalent of watching a theatre troop in dress rehearsal as it is a practice session for the spring classics. But the race is also notable because Qatar is very influential in world sports, it is the world’s richest country on a per capita basis and recently won the right to the 2016 Cycling World Championships, deploying sums of money that nobody else could match.
The Tour of Qatar is not very spectator friendly. There are few crowds at the finish and no podium girls either, just a man in a dishdasha. It does not make for great TV as there is little scenery and the action tends to come in the last ten minutes although crosswinds and crashes do add to the drama. Each stage is flat and the highest point in the country is 85 metres above sea level.
No, the attractions are greater for those taking part:
- The weather because competitors are almost guaranteed warm and sunny conditions; whilst Europe is still in winter
- 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 practised without the incessant street furniture more common in Europe
- Points. Yes, them again. Qatar is an HC-rated race whilst other events on now are ranked lower, like the 2.1 Etoile de Bessèges or the 1.1 Trofeo Mallorca series.
- The comfort of the race. Teams and the media alike are hosted in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in capital city Doha, a five star hotel set on an artificial island and contrast to the usual economy motel on the outskirts of a French town. Riders can return to the same hotel room each night without having to pack their bags
If only the roads were as luxurious as the hotel. The race can see a lot of punctures. In the women’s race Chloe Hosking lost the overall lead after puncturing on Stage 3 and being unable to contest the sprint. Many others have punctured too. The sand and gravel desert can’t be blamed, there are no sharp stones. Shards of glass from locals throwing beer bottles can’t be blamed either given alcohol is restricted. Instead the country seems to be built for large cars. Sections of road have expansion joints to cope with the heat but there’s a gap between these and riders can slam the wheels onto the edge; the same when the road surface changes, there’s often a gap between two types of tarmac. Plus the reflective cat’s eye in the road have hard metal edges and stand proud of the road: one of these cost Hosking the lead although the women’s race was won thanks to Kirsten Wild’s powerful sprinting, rather than being lost because of a puncture.
The women’s racing has seen plenty of action in the final moments, at times the lead group saw riders almost queueing to launch one attack after another. The men’s race is likely to be more controlled and we can expect sprint trains to be deployed. We should see Mark Cavendish and his OPQS team at work whilst the likes of Astana’s Andrea Guardini, FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb of Argos-Shimano will be there. Crucially watch for the crosswinds and see how sharp riders are looking, is Fabian Cancellara well placed and doing some damage? There is also a 14km team time trial on Stage 2 to set the overall classification. And there are time bonuses too 3″, 2″ and 1″ will be awarded to the first 3 riders in intermediate sprints and 10″, 6″ and 4″ for the first three riders at stage finishes.
The race will be on TV with a free video stream from aljazeerasport.tv but we’ll have to see if the audio is English or Arabic.
The race can’t be mentioned in isolation of the country. Qatar’s wealth reaches beyond the Middle-East and touches sports with cycling now included.
Qatar is the world’s richest country on a per capita basis and by some margin. But party is over for the emirate with the 2011 GDP growth rate of 16% now slowing to a pedestrian 4% forecast for 2013. Europeans and Americans alike would long for this but it’s a serious slowdown for the Qataris.
For those approaching by air it depends on which side of the plane you sit on. Look out to one side and you might see nothing more than a desert peninsula but look to the other side and the city of Doha can be spotted, a metropolis rising out of the sand, a statement of prodigious wealth. But the real money is out to sea, the North Field is the world’s largest natural gas field and sits in Qatari waters.
Qatar knows the gas won’t last forever and has been using the funds to buy assets around the world. The ruling Al Thani family – they are jobs for them all, Khalid bin Ali Al-Thani is President of the Qatar Cycling Federation – has made conventional investments in stocks and real estate. But its trying others too, like the Al Jazeera news channel or the Paris St Germain football club and BeIn, a new TV sports channel in France. The country is trying to make Qatar into a tourist destination as well and the cycling race is a way to showcase this. Unlike the Tour of Oman, the Qatari landscape is not going to lure visitors but the race lends some activity and Euro-glam to a city that wants to be more than an international conference venue.
Sport is a big opportunity for the country, it hosts numerous events from tennis tournaments to a range of sporting world championships. The biggest event will be the 2022 FIFA World Cup although the bidding process here is controversial with allegations of too much money going to the wrong people. That probably says more about FIFA’s opacity.
In cycling the Qataris won the bid for 2016 because they offered more money only this time via legitimate channels. As well as paying for the right to host the Worlds, they’ve promised to fly everyone to Doha and also to put them in a hotel during the world championships. This means the UCI will have giant revenues in 2016 and few outgoings and therefore the worlds should be the most profitable ever even if they are the most boring. Qatar is closely linked to ASO, the Tour de France organiser. It’s ASO who run the men’s and women’s Tour of Qatar. National airline Qatar Airways is a partner of the Tour de France and flew the peloton a Qatar Airways jet to Paris in 2011. There’s even talk of a Grand Départ one day. It might sound crazy but everything has its price.
An early season race, this is a perfect dress rehearsal before the theatre of Belgium with its cast of cobbles, rain and twisting roads. Qatar offers predictable weather and luxury accommodation. But that’s the attraction for the teams and riders and the TV viewing is strictly for purists wanting to examine echelons and survey sprinting.
But there’s a wider story of the world’s richest country trying to make a name for itself, deploying its money to get noticed. Paying for the world’s best cyclists to visit is loose change and both ASO and the UCI have jumped at the chance to earn some petrodollars.