The UCI announced today that the Tour of Qatar and the Ladies Tour of Qatar have been cancelled, a victim of their lack of success. This was the racer’s race, enjoyed by participants but it didn’t woo locals nor foreign audiences and now it’s run out of money. A UCI press release issued today cites “difficulty attracting sponsor financial support”.
The men’s race began in 2002 and a women’s race was added in 2009. Before all that Qatar wasn’t much until the oil and gas boom provided copious wealth, so much that it’s enjoyed the highest per capita GDP of any country on the planet. What to do with the money? They spent a lot turning Doha, turning a tiny port town into a metropolis albeit on the backs of imported workers from Bangladesh. This was “build it and they will come” but the construction was just the start and the city needed to be furnished with culture and status and it’s under this remit that the Tour of Qatar was conceived. Eddy Merckx and business associate Dirk De Pauw were hired to put on the race and they partnered with Tour de France owners ASO as the logistics grew.
The way to see the Tour of Qatar is not to treat it anything vital to cycling nor to Qatar. The race was only one entry in a diary full of imported sports events from tennis to ice hockey all designed to portray Qatar as a happening place and put the country on the map.
It’s been easy to mock the race for having more camels than spectators. Pro cycling seems to seek validation as much as it seeks sponsorship and the lack of crowds was a sad sight. Yet this was also part of the race’s curious attraction. This was racing redux, every superfluous item stripped away to leave just the riders, some roads and a finish line.
Less poetically the races will be missed by a sizeable proportion of the peloton who had their sights set on the spring classics. This was “sandbox racing”, the early season chance for pro teams to deploy their new sprint trains on wide roads before more complicated European streets. It was also a brutal test of fitness and commitment because on the exposed desert roads a light breeze was enough to act like a scimitar and slice the bunch to pieces. Hardcore fans may have enjoyed the echelon formations and salivated at the sight of competing sprint trains but this surely left the casual viewer bored rigid: an hour of TV with nothing save a group of cyclists riding through-and-off against a dusty backdrop, as if an endless animated GIF. This website offered previews but the vibe was often why you ought to be interested rather than a dish served up to an already salivating audience.
Even those on the receiving end of a hard day’s racing could enjoy the race as it was the first to host the peloton in the five star Ritz Carlton, an experience that remains a luxury and and rarity.
It’s embarrassing for the sport to lose an event that had just been bumped up to the UCI World Tour but the UCI doesn’t – and can’t – vet events too extensively; until now the race had a decent organisational record too. The event’s entry to the increasingly bloated World Tour meant attendance from the top teams wasn’t compulsory. As such the Tour of Qatar might have a premium label but it remained a secondary race and this status would have annoyed local sponsors who want to associate with the biggest and best. Also for all the wealth in Qatar there are limits and increasingly the Qatari authorities are having to be selective with their spending. The country went into recession last year too.
One lesson from cycling’s attempts at globalisation is that an event built up from a small start is better than an event created out of nowhere and dropped onto the calendar. Qatar was actually the former, it began in 2002 with a slow start and slowly grew but this isn’t enough. The format never stuck, the race felt as rootless as a Bedouin souk and if fans remember the echelons it’s hard to recall a precise moment or place from all the editions. The country’s wealth is below the ground rather than above it and its geography doesn’t offer much for a bike race. The desert has its charms but the race never highlighted them. Hopefully this isn’t the end of cycling in Qatar, they country remains ambitious about sport. Chloe Hosking wrote a nice piece about her experience with the Qatar women’s cycling team and now the chance of this happening again just got harder.