Qatar: Racing 101

Ladies Tour of Qatar

If a bike race is “first a tale of geography” there might not be much of story to tell from the Ladies Tour of Qatar and the men’s race next week. The stages proceed through a desert with few features and tactical points, just a road wide enough to land an aircraft. Even when people are watching the race, half of them have a bemused look, the same as Parisians watching a handicap camel race on the Champs Elysées.

But all this makes the racing unique, a minimalist form of the sport. Racing 101.

Many domains have mass appeal and nerdy niches, think blockbuster films and arthouse cinema; Nescafé and gourmet roasted beans, McDonalds and molecular cuisine. Cycling has the Tour de France but what if racing in Dubai and Qatar is an acquired taste? As comparisons go perhaps it’s a functional experience rather than the work of an artist carefully framing their scenes or blending aromas. If the Tour de France is a Bollywood extravaganza with noise, colour and a cast of millions, the Tour of Qatar is an austere stage play or a Lars von Trier experiment with Dogma 95 rules – no make-up, lighting or special effects. Even the cast is reduced, there are no extras behind the crowd barriers to add to the scene.

Sandbox testing
Or swap arty comparisons for the language of computer programming. These desert races are literal sandboxes where teams can test themselves in the same way programmers try out new code without crashing the system. We’ll see Mark Cavendish and his Renshaw-Petacchi sprint train has a functioning script and it can tested on wide roads with few junctions. Gone are the disruptive narrow lanes, steep bergs and the street furniture assault course.

But the purity of the experience is a problem too. Hardcore fans might be ecstatic at the echelon formations and salivate at the sight of competing sprint trains running at full speed without a bend to line out the bunch… but the casual viewer can be bored rigid. An hour of TV can bring 50 minutes of nothing save a group of cyclists riding through-and-off, an endless animated GIF. Should a crosswind shred the bunch there are no trees to illustrate the force of the wind, just a diagonal row of riders, a peloton parallelogram.

Today’s time trial in the Tour of Dubai was a time trial reduced, boiled down to the basics. The aero helmets, disc wheels and low profile frames were gone with the wind as riders rode trad with standard road bikes. Ironically for such a wealthy race this rule is about economy and saving teams from flying out a bike for 12 minutes’ use. But look closely and there were mods like adjusted stems and larger chainrings.

The geography isn’t promising for a race it’s the geology that has brought the pro peloton here. Vast oil and gas reserves ensures Qatar, Dubai and to a less extent Oman can have their slice of big time racing. If the landscape doesn’t impress, the cityscape does. And if you’re not tempted these race is just part of a busy calendar of events; shoppers in Dubai get the vibe that something is on.

The exception is the Tour of Oman which features the Jebel Al Akhdar, the Green Mountain, as a genuine summit finish and has other hilly roads. But if you have the money you can put on a sports event to tell the world you exist – see Sotchi.

Desert races and deserted urban finishes. No amount of marketing can say these races are bigger or better than Het Nieuwsblad, Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. Surely even a giant prize pot couldn’t change this. But these desert races shouldn’t be ignored as they offer a fascinating look at the pro peloton: the race reduced to riders, tarmac and maybe a crosswind. It’s both Racing 101 and a connoisseur’s choice but it doesn’t have to be a study of craft, scan the results this week and you’ll start to see the names who will feature in the classics to come.

63 thoughts on “Qatar: Racing 101”

  1. INRNG, you are correct in one respect, its all about money.
    Whilst some of the more demanding, historical and long established events in southern Europe are gradually becoming extinct, we are expected to take these new money rich races seriously. I might just as well pop down to the nearest local airport circuit and watch amateur racing, its just as exciting. Sorry, I don’t even care if they have a live TV feed, they have little to offer, no history, drama, scenery or even spectators.
    How many remember last year winners – how many care ?

  2. All great points, although wouldn’t be nice if they did spend $$ like the Russians will on Sochi?
    Imagine setting out “mirages” fake trees and landscapes to mimic the Euro countryside.
    We all would all enjoy that rather then the vast relentless desert.

    PED of choice this week peyote?

  3. I’ve worked at this race the last three years and as Inner Ring says, it is indeed a fascinating opportunity to observe the riders. For me this involved seeing the battles against the wind and the ferocious pace at close hand. For TV viewers I concede it may not be as exciting! What you never see is the fight to get into the breakaway. One day in 2011, Nico Eeckhout and Gio Visconti were in a smallish group that got away from the main peloton: it was balls to the wall to form the escape, something like 51km covered in the first hour and the wind wasn’t totally favourable!

    • That is the sad thing about televised racing, we rarely get to see the breaks form. Go back to stage 9 of Le Tour. The first 100k saw break attempt after break attempt get reeled in. Finally a Garmin led break got itself a two minute advantage.

      Often times the early part of the race can be the most exciting and dramatic. ! Yet, it is rarely televised.

      As for the desert races, it is a shame the Jayco Herald Tour in Australia can only get two PT teams and no tellie coverage. Me thinks the terrain around Melbourne offers more variety and visual appeal to viewers than Dubai.

      • I don’t get chance to watch much of Le Tour’s live coverage due to being at work. Was it not televised because the program didn’t start early enough?

      • There are half hour highlights on local TV, hopefully they are streamed somewhere.

        Cannondale have a squad here too BTW, Matej Mohoric (?) is racing and did his trademark sit-on-the-top-tube descent in the middle of the prologue.

        Good crowds at the prologue too.

        • Yes, as Robert says there were good crowds (around 20,000 actual spectators as estim. by police). I was one of many watching from an open bar in a restaurant just 30m from the finish line. 30 degrees or so after a sunny day, free beer on the sponsors, not sure what Qatar was like but I was pretty bloody happy. The course was a dinky little one but great for spectators to get close, plus the teams were readily accessible up near the start line. I spotted Baden Cooke in the bar with the rider sheet showing their start times, he was taking a keen interest but by all accounts it was some friendly punting on the winner with the lads. The riders rolled over to talk to people in our bar straight after their ride too. Mitch Docker wouldn’t take us up on the offer of a beer though, so Pro.

  4. Thanks inrng for your great writing style. Keep up the fresh original metaphors and turns of phrase! An oasis in the linguistic desert of sport journalists worn down cliches.

  5. I don’t quite understand why the UCI push for venues such as this place. I understand the internationalisation is the aim but at what cost, and who benefits? How many local clubs have seen an increase in licence holders, indeed how many riders, anywhere, can say that Tony Martin racing in the UAE got them into competitive cycling? It definitely doesn’t have the regulars in our club rushing to find out who won stage 3.
    Just saying.

    • Maybe not, Erik, but take Qatar for example: they have hired Pia Sundstedt to coach and bring up to scratch a women’s team in Qatar. I don’t think hosting races there is bad per se, but it’s a delicate balancing act between going to where the money is and preserving some of the rich and fragile heritage of European racing.

    • Some sporting agency/Prince/royal buys the production from someone with close ties to the UCI.

      This fits with the UCI’s interest in “globalizing” cycling. It’s mostly not going to work to expand the fan base. But, make no mistake there’s money made by everyone on the production side except most of the athletes.

    • We might be crediting the UCI with too much power here, I think it’s more these places have the money to buy a bike race and so it happens, the UCI isn’t stopping South America or Asia from holding races at this time, it’s just demand from this area. It’s up to the UCI to advise on the calendar slot but it can’t do too much more.

    • UCI’s globalisation efforts should include the amateur end of the sport. Star effect alone would not promote cycling, unless it’s paired with increased opportunity of participation.

      UCI should insist that any new race organiser should hold amateur events on top of their pro event. Ran properly, such events would increase fan base, give new organiser some experience in holding a race as well as hopefully improve their financial standing.

      As expected, inner ring beats the UCI again on promoting amateur events in Asia.

  6. I like the idea of riders TTing on their road bikes and think it should be expanded to all stage races. Not sure the benefit of riders going a few kph faster on funny bikes with the increased risk of falling off.

  7. Zen and the art of road racing!
    Can imagine if this was decades ago you would see Peter O’Toole and Co. sitting on deck chairs
    on the side of the road, wearing khaki’s while sipping Gin & Tonics, cheering on the
    passing riders (having made their bets on who would win)!

    “These desert mufti’s may have their oil riches, but we have more fun, I dare say!”

  8. Nice piece. I’ll take any racing I can get now but come September and the Tour of Spain and my interest is fading even if it is a great race with history and mountains.

  9. A Dogma95 reference in an article about bicycle racing? That’s some nice writing, and just one example of why I love coming back to read your stuff. Sure, these races can seem to be a little boring when compared to the more exciting and legendary ones, but they do fill a void at this time of year. I watched the first stage of Dubai on TV this evening, and found it quite motivating actually.

  10. I once spoke to a local pro in Belgium. He made the comment about these races that they are a superb way for riders to get into shape. His comment was essentially along the lines of “when the season starts everyone is pretty level [riders from local teams and worldtour riders]. But then the worldtour guys go off to the desert for three months and come back absolutely flying”.

    I think for the teams, especially classics riders, the weeks of racing, with their quality, where they are placed on the calendar and how they are spaced apart are perfect to turn the off season base into serious racing form.

  11. Qatar and Oman are distinct with the former being flat and getting the sprinters and the latter more of the GC contenders. Will be interesting to see if/how Dubai fits into this and if the there races together start to have a story line, for example if Oman or another race at the end gets WT status there could be a buildup to that.

  12. So the TDU faces an annual barrage of criticism from a section of Northern hemisphere snobs, with questions about its status, sneers about the riders’ intent, etc.

    Somehow this grab for cash, a blatant sellout by riders and teams who forget the windy sandy boredom by imagining the things they can buy, is ok?

    In the background, the reason why no one watches the racing is because the majority of the population is living a squalid oppressive existence, which has been highlighted time and again by Amnesty International and quality papers like The Guardian UK. Qatar has the highest rate of non-citizens to citizens in the world, as workers are trafficked from poor countries to work in dangerous, poorly paid, and oppressive work conditions. Even the crooks at FIFA struggle to justify workers death rates (yes, death rates) on Qatari work sites building for the World Cup. A quick Google of ‘Human rights in Qatar’ might jolt you.

    Don’t suppose a cycling journo cares to ask one, just one, of the riders what they think of this as they ride past?

    • Hmm, I think you’re setting up a false argument. Those who knock the TDU will probably be bored by these Gulf races too. Personally I enjoyed the TDU and will follow Dubai, Qatar and Oman.

      And yes, the majority of spectators you see at the finish look like workers from India and Bangladesh on their day off. But I doubt a rider will form much of a view, yet alone express it; it’s like asking them for a comment on Qatar’s role in the Syrian civil war.

      • In my case you are right INRNG. I went to the Tour Down Under a couple of years ago and it is great live because it is so easy to watch all or most stages without effort – though in some respects the effort is part of the joy in watching some live races.
        But on TV, I couldn’t care less for the race, even if the racing was exciting, TV coverage good and crowds also – from the report snippets I read. I prefer to watch cyclocross at this time of year thanks.
        But, it’s not snobbery as some suggest, it just doesn’t do it for me. Globalisation can satisfy many palates. Everyone has their favourites and we have the choice to tune in or not that many other generations did not. We are lucky, but I will take the classics and the Giro or La Vuelta over the new world. Just my choice.

  13. Tony Martin clearly hasn’t spent much time perfecting his form on the road bike. I think optimally his elbows would be bent at 90 degrees with hands on hoods or resting forearms on tops. Straight vertical arms present a greater frontal area. But his bars are too low for any other position…

    • I guess, similar to the point already made, as the viewer we can’t tell what the conditions are – maybe he was being buffeted by side-winds that would make riding with forearms on top of the bars hazardous? who knows…

    • @Evan,

      His countless time spent on the front of the OPQS leadout train doesn’t count towards his “perfect” position? Perhaps he’s about to go around a bend?

    • There were some reports that he faced winds twice the strength of the higher place getters. Not sure how, but he was whining about choosing his start time (to suit the wind). How is that allowed?

        • In this case it’s similar too a handicap in horse racing!

          Winners have to carry more weight, gives the other ( less winning participants a chance to win).
          Maybe next year TP wins the WCTT then he has to race last on a windy afternoon TT
          TM will have the advantage, and can choose to go early.

  14. Le Dogme 95 c’est pour moi une forme de Renoncement à des moyens diponibles jugés superflus . Je ne crois pas le Qatar très enclin à des formes de Renoncement matériels . Même si à la lecture du livre de Chesnot et Malbrunot sur ce pays j’ai appris qu ils avaient payés des sociétés pour louer quelques milliers de supporters afin de remplir le stade d’athlétisme de l ‘académie Aspire .
    Le fait est qu’ils ne font pas appel à ces sociétés pour les compétitions cyclistes. En ce sens vous avez raison ; il s’agit effectivement d’une forme de renoncement …

  15. I wonder what these events do to the host countries that buy them in. They pay big money to host races, putting up those involved in luxury hotels and so on, but they wouldn’t let their own women be seen in public wearing lycra shorts under any circumstances. What will happen to the girls growing up in Qatar and Dubai seeing this obvious double standard? The authorities may find that it eventually costs them more than they realised.

    • You might want to check your facts there, whelsucker. Despite some pretty hideous human rights abuses of migrant workers, Qatar is not like Saudi when it comes to treatment of women. They are trying to get some female cyclists up to scratch in a team coached by Pia Sundstedt. The main problem with lack of participation in sport in these countries is more to do with the population not being very sporty/active (Qatar has something like 16% type diabetes in its population) rather than “not allowing” women to wear lycra.

      • @Wheelsucker has a point, which I was trying to make further up.

        If sponsors can be accused of ‘green washing’ (which the esteemed Inner Ring has touched on previously) and other forms of buying a good image, then what about races like Qatar.

        If the human rights record might not be a concern for the riders, then why are the winter Olympic athletes copping so much at Sochi?

        Taylor Phinney might be more interested Instagramming photos of his hair, but I would argue there are a fair few in the professional peloton who might care.

      • It’s not like Saudi is far away the worst in its treatment of women. People like to think Dubai is a westernised place worthy of visiting or working in too.

        In June last year a Norwegian woman working as an interior designer in Dubai, was raped by a colleague on a work conference. As she escaped, she reported the rape to police, but was arrested and held for four days on suspicion of the crime of sex outside of marriage. She received a sentence of 16 months in prison, 3 months more than her attacker.

        Just keep riding you professionals, don’t look around you or talk to anyone outside your hotel lobby…

        • In the States they still fry murderers or put them down as we might a dog. In the UK, capital punishment was abolished decades ago. The Tour of California doesn’t get calls to be boycotted.

          Within reason, we have to accept other cultures for what they are no matter how distasteful it might be to individuals.

      • Sorry to hijack the thread, but when suggesting that it is a bed of roses I feel it needs clarification.

        The government may do a fine job of making Qatar the ‘best’ arab country for women’s rights (we’re not talking about a very good group otherwise are we?), but one should mention the fact that Qatar has double the global average for women being imprisoned (13%) despite having a male/female ratio of 3:1.

        Strange no?

        From the Huffington Post: “Sexual violence and imprisonment are facts of life for many of Qatar’s women workers. Largely women from Nepal, India and the Philippines, Qatar’s domestic workers face isolation and exploitation in the world’s richest country”. It seems only the human rights organisations report or care about the issue, I wonder what the women professionals racing there think about the on average 5 Nepalese women per month who are imprisoned for pregnancy out of marriage. the usual circumstances around the arrests you may not care to know.

        Personally I am revolted at the UCI helping promote that country and trumpeting women cyclists in this is tragically ironic. This is a big issue that should not be glossed over. Either don’t mention the racing or be honest about the background here.

  16. Thank you for the contributions. I have been thinking a lot about this overnight, and felt sure that Armitage Shanks was being somewhat naive. I don’t actually know much about either Qatar or Dubai, it is true, and points made about health and cultural attitudes towards sports are both very valid, but I find it hard to believe that Qatari and Dubai women and girls find it easy to choose to cycle as a serious hobby, sport or prefession. Maybe Qatar and Dubai are rather different in this regard?

    I see naturalised African-born female athletes competing under the Qatari flag in track and field, and wonder the same things.

  17. I was listening to the Velocast’s history podcast and they mentioned “hipster cycling” and this sounds just like what they are talking about. I will look out for the race next week.

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