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Cycling’s desert races 2015: five conclusions

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Photographs: Bruno Bade - ASO, Bryn Lennon - Getty Images, Joel Hewitt

The new season’s three desert races were wrapped up on Oman’s Matrah Corniche on Sunday. What might be learned?
Another successful women’s race in Qatar, exploding tyres in Oman, and the demise of the off-season present some points for analysis. So too the diverse nature of the three races, and Qatar’s hosting of the World Championships next year.
1) Extreme weather protocol required? Or disc brakes?
The impromptu cancellation of the Tour of Oman’s fifth stage, where the riders came to a halt after a series of heat-induced punctures for the Bardiani team, illustrates the UCI’s need for an extreme weather protocol. A sandstorm had already forced the race to abandon its intended start location in Al Sawadi Beach. Matters were resolved before the descent of Bouscher Al Amerat by strong leadership from the riders, headed by Fabian Cancellara, to the chagrin of race organiser Eddy Merckx. Situations of this sort, however, should not be reduced to a stand off. The UCI’s commissaires, present in Oman, should have been empowered by regulation to make the same decision.

Weather alone did not force the cancellation of stage five, however. It could also be argued that the problem was one of machinery, rather than temperature. Only Bardiani suffered punctures: the result of heat transferred from carbon rim to tyre under braking. 1 understands that some of the peloton were keen to race on and that Joaquim Rodriguez suggested placing his Katusha team’s Mavic wheels at Bardiani’s disposal.
The most sophisticated carbon wheels have brake tracks that dissipate heat, but it is a challenge even for the most advanced designs. This is the issue driving a move to disc brakes on road bikes in the consumer market – technology denied to the professionals. Events in Oman should inspire the UCI to consider its technical regulations as well as an extreme weather protocol.
2) Professionalism not doping creates peloton à deux vitesses at the Ladies Tour of Qatar
It’s hard to fault the analysis of Veloccio-SRAM manager Ronny Lauke, that by staging a women’s race on the same day as a men’s, the former is relegated to the status of warm-up. The Ladies Tour of Qatar might be taken as an example of how separate scheduling is to the advantage of both. When the seventh edition of the race on the Doha Corniche, Armitstead, Hoskings, van Dijk et al rightly claimed centre stage.

The gulf in class between the aforementioned and some of their competitors, however, proved that while developing fast, the women’s sport has someway to go before its peloton matches the strength in depth of the men’s. This is not a matter of speed or power, but of skill and experience, and – here Lauke is right again – of professionalism. When more of the most talented female riders receive the financial backing to train full time, the overall standard of the sport will rise.
The business of attracting such backing represents a chicken-and-egg scenario. No sport can demand the largesse of sponsors, as even the WorldTour squads will tell you. The show must be sufficiently engaging. In Armitstead, van Dijk, Emma Johannson, Tiffany Cromwell, Trixi Worrack and others, the LToQ peloton had world class athletes engaged in exciting battles, while at the back of the pack, some of the riders were still mastering the basic skills of moving through the convoy and taking a bidon from the team car.
The Classics season is almost upon us and events such as the women’s Ronde Van Vlaanderern and La Fleche Wallonne Feminine will pit the best female riders in the world against each other. By holding them on separate weekends from the men’s races, however, the female peloton would not have to share the spotlight, and the advantages to sponsors would be more apparent.
3) The demise of the off-season
In case you hadn’t noticed, the off-season is dead. Sean Yates puts it well. “As soon as you get one guy who puts in 10,000km in the winter, and kicks everybody’s arse, the next year 20 percent of the peloton are training. Then the remaining 80 per cent says, hang on, I’m not going to have that again, and pretty soon everyone comes to the first race in top shape.”

No single rider exemplifies the trend better than Alejandro Valverde. The Movistar leader began his season by winning a stage of the Challenge Mallorca event in January, before heading directly to the Middle East to compete in the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman. The Spaniard acquitted himself well in each, finishing fourth overall in Dubai and third in Oman after podium finishes on stages two, three and four. Astana’s Andrea Guardini might be taken as another example. The sprinter came agonisingly close to stage victories at the Dubai Tour before taking the longed for victory on the opening stage of the Tour of Oman.
The increasing globalisation of the professional calendar means the sport no longer has to wait until the weather improves in Europe before the racing can begin. This has been the case for some time with the Tour Down Under, but the desert races have filled an obvious hole in the WorldTour programme. Abu Dhabi will join the party this season with a race in October. The idea of an off-season is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.
4) Not all desert races are the same
The early-season races in Qatar and Oman, and, more recently, in Dubai, have come to be known collectively as the ‘desert races’, but the phrase does not do total justice to the diversity of the parcours, or the intensity of the racing. Qatar is flat, windy, and hard – little wonder that Classics contenders descend upon Doha en masse.

Oman, by contrast, is relaxed but rolling, and, in the case of Green Mountain, downright vertiginous. The race suffered this year from an absence of live television coverage: an own goal on the part of the organisers, who had a beautiful country to showcase. The rolling road through the mountains to the finish at Al Bustan on stage two offered epic views and a thrilling finish. Velon’s ambitions for bikes on cameras would be well realised in Oman.
Dubai is but a baby, but in the organisers’ willingness to experiment – replacing the opening stage time trial of the inaugural race with an uphill finish in Hatta Dam for this year’s second edition – is showing the right intent. A mid-race team time trial to complement finishes sutiable for 1s and for sprinters might add further spice.
5) Cycling joins Qatar’s world championships party
Lost amid the furore surrounding Qatar’s hosting of football’s World Cup finals in 2022 is that it is only the latest in a long line of sports to have said yes to Doha, following handball, swimming, golf and tennis. Cycling will join the party in October 2016.

The UCI and the Qatar Cycling Federation face their greatest challenge in exciting interest among the indigenous population. Qatar is a sparsely populated country of full employment and the prospect of spectators stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the roadside is unlikely, still less on a weekday, but the crowds on the Doha Corniche for the final stages of both the ladies and men’s races showed potential.
Organisers are predicting crowds of 450,000 for the World Championships, and while most are likely to be visitors or from the expat community, it is a significant opportunity to plant a seed of inspiration among the Qatari people, one that should not be squandered.

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