“You gotta get in the cars, Janel! You gotta get in the cars!”
Patrick McCarty has earned a quiet day at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, but three kilometres after rolling out from Al Zubarah Fort any hope of tranquility has been blown across the desert with the delayed arrival of the crosswinds that were expected to animate the opening engagement 24 hours earlier.
His Optum Kelly Benefit Strategies team lost two riders on day one: Annie Ewart failed to take the start and Maura Kinsella is recovering in hospital after breaking two ribs in a crash after the first intermediate sprint. Now he has two riders dropped from a peloton scattered by an early acceleration from some of the strongest riders in the race, and one has to be coaxed through the convoy, encouraged to sprint from bumper to bumper, to use the cars as windbreaks and springboards. It is one of the most dangerous environments in professional sport.
The peloton’s heavyweights have made an early statement of intent after an opening stage in which even some of the riders admitted to having been bored. Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), Amy Peters and Chloe Hosking (Wiggle Honda), four Orica-AIS riders, including Emma Johannson, and Velocio-SRAM’s Tiffany Cromwell are in a leading group of sixteen that swiftly builds a decisive lead.
Those in the bunch, however, can consider themselves fortunate. Riders shelled from the peloton before 10km have passed include gold jersey wearer Analisa Cucinotta (Alé Cipollini), the winner of stage one. McCarty is only concerned with those in OKB colours, however. Janel Holcombe and Alison Tetrick, a new signing, are among those scrabbling to rejoin the peloton. “Ride smooth,” McCarty yells at each, drawing close to the newly-formed chasing group. His offer of bidons is declined. Holcombe’s expression, even behind her reflective glasses, appears shocked.
McCarty has seen all sides of cycling, coming to prominence with the US national team and riding his neo pro season with US Postal before moving to Discovery and, later, Phonak. After successful seasons with SpiderTech and Bissell, and determined not to end his career by sliding further down the ladder, McCarty took a role at Optum, a team with men’s and women’s squads, backed by a Fortune 500 company with sporting interests in American football as well as professional cycling.
There is much for women’s cycling to learn, however, if the sport is to become as competitive as the men’s equivalent, he believes. A window, figurative and literal, is offered on the gap between the two codes as McCarty hands a bidon from the car to one of his riders. She takes it with palm forwards, rather than with hand cupped and palm facing back, foregoing the opportunity of a momentum-building “bottle sling”. McCarty chuckles ruefully. A self-confessed former “bottle runt”, who would pride himself on the speed with which he could drop back to the team car, collect 10 bottles and return to the peloton, he understands better than most the precision required even for this seemingly innocuous task.
“When you’re riding around in a headwind and you’ve got a ninety degree left turn…” McCarty gestures through the glass to the road ahead and the skew of scrambling riders desperately regrouping after being shredded again by the crosswinds. They climb a steep exit ramp from a section of motorway and bank hard left on the road to Madinat Al Shamal to begin the second of four laps of a 13.5km finishing circuit.
The lead group splits into two, and as they cross the line for lap three, the six who have forged ahead begin to ease clear. Soon the gap has increased to nearly a minute. News of their progress crackles across the radio.
As the denouement approaches, only the strongest remain in the lead group: Hosking, Johansson, Armitstead and Boels Dolmans team-mate Ellen Van Dijk, Trixi Worrack (Velocio-SRAM), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda).
Hosking wins the first intermediate sprint, which comes after 72km, with Marta Tagliaferro salvaging something from the day for Alé Cipollini with second, and Emma Johanssen (Orica-AIS) third. Twenty-seven kilometres later, Armitstead wins the final intermediate sprint, ahead of Johansson and Hosking.
With 10km remaining, the gap has extended to 2.05. These are the six who will contest the finish. Van Dijk makes her move in the final half-kilometre. Johansson responds but does not have the legs to catch the flying Dutchwoman. Winner last season of the women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, Van Dijk claims her first victory of 2015, ahead of Worrack and Armitstead, and with it the gold jersey of race leader.
McCarty’s day, however, is not yet done. It will end with an hour’s drive to the Cuban Hospital at Al Rayyan to visit the recovering Kinsella; to discharge her, if he can, or to offer a friendly face if not. The hotel in Doha is a further 90-minute drive away.
There is a wide spectrum of talent in women’s professional cycling, he observes, and it is a discipline still maturing. Some, like those who decided today’s stage, are fully-fledged competitors, equipped with skills equal to their male counterparts. Others are learning their trade, even at this, the highest level of the women’s sport.
He describes his riders as inquisitive, self-motivated and eager to learn. OKB is a professional team, one which delivered Leah Kirchmann to a podium on the Champs-Élysées at the inaugural La Course, no less, but for some within it, there are still the fundamental skills of riding in the convoy and taking a bidon to be mastered.
For all the disparity in ability and experience, McCarty says he finds women’s cycling refreshing. Unlike the men’s sport, it is as yet untainted by scandal and this, he believes, is winning admirers from the sport’s traditional fan base, disenchanted by a seemingly endless tide of doping infractions.
His riders might expect a less challenging encounter on stage three, a 93.5km run from Souq Waqif to Al Khor Corniche, expected to end in a bunch kick. Lessons have been learned today in the desert crosswinds but hopes and ambitions have not been dislodged by their scything currents.