The fourteenth Tour of Qatar delivered another victory for Niki Terpstra and another victory for Ettix-Quick-Step.
Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff won three stages, and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) won the white jersey after another admirably consistent display that lacked nothing but a stage victory. Young Irishman Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) rocked the sprinting hierarchy with an emphatic, final stage win. And when the wind blew, the excitement began.
As is often the case, however, the real story of a race lies beyond the top line. Can Terpstra repeat his Qatar-Roubaix double of last season, as team-mate Tom Boonen did on three previous occasions? After a career-defining campaign in 2014, has Terpstra acquired a wining habit, and has Kristoff, another who won a Monument Classic last season? Sagan oozes star quality and was the most popular rider in Doha by far, but is consistency a satisfactory substitute for victory? Would a place on the WorldTour calendar boost the Tour of Qatar’s credibility? And what might Bennett achieve if selected for the Tour?
Sam Bennett is ready
Sam Bennett’s emphatic victory on the final stage of the Tour of Qatar may represent a coming of age for the young Irishman. A stage win at the Tour of Britain with the Continental An Post-CRC squad was impressive, but comprehensively defeating a field containing Kristoff, Sagan, Hausler et al is another matter. Little wonder that he regards the victory as the greatest of his career to date or that he cherishes it chiefly for its accomplishment at the expense of such a high-quality field.
He spoke afterwards of self-imposed pressure to gain victories for his team, and his hunger for success is admirable. The 24-year-old will aim for Tour de France selection this season, having missed out last year. Bennett would represent an exciting addition to the peloton’s small constituency of the truly fast. He would not be expected to shake the hegemony of Kittel and Cavendish, perhaps, but his acceleration on the Doha Corniche leaves little doubt that he could deliver a top five finish, or perhaps more if the sprint trains of his more accomplished rivals falter.
The Tour of Qatar deserves a place in the WorldTour
If the Tour of Qatar was held in cycling’s European heartland, it would be recognised as unique and one of the hardest races in the sport. A combination of its geographical location, sparse crowds and a position on the early-season calendar can lead the causal observer to dismiss the race as little more than warm weather training. Ask any of the riders who have just completed a week in the Qatari desert and they will say differently.
The fierce desert wind shreds peloton when it comes from the side and propels the riders at outrageous speeds when it hits them from behind. The skill of riding in an echelon is a must-have and crashes in the scramble for position are almost inevitable. Few who rode in stage two of this year’s race, when a brutal first hour conducted at 55kph was engulfed in a sandstorm, will forget the experience quickly. The only criticism is that the race is overly-dependant on the wind.
The Tour of Qatar is now in its fourteenth year. Would a place on the WorldTour calendar cement its credibility? John Lelangue, director of sporting operations for the Qatar Cycling Federation, is not unduly concerned by the race’s classification (it is already 2.HC), and while the best teams continue to come to Qatar by choice rather than compulsion, he has no reason to be. WorldTour status might have a more subtle implication, however, enhancing the status of the race in the perception of the broader cycling public.
Winning is a habit
Confidence is a preference for Messers Terpstra and Kristoff, the two most successful riders in the fourteenth Tour of Qatar. Both reached new heights last season, adding Monument Classic victories to already decorated CVs, and both arrived in Doha with victory marked as the expected outcome, rather than a desirable one. Kristoff won three stages, while defending champion Terpstra topped the general classification after winning the stage three time trial and never looked back.
Attention will inevitably turn to their prospects for repeat victories in the Spring Classics, particularly in Terpstra’s case, where he is likely to start Roubaix as a member of the strongest team and with the inheritance of an unlikely tradition started by his team-mate Tom Boonen, who claimed three of his four Paris-Roubaix titles in years in which he had first won the Tour of Qatar. Terpstra completed the same improbable double last season. Can he do so again?
Quick-Step, twinned with Qatar
Quick-Step extended its lease on the top step of the Doha podium with a second victory in as many years for Niki Terpstra. Regardless of whom Quick-Step sends to Qatar, victory is the inevitable outcome. Mark Cavendish was drafted in as a late substitute for four-time winner Tom Boonen in 2013 and left with the gold jersey. Terpstra now has two.
If winning is a habit for the peloton’s most successful riders, then the same is indisputably true of its best teams. Ettix- Quick-Step began the 2015 campaign at the Tour de San Luis with stage victories for Cavendish. The Manxman went one better at the Dubai Tour winning a stage and the GC, and now Terpstra has continued a fine tradition in Qatar. Such early success may only be a feature of a team from whom peak season is Spring, rather than July, but such consistency has gained vastly more rewards than Team Sky’s Tour-or-bust philosophy.
Sagan is a star
The biggest cheer at the post-race presentations on the Doha Corniche came for a man who hadn’t won a stage, far less the general classification. The pearl white jersey of young rider seems scant reward for Peter Sagan’s outrageous talent, but he is a carefree soul, unlikely to be troubled by such details.
There is a growing sense, however, that this year Sagan must translate his talent to victories. His first race with Tinkoff-Saxo continued his recent form at Cannondale. Five top five finishes from six stages in Qatar, including two second places, show he has retained his admirable consistency, and when the levee finally breaks, the victories will surely flow as they did in 2012, when he could barely keep from winning.
For now, Sagan must content himself with the unofficial title of the peloton’s coolest. Off-the-bike, the less he tries, the more the public love him. He oozes star quality and was quickly surrounded on the Doha Corniche.