A white sun hangs in a brilliant blue sky above the glittering towers that line one side of the Doha Corniche. On the other, powerboats skim across turquoise seas at impressive speed.
On this final day of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, the bay is a backdrop for an elegantly simple dias: a ramp, surrounded on three sides by spectators and media, which rises at a low pitch to a traditional, open-sided wooden structure, beneath which the winners receive their prizes.
With presentations made, Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), resplendent in gold jersey, gingerly makes her way down the ramp to the waiting media, still in her cleats. The narrow strip of fabric that separates riders from spectators is removed and those who have provided the entertainment are soon surrounded by their public. There is little doubt that the girls are the stars of the show. The men’s Tour of Qatar starts on Sunday, but there is no sense that this seventh edition of the women’s event has been a warm up.
The next race for many of the women’s teams will be Het Nieuwsblad, and while the Belgian semi-Classic will offer the prestige of history, it is unlikely to bestow the warm glow of the spotlight upon its female competitors.
“It will be different,” Ronnie Lauke, directeur sportif of Velocio-SRAM, observes. “It’s nice to do those Monument races that have a history, that have a tradition. But in my opinion, it’s a mistake to think that we have to be attached to those races to grow the sport.”
He praises the effort and investment of the organisers of events like the women’s Tour of Flanders and La Course. But he believes that the women’s sport should be sold on its own merit, to avoid the status of sideshow.
“Our opinion in this team is that you need to create a unique sport. That is more sustainable and that attracts more people. At combined races, they [the public] are waiting for the men’s race. They understand what’s going on, but they are not following it. The copy is never as good at the original. We need to be aware that our sport is unique.”
The desert road from the Sealine Beach Resort to Doha is long, straight and rarely troubled by corners or climbs. A block headwind slows the peloton. The occasional crash or puncture is all that animates the race on its slow transit to the Qatari capital. The crosswinds that created a dynamic second stage are absent. The final stage does not ignite until the immaculate Doha Corniche is reached.
For Velocio-SRAM, the race has been a quiet affair. They have come with the objective of a stage victory, but despite a second place on the second stage for Trixi Worrack, the first of the breakaway home after Ellen Van Dijk (Boels Dolmans) escaped in the final 500 metres into Madinat Al Shamal, it has been a low-key start to the season.
The German squad has a comparatively new title, but is well established. Founded as T-Mobile Women, it became the women’s division of the phenomenally successful HTC squad, and later transmogrified into Specialized-Lululemon when the communications giant left cycling. The team now has new, high-profile sponsors and a useful balance of experienced riders and developing talent.
Velocio Sports is owned by Kristy Scrymgeour, formerly communications chief at Highroad Sports, and the owner of the cycle clothing brand from which the cycling team takes its name. To Lauke’s knowledge, the team is unique in enjoying title sponsorship from SRAM, one of cycling’s ‘big three’ component manufacturers. Their bicycles come from Cervelo, another brand with a tradition in the women’s sport
Sponsors are not easy to find, Lauke says, repeating a refrain familiar to any who work in cycling. He returns to the theme of creating a unique story, as important to a team as to the wider sport. He points to the kit: a departure from the garish collection of sponsor’s logos typical of a professional cyclist’s wardrobe. It is a design that places the team above its backers.
By the standards of the sport, Velocio-SRAM is well resourced. It has a squad of 10 riders, and Lauke is one of two directeur sportifs, sharing duties with Beth Duryea. It operates from a service course near Leipzig, staffed by two mechanics, and can number two soigneurs among its non-riding staff.
For Lauke, the style in which his team races is as important as the result. Velocio-SRAM should leave a “footprint” by racing aggressively, he believes. The domestique should be given a chance to shine, as well as the leader.
The absence of race radio places a greater emphasis on tactical knowledge, and here he looks to his road captains: Tiffany Cromwell, Lisa Brennaur, and Trixi Worrack. “If the girls deliver a perfect bike race without me having said anything, then I have done my job.”
Little that has occurred on the run in to Doha will provoke comment, but his riders play their part in delivering an exciting finale on the Corniche. Belarusian champion Elena Amialiusik attacks on one of the five closing circuits and another new signing, Barbara Guarischi, rounds out the final stage podium by finishing third in the bunch kick.
The team flies home hours later, the first race of the season completed. Het Nieuwsblad will come next, but the Ladies Tour of Qatar has provided further evidence that it is in cycling’s new races that the women’s sport can write its own history. In Armitstead, the race has a new champion with an international profile: an Olympic silver medalist and reigning women’s World Cup holder, no less.
If Lauke is also correct in his assertion that the greatest appeal of any sport is aspirational – the power of association that draws spectator to athlete – then Doha has provided a highly attractive showcase for women’s cycling. The one-day break before the men’s race is enough to grant parity. By staging the two races separately, the organisers have avoided making the women’s race a distraction from the men’s, which, in Lauke’s view, is a regrettable consequence of combined events.
“The majority of the top 20 riders in the world rankings have similar skills to good ProTour riders,” he concludes. “They have a good tactical understanding, good bike handling skills. A race might end up 2kmh or 2.5kmh slower, but overall, the women are creating exciting bike races. They are committed to what they do. They do it 100 per cent, without exception. They live for the sport.”