The desert roads stretch onwards, unbroken, for mile after mile. They are clear ahead of us, here in the car of John Lelangue, the Qatari Cycling Federation’s director of sporting operations.
His work is almost complete by the time the seventh edition of the Ladies Tour of Qatar rolls out from the Museum of Islamic Art. He has also been working on the eleventh edition of the men's race almost since the tenth finished, in his second stint as race director.
Lelangue, who worked for 10 years with Jean-Marie Leblanc at ASO before he became Andy Rihs’ general manager at Phonak, later BMC Racing, did much of the logistical work to create the race back in 2001, before the Qatari Cycling Federation was founded.
The opening stage of the 2015 Ladies Tour of Qatar was quiet, if not without incident. pic: Qatar Cycling Federation/Paumer/B.Bade
Lelangue has lived with cycling his entire life, as the son of Bob Lelangue, a former team-mate and later directeur sportif to Eddy Merckx at Molteni. He shared his childhood with Sabrina and Axel Merckx. The garage of the family home near Brussels doubled as the Molteni service course. Lelangue’s mother would serve coffee and tarts as the riders gathered.
A 10-year sojourn from the Tour of Qatar as a directeur sportif coincided with Cadel Evans’ Tour de France victory. He remains close to the Evans, exchanging text messages during last month’s Tour Down Under, and has a fund of stories from the Australian’s career. Victory on the Mur de Huy to win the 2010 Flèche Wallonne in the rainbow stripes of world road race champion is his most cherished memory of his time with Evans.
As the miles pass with the peloton behind, Lelangue's fund of stories from his time "with the teams" is diverting. Evans’ preparation for the Tour-winning, penultimate stage time trial at the 2011 Tour in Grenoble features among them: a career-defining ride for which the pair made a detailed recce of almost every corner to create what a rally car driver would recognise as pace notes. During the time trial, Lelangue did not tell Evans how close he was to stage winner Tony Martin, he confides, fearing that he would try to beat the German, rather than wrest the maillot jaune from the shoulders of Andy Schleck.
"Not a time trialist" Xiu Jie Jiang gave her all in a solo breakaway that was as brave as it was tactically naive. pic: Qatar Cycling Federation/Paumer/B.Bade
The differences between managing a team and a race are vast, he says. Unsurprisingly, the sheer scale of organising an entire race rather than one team competing within it accounts for the greater challenge. A last minute change of hotel for the race's 400 guests failed to derail Lelangue’s smooth organisation.
After an extended a faintly surreal sign-on ceremony, accompanied by boxing-style announcements of the riders, the riders roll out at 2pm on the dot. As he drives past the gleaming towers that line Al Corniche Street, Lelangue admits to feeling nothing more than “fine”. The hard work is done. He can enjoy the race.
The stage is quiet, if not without incident. Two intermediate sprints deliver the anticipated excitement, and there are crashes, too: the first accounting for Maura Kinsella, the second of her Optum Kelly Benefits team to abandon the race after Annie Ewart failed to take the start.
Tiffany Cromwell is a victim of a later crash. The Velocio Sports rider had claimed three bonus seconds by finishing second in the first of the intermediate sprints, but misses the next contest entirely. Shelly Olds (Bigla) claims her second victory in the bonifcations, with Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolman) moving up a place to claim second and three seconds after finishing third in the first sprint.
Intermediate sprints stirred the peloton into action. pic: Qatar Cycling Federation/Paumer/B.Bade
Xiu Jie Jiang (China Chongming LIV) provides interest with a courageous if tactically unwise breakaway shortly after a first hour conducted by the peloton at an interested 43kph. The Chinese rider’s lead extends to 1.20, but as the peloton readies itself for the second intermediate sprint, her brief reign is ended. Her assault is made with hands on drops, rather than with forearms rested on the top of the bars. “She is not a time trialist,” Lelangue observes, with telling understatement.
He decides that there will be no further significant action before the finish, and we drive ahead to Dukhan Beach, where the sun is dropping into the sea and the conditions might accurately be described as perfect. A tent has been erected for the VIPs, carpets abound, and a small crowd gathers at the barriers.
Annalisa Cucinotta leads home her Ale Cipollini team to claim a clear victory, finishing off some impressive organisational work from her team-mates. The Italian squad did not start among the favourites, but ended the first day with Cucinotta in the gold jersey and leader of the points classification, while her team-mate Arianna Fidanza pulled on the White Pearl jersey of best young rider.
Annalisa Cucinotta delivered a convincing if unexpected victory for Ale Cipollini. pic: Qatar Cycling Federation/Paumer/B.Bade
Rouleur threads a hand through a small knot of journalists to proffer a voice recorder as Cucinotta shares her thoughts. “For me, this is a new year, it’s my first race of the year, and I’m very happy,” she says in English. “We are a good team and good friends and this is important, I think.”
“Tomorrow, I think about tomorrow,” she continues, asked about her prospects for a second stage victory. Racing in Qatar is important preparation for the track world championships in Paris. Her four-second lead over fellow Italian Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda) is a lesser concern. Olds, one second behind Bronzini and ‘winner’ of both intermediate sprints, having been the first of the bunch across the line behind Xiang at the second bonification, looks well placed.
Stage two will bring an entirely different finish, Lelangue declares on the journey back to Doha. A circuit at Madinat Al Shamal, in Qatar’s north, will see the peloton change direction during each lap, bringing the wind into play in a fashion absent from the opening stage.
Dowsett received his Aeroad CF SLX the day before the Tour de Suisse. One of the first of the new model to leave Koblenz, it served briefly as the Movistar rider’s training bike (“It was quite novel travelling to races with a bike,” he remembers), but gained its first outing in a competitive fixture: a minor event called the Tour de Suisse. “The first ride on this was at the Tour of Switzerland. I hit 118kph on it in one of the passes. I was very confident in it. I was at home on it straight away.”