It is perhaps no coincidence that the two riders who will contest the overall victory on today’s final stage of the Tour of Qatar are brimming with confidence.
Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step), the defending champion and GC leader, and Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, winner of three stages so far, seem to have arrived in Doha with expectations of victory, rather than hope.
Both won Monument Classics last season after laying foundations for victory in the Spring Classics in the desert: Terpstra winning a stage and the overall in Qatar and Kristoff taking a stage in Oman. The rest, as they say, is history.
How important to the business of winning then is a rider’s self-belief? Can it be instilled by the sports director or must the rider trust to himself? Does victory for the individual always represent victory for the team, and if so, will his team-mates feed upon it?
And if sprinters are cycling’s strikers, does the quick man’s confidence plummet during what footballers might describe as a goal drought? Is winning more important for a sprinter than any other style of rider, and what additional pressures do they face?
Rouleur asked Kristoff and Terpstra, as well as some of the men calling the shots at this fourteenth Tour of Qatar: sports directors Wilfried Peeters (Etixx-Quick-Step), Marc Reef (Giant-Alpecin), and Dirk Demol (Trek Factory Racing).
Mind over matter?
Watch Alexander Kristoff cross a hotel lobby, whether it be at a pre-season training camp in Calpe or amid five-star luxury in Doha, and his confidence is unmistakable. The Norwegian knows he is riding well, even this early in the season. How much of his performance in Qatar – three stages victories at the time of writing – lies in his own self-belief?
“I have confidence from last season, definitely,” Kristoff tells Rouleur. “Before, I was never that good in this race, because normally I’m a slow starter, but I’m already good now. I think my whole level is better. “
Confidence is no substitute for conditioning, Peeters warns, especially at the Tour of Qatar. “If you’re not ready, and you come to Qatar, you will be dropped,” he says, bluntly. “You need to be ready physically for sure, but the head is also important. If you’re head is not ready, then you have no concentration. Conditioning comes first, and then the rest.”
His defending champion Terpstra adds that confidence can be a defence against suffering. Believe that you alone are suffering and you are lost, he argues. Ride with confidence, motivation – and crucially – the knowledge that your rivals feel the pain as badly as you do, and you have a chance.
Results help too, of course. “I always believed in my abilities, but I know it now. I have the confidence, but also I know I can do it. That gives good motivation to prepare yourself well, and if the preparation is going well, you think, now it’s going to be ok.”
The rider searching for results can follow training programmes and race plans to the letter, but if the performances do not come, can he look beyond himself for the required self-belief? The sports director can help, Reef believes.
“You can help them believe in themselves and show them what they can reach if they do what they have to do. By giving them insight into their goals and what they can achieve, they see for themselves that it’s achievable.
“With the help of their team-mates in the race – that they are going to work for them – it also gives them a boost. By achieving their goals, their confidence grows.”
If Reef’s Giant-Alpecin squad are the current masters of cycling’s most visible display of team-work – the lead-out train – then Marcel Kittel is also the embodiment of a sporting parallel: that of the football striker and cycling sprinter. Prominent among the thick tome of football clichés is that strikers need goals. By the same token, sprinters need wins.
For Kittel, a loss of form caused by training time lost to a cold last month has left him low. He cut a disconsolate figure after stage four and team-mate Niki Arndt again took up the Giant-Alpecin challenge on stage five.
Reef accepts the analogy. Sprinters are not only explosive “in the legs”, he says, but confident characters, too.
“Marcel is in a situation where he came to Qatar with big expectations,” Reef explains. “Although he was sick, still he had expectations that he could do something here, but when he’s not getting the results that he hopes for, his confidence goes down. But when he wins tomorrow or in the future, his self-confidence will grow.”
Peeters too sees the parallel between sprinter and striker. “When a sprinter like Kristoff wins 20 races, it’s normal. When Niki Terpstra wins five races, its a good season. There’s a difference. Kristoff is the man here, not Kittel. Maybe next week, it will be Kittel.”
Terpstra extends the analogy. If a sprinter is a striker, a rouleur is a number 10, he says.
Win, and the team wins with you
Victory for a rider spreads good vibes throughout the team. All squads live in dread of a barren season and the first victory comes like healing balm. The confidence of all the riders grows, not just the man or woman with their hands in the air.
“We started in Argentina and we won immediately with Cavendish,” Peeters says. “Dubai, with Cavendish. Here, with Niki. Now the guys who are going to Algarve will want also want to win. It spreads through the team.”
Dirk Demol concurs. His Trek Factory Racing team received an early boost with time trial and overall victory for Bob Jungels at Etoile Bessèges. “It always gives confidence,” Demol says. “The longer it takes to get a win, the more difficult it becomes. The same with the teams. A win is a win, and it’s nice once the zero has gone.”