On a plane bound for the Persian Gulf, the peloton sat together on our way to start the season. In an odd contrast of environments we traveled from Paris to Qatar, from the damp gray to the arid sun, from rolling roads in green and brown pastures to straight flat motorways in desert sand. Slowly, cycling is planting its roots in other cultures.
In the airport security line the predicted stars of the coming week, Cavendish and Boonen, chatted quietly. Their rivalry is alive on the bike in the last kilometer but like most of the peloton, away from the races we are friendly. Scattered in the security line were both riders’ lead-out men: the seven riders that will plough through the crosswind, splintering the field and drive the race towards the line. In contrast to their aggression in the last kilometers of the race, where they’ll rub elbows, yell profanity, and grunt as they pedal their bikes with ferocity, they wait quietly and patiently in line for their turn.
The flat roads of Qatar will provide the media with the first big showdown of the new year as Boonen and Cavendish start their seasons. Their rivalry will be one of the stories followed through the season. With maturity gained with racing experience, last year Cavendish overtook Boonen’s dominant powerful sprint with a final quick burst. Cav’s burst of speed has carried him to a new level of status in the peloton and he is a proven winner that can lead a team, and win consistently.
Boonen, who is nearing the status of a veteran with a palmares comparable to the results of the greatest champions, is entering his ninth season. The youthful confidence he had when he rode his first professional races with US Postal in 2002 has been replaced by the same confidence Cavendish is quickly developing. Not only are they both expected to win but they are also idols for millions of fans.
Beside me on the flight sat my teammates Marcus Burghardt and Bert Grabsch. Both Germans, the former a powerful finisher, the latter a muscular time trialist, will help drive the sprint for Cavendish. The Germans are known in the peloton for their work ethic. Never scared to sit on their bikes for half a day, tapping out intervals, and pedaling on the prescribed work load they have both logged thousands of kilometers in the last month riding for more hours than many people work at their office desk.
The East German system they grew up in has hardened them in a way that is foreign to the majority of the peloton. Grabsch confirmed a story that the former East German coaches demanded they ride hometrainers, in front of a brick wall without music or entertainment, for four or more hours, to toughen them mentally.
Before the first race of the season I feel a nervousness that disappears after the finish line is crossed. The sensation is based on the unknown. A race is different than a test in training and, even though I have trained diligently, I need the confidence gained after the first push of the pedals where there is a victory on the line. Like a musician that has practiced for hundreds of hours the only performance that really matters is the one heard by the audience.
Cavendish, my roommate, is equally anxious to race. He has trained well, is fit and thin and is eager to continue where he left off last season.
The hours we have spent training in the desert before Sunday’s race, are tedious. We ride on one of the few roads, a busy highway, for one to two hours, turn around, and head back. Despite the flat desert landscape, the wind, which blows relentlessly across the peninsula, makes the training tough and will determine the outcome of the races. Here we will gain the race rhythm we lack from an off-season of training.
Like a line of loaded down ants working on their hill, dump trucks pass us with frequency as they rumble from a quarry on the outskirts of town to the city center where cranes clutter a hazy skyline. With a recent and rapid influx of money from oil the culture is quickly learning to adapt to new wealth.
The streets and towns eerily lack life, as people seem to either be indoors or in cars. Due to the rapid growth the architecturally remarkable buildings somehow fail to invoke the emotion of iconic modern structures as they contrast the environment.
For the peloton, this season will be unlike any other. There are comebacks that will threaten to overshadow the champions who have blossomed in the last couple of years and there are many young champions who will continue to grow.
The rhythm of the professional cycling has changed in the last three years and it will be interesting to see how the riders coming back to the sport adapt to the changes. No longer do the strongest teams drive the peloton by applying a consistently increasing pressure that slowly eliminates their rivals in small clumps. But now, the speed remains high and the peloton wears thin due to the relentless attacks that persist not because that is the tactic of the day but because everybody believes they have a chance at victory.
We have a team that can adapt to the contrasts. The team has proven it can win sprints, time trials, and stage races. Qatar is our second test as a team this season. The team won in the Tour Down Under, and in the Middle East we have the pressure to win again. Early in the year every race is important as it sets the tone for the season to come.
Canadian Michael Barry is a pro with Team Columbia-High Road and a regular contributor to VeloNews.com