Tom Boonen sprinted into a headwind to take stage 5 of the Tour of Qatar after a 14-man echelon was swept up in the closing kilometers. Katusha’s Danilo Napolitano took second ahead of Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Race leader Wouter Mol, who had made the select 14-man echelon, crossed the line safely in the front group to all but secure his overall win ahead of the final day’s flat circuit finish.
Cervélo’s Theo Bos again fired the first shot in the sprint, jumping a bit too early as he did the day before. Bos had tried to connect with teammate Heinrich Haussler to lead him out, but was unable to do so and decided to go for it himself.
“It was way too early,” said Bos, a five-time world champion on the track. “The matter is I have to become a road cyclist more. I’m still too much a 100-meter sprinter. I have to become more of an endurance athlete. And now of course I don’t know what to do – do I go, do I wait? But anyway our first sprinter is Heinrich. My job is to get him in the front.”
After the finish, Haussler, who still holds the points jersey, was not too happy with himself. “I stuffed it,” he said.
The race north
The winds picked up slightly from the last two days where no group could split away. Midway through the 142km stage from Lusail to the northern coast of Qatar at the port of Madinat Al Shamal, teams like Cervélo, Quick Step and Saxo Bank set to driving echelons when the peloton turned into a crosswind on the barren, open roads. But the winds were not quite strong enough to facilitate any immediate damage. The peloton would stretch into a thin line, the flat-backed riders at the front tucked diagonal across the road, then it would all compress back into a larger bunch as the efforts failed.
After the second intermediate sprint, however, cracks began to form. Fabian Cancellara and his Saxo Bank teammates pushed the pace at the front, only allowing the echelon half the width of the road, and forcing the rest into the gutter. Riders elbowed and leaned into each other, scrapping for the last centimeters of protected road that ended in deep sand and sharp rocks.
With other teams eager to initiate a split — and hopefully separate Mol from the front group and thereby his gold jersey — a front echelon finally pulled clear of the peloton.
Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady were there for Saxo. Mol was isolated, but present. John Murphy and Marcus Burghardt flew BMC’s flag in the move. And Liquigas had three men with Daniel Oss, Danieli Bennati and Manuel Quinziato. Other riders in the selection included Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Roger Hammond and Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo), Martin Kluge (Milram), Sebastian Hinault (AG2R) and Sep Vanderbergh (Topsport).
As the realization set in that they were free, the competitors shifted modes from trying to shed one another to cooperating efficiently in a double paceline. Behind, the chasing pack couldn’t keep a steady pace, and the gap ebbed and flowed. With nothing in the landscape to hide behind, the 14-man move remained tantalizingly close to the chasing group, which contained many teams’ GC riders.
With crosswinds still buffeting the race, there wasn’t quite enough room for everyone up front. Soon, Boonen was spit out the back, then Haussler.
With 15km to go, the front group kept on.
Rolling the dice
With 3km to go, and the chase closing behind, Liquigas began sending one man at a time up the road. Oss was the first to take a flyer from the front group. Cancellara neutralized it, and then Quinziato countered and opened a small gap. Murphy took that as an opportunity to attack, too, and came up and over Quinziato.
“Everyone was just watching, so I attacked,” Murphy said. “I was trying to force the rest of the guys to chase me so Marcus could have a free ride in. Otherwise we were just sitting there, losing time to the chase group.”
Behind, the chase caught the front group and the battle for sprint positioning on the narrow road began.
As the road turned due north into the finishing straight, Murphy hit a solid headwind and the group swept him up. The group jostled, Bos opened the sprint and Boonen closed it.
With a single day remaining with six finishing circuits along the Doha Corniche, Boonen conceded that the race for the overall was over. Mol leads stage 2 breakaway companion Geert Steurs (Topsport) on the general classification by 9 seconds, with Boonen in third overall at 1:55 back.
Boonen said he wasn’t disappointed with his Tour of Qatar. “It’s always better to expect nothing and get something in return,” he said, pointing out that he was the best-placed rider overall after the two men who were let go on stage 2. “The best of the rest, eh? But no, I am very satisfied.”
Mol gave credit to his teammates for what he sees as a sure overall win, and also for ensuring that he made the front group on stage 5.
“It was very hard for them, but easy for me; I only needed to steer,” he said. “It was an incredible job by my teammates. They are really strong. I can’t lose here.”