An untimely puncture cost Tom Boonen much more than the one-second lead he had over Heinrich Haussler before starting Wednesday’s stage 3 of the Tour of Qatar.
In brutal winds that came from every direction on a circuit completed two and a half times, Boonen was unable to reconnect with the lead echelon after the flat.
He wound up losing more than three minutes to Haussler, who won both the stage and the overall lead.
It was the second consecutive stage win for Haussler. The Australian’s results — he was also second to Boonen in stage 1 — signaled that he is back to form after a difficult 2010 and on track to challenge Boonen and others in the spring classics.
He’s also happy with his half-new squad.
“We had a meeting this morning and we knew exactly what we wanted to do, which was to win the stage and the jersey, and we did it perfect,” he told VeloNews.
On the map, stage 3 looked like any circuit race held in the U.S. Southwest: two and a half laps run clockwise around a big right triangle south of Doha, for a total of 151km. In reality, the race was buffeted by stiff winds and rattled by several road sections littered with big potholes. Some teams would have been better off had they used their Paris-Roubaix tires and wheels.
The race began with a neutral start from a causeway shared with fishing boats. The peloton picked up a tail wind once past Kilometer 0, and the attacks began immediately.
The first group to really get a gap came together on the headwind leg at about km36. Six riders got away and quickly built an enormous lead, hitting 12 minutes for a time. The best-placed rider in the group was TVM’s Stijn Neirynck, at 5:22.
Meanwhile. the chase pack had exploded in the crosswinds, with Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Mark Cavendish (HTC-HighRoad) and Theo Bos (Rabobank) among those caught out. Haussler and Boonen remained with the lead chase group, however.
Cavendish managed to reconnect with the yellow jersey group with about 50km to go, just after the breakaway was reeled in. Cancellara, however, was not able to reconnect and the world time trial champion finished an astounding 27 minutes behind the winner, falling from fourth to 102nd on the GC.
Soon after the break was caught, a group of ten took off, whose best placed rider was FdJ’s Canadian Dom Rollin. That effort built a 50-second lead but came back under pressure from Garmin and Rabobank.
Soon after entering the final crosswind section, Boonen flatted, as did Leopard Trek’s Stuart O’Grady and Tom Stamsnijder.
Boonen chased hard to join the second chase group, but that group was unable to make up ground on the leaders.
“I tried to get back with the second group. Everybody was doing his best, but the guys are in the second group for a reason; it’s not called the second group because they are really good,” Boonen said.
In fact the second group steadily lost ground, with the gap hovering at about 45 seconds for a long while, and then ballooning to over three minutes in the final 10k.
Up front, Haussler had three teammates in the 26-man front group, which contained dangerous sprinters including Cavendish and his on-form teammate Mark Renshaw, Leopard Trek’s Daniele Bennati, Rabobank’s Lars Boom, Rollin and Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha and Jeremy Hunt.
Cavendish, however, lost contact in the final 10k and then Astana’s Simon Clarke took a solo flyer with about 2k to go. Clarke dangled off the front into the final kilometer and was the first by about two bike lengths when the leaders came through a roundabout with 300 meters to go.
Haussler’s team, as in stage 2, brought their speedman to the front in the final kilometer, and he came through the final corner in seventh, behind HTC’s Bernhard Eisel and Rollin. Renshaw was first to kick out, blowing past Clarke. But Haussler again showed he’s the fastest at the end, beating Renshaw and Bennati to the line with plenty of time to celebrate.