It’s February, the early season. Up until recent times, riders did not start racing properly until Paris-Nice in March. Now, they have a myriad of races on offer, from Argentina to Australia to Qatar. The idea, though, is that the stages are not so demanding. If they are, it is limited.
Australia and Argentina throw in what they classify as mountain stages, but those climbs would barely be considered a speed bump in a grand tour. Featureless Qatar is unable to offer the same, but it does have wind. Depending on where the race travels in Qatar, it becomes worse.
Just as gradient impacts the climbs of the major tours, so does the road direction in Qatar. One way could be a howling tailwind and the next thing you know, riders are heading into a block headwind or the group is shattered into echelons.
Stage wins and time bonuses are important to winning the overall. A stage win nets 10, six and four seconds, while three, two and one second are on offer at intermediate sprints.
Stage 1: February 3, Katara Cultural Village — Dukhan Beach (145km)
The race has begun from Dukhan, but never finished there along the country’s west coast. The opening stage rolls into town, heads out on the main drag to Fahahil before U-turning back to Dukhan’s beach. In Dukhan, the race changes direction from five to four kilometers out. After the tricky section, the riders head straight towards the beach, into a likely headwind, and turn right 550m from the finish line for the final drag race.
Stage 2: February 4, Al Rufaa TTT (14km)
Al Rufaa hosts a stage, a 14km team time trial, for the first time in the race’s history. The city sits just west of Doha and stages the start finish near its stadium. The leg is out and back on a gently curving road, but before racing back to the line the teams must navigate a tricky exchange over the Al Rufaa Street. The team time trial is the first such test of the season and a Qatari staple.
Stage 3: February 5, Al Wakra — Mesaieed (143km)
The women raced to Mesaieed on Tuesday, when Chloe Hosking won the opening stage. They did not encounter much wind, but that could change for the men when they face two big circuits. In Mesaieed, the finish is simple, with only a roundabout at 1,700m out.
Heinrich Haussler won the same stage last year for Garmin. Boonen (2010) and Greg Van Avermaet (2007) have won here as well, but with the starts in different cities.
Stage 4: February 6, Camel Race Track — Al Khor Corniche (160km)
Mark Cavendish won the same run from the Camel track in Al Sheehaniya to the coast in Al Khor last year. The tension rose through the day and exploded when Filippo Pozzato crashed, abandoned and jeopardized his classics season. Cavendish wove through the bunch and beat Liquigas’ duo of Daniel Oss and Peter Sagan. Like last year, it is the longest stage and may be just as nervous.
Stage 5: Al Zubara Fort — Madinat Al Shamal (154km)
Wind and crashes ripped the field apart before Cancellara clicked on and drilled it last year en route to Madinat Al Shamal. Boonen responded and won the stage. Another classics-like scenario may play out this year along Qatar’s northwest coast before heading into town, this year facing three circuits. The finish is straight, with only a small roundabout at 800m out.
Stage 6: Sealine Beach Resort — Doha Corniche (116.5km)
In the last two years, this stage has produced surprising winners: Arnaud Démare and Andrea Guardini. As with the previous five stages, it is flat and straight, but mostly exposed to wind. This stage travels north along the east coast to the capital city. Once there, riders will complete circuits along the bay, with the final bend at 1,400 meters to race.