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Reporter’s notebook: Why race in the desert?

DUBAI (VN) — A column of lactate-filled echelons sandblasts across a massive highway, each diagonal strip of color bursting against shades of beige. It’s brutal, windy, and mostly flat, with few fans and fewer climbs.

The Dubai Tour and its Gulf-region siblings, the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman, have in short order become staples of the winter season, bridging the gap between the WorldTour opener in Australia and the first major European races. They are incongruous contests in incongruous places; no more organic to cycling than these gleaming host cities are to the pale deserts they’ve sprung out of.

And yet the riders come. Why?

For the sun.

Lars Boom sits on a flat-white folding chair under a white awning inside a small, white building temporarily erected for his Astana team by the race organization. He’s just jumped off a golf cart driven by a jovial African man with long braids who yells “Schumacher!” as he whips around corners, much to the rider’s delight. The cart ferries riders from the Westin, perhaps 500 meters away, to this start paddock, where Boom is now applying a liberal dose of sunscreen.

“Good to be here. In Holland in really cold and shit weather, it’s a good thing to be in the sun, the bad thing is you miss your family,” Boom said. “But here, it’s really good.”

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) tucks into a narrow block of shade thrown by a sponsor-covered banner, the backdrop of earlier video interviews. He is sitting on his top tube, halfway between the Dubai marina, which is quickly filling with multi-million dollar yachts for next week’s boat show, and the four-star Westin Hotel, full of Western businessmen and well-off British families, waiting for the start of the Dubai Tour’s second stage.

“I’m in a good mood. Just happy to be here and have some sun,” Degenkolb said. “The German winter was not so good this year. I’m just enjoying right now and looking forward to the races.”

For the form.

Degenkolb collapses, heaving, 50 meters after the finish line atop Hatta Dam, curling up like a child under assault. He has won the third stage of the Dubai Tour — a brutal, 200-meter kick of at least 20 percent that the versatile German sprinter rode in the big ring. Such is his pain, utter oxygen deprivation, that he swats at his soigneur as he reaches down to remove his helmet. Let the man gasp in peace. The day was long, 205 kilometers, hilly toward the end, with that finish kick.

“It’s good to race longer. There’s also an opportunity to go one hour on the bike before or after on a stage to practice some endurance for the classics,” Degenkolb said.

On the drive back to Dubai from Hatta, through towns full of strong looking men in dirty taubs who stop for a moment from their tasks under diesel engines to stare at this bright convoy, I spot Johan Vansummeren, the 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner now riding with Ag2r La Mondiale, motorpacing behind his Audi team car along the shoulder of an eight-lane highway. An extra 100km, practicing some endurance. Today is now longer than Roubaix.

“I like it a lot. You’ve got the speed. Yesterday we really had the intensity. The body suffers so much less than when you’re riding [Etoile de] Besseges in the cold,” Vansummeren said. “The muscles get more supple because of the warmth. I think it’s one of the best preparations.”

For the money.

The expat community here is large. They fill the few bars and are vital to the hum of business that keeps the towering skyline in good order. This race is not for the truck drivers who gawked at the roadside on the way to Hatta. It is for the world, to prove that these nations, too frequently lumped in with more violent neighbors, are clean, safe, prosperous, and stable.

Tom Last, a presenter for the Global Cycling Network, stands between two palm trees on a patch of grass so green it hurts the eyes. Around him flows a small swarm of spectators that look quite a lot like him.

“It’s like a start of the Tour of Britain, but with sun,” Last said.

Lorenzo Giorgetti sits behind a folding table draped in blue, covered in TV microphones and reporters’ iPhones set on “record.” To his left is a relaxed-looking Mark Cavendish, fresh off his final stage victory. This is the last press conference, an hour after a stage finish at the foot of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. On the other side of the British rider is Saeed Hareb, the man responsible for bringing this race to Dubai. The group is looking forward at the dozen international journalists flown in for the occasion and to a revised UCI calendar that could bring increased importance for this still small race.

“I think that we will know in 2017 what rules will set the new standards in UCI professional races,” Giorgetti said. “I know the UCI is talking to riders, teams and organizers but some of the criteria are already clear: they include rider safety, the quality of TV production, and the quality of hospitality. I think that Mark [Cavendish] can witness the level of investment made by the Dubai Sports Council, by booking this wonderful hotel, building an entire paddock, and then engaging the fans and the general public.”

“Our challenge is to be one of the top races in the world. There is no end of possibilities and no end to the dream,” said Hareb. “If you can organize four stages, it’s not more difficult to organize more than 12 stages. We need to grow with what we have. We are not in a hurry, but we want to grow.”

Is it possible that this race could become part of the WorldTour?

“Why not?” Hareb said. “Yes.”

Qatar, the Gulf neighbor, was successful in its bid for the 2016 UCI Road World Championships. The race it holds a week after the Dubai Tour, organized by RCS Sport’s rival ASO, cost an estimated $12 million in 2014, according to Qatar’s Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al Thani.

Was it worth it? “Yes, of course.”

Sun, fitness, hospitality, money. That is why they come.