Quick Step like things as they are: they don't take on too many riders for odd disciplines like, say, climbing or stage races; they don't rearrange their calendar for the fall Italian season; they don't even change their kit much. Built around their star Tom Boonen, Lefevre's boys like to start ramping up to the Cobbles season in the scorching desert of Qatar, pocketing some change and some wins to launch them through the early season, all the way to the Scheldeprijs. They do this every year.
The Tour of Qatar is perfect for them then: same as it ever was. This year's course covers the same flat roads (not that there are infinite options), starts with the same 6km team time trial that Quick Step won last year, and otherwise promises the same battle with the crosswinds to a nearly inevitable sprint. All good things: crosswinds to a Belgian are like mountains to a Basque. Sprints aren't just a happy ending; they're a discipline that could use a little practice in the spring. And in these tough economic times, who couldn't use a little cash from the region that brought you OPEC?
This year, however, won't be a coronation. Assuming Mark Cavendish is in shape as he claims to be, the ToQ may actually be a great deal of fun. One of the enduring images from 2008 is that of Cavendish sneaking around Boonen as Tornado Tom prematurely celebrates another seemingly inevitable win at the Scheldeprijs. Boonen took it graciously, and we've come to learn that there's no shame in losing to Cavendish, but celebrating too soon is one of those cringe moments every rider would like to forget. Boonen's stupidity then cost him a chance at a face-saving rematch at the Tour de France, though they did face off at the Ster Elektroer in June, splitting a pair of wins. So consider this the first real rematch. Even the TTT won't be a cakewalk, as Columbia will be suiting up the World Time Trial Champion, Bert Grabsch, for his first tour in his new kit. Oh, and if the riders themselves get caught up in the Boonen-Cavendish drama, look for Robert Forster, Danilo Napolitano, Francesco Chicchi, Heinrich Haussler and others to try to come past.
Last year Columbia was the It Team, starting with their success in Australia and rolling downhill from there. Momentum is really all that's at stake in January and February, and Quick Step are first to claim some, at Columbia's expense, no less. A big week for Boonen could launch Lefevre's outfit toward a huge spring; a Cavendish string of victories could undo the TdU results in a hurry. A Forster success could help Milram v2.0 step up quickly. Every winter I want to cover my disdain for the ToQ parcours by pretending that this flat race in the desert is meaningless, but that's really not how Cycling works. It's not quite game on, but it is time to start jockeying for a good starting position.