Previously the women's season used to kick off with two big races outside Europe, Qatar and Tour of New Zealand. With the latter getting cancelled this year due to cost increases in dopingtests it's encouraging that the other faraway early-season race, the Ladies Tour of Qatar, is bucking the trend and actually extending the race this year. For years it has provided an exceptionally well organized race that offers great conditions for women's teams and this year they have added another stage to the race as well. The first of four stages starts off on Tuesday and then the 2013 season is truly under way.
The race will feature 11 of the biggest UCI teams plus 4 national teams and is, just as the men's race, a flat and windy race for the sprinters and the strong rouleurs. The winner tends to be a rider that consistently makes the front group as the race repeatedly splits in the desert crosswinds-racing. Last year Specialized-lululemon dominated together with the now retired Judith Arndt of GreenEdge. Arndt went on to win two more stageraces, Tour of Flanders and a World Championship before ending her career which is just unreal.
Taking Arndt's place on Orica-AIS this year as the designated foreign star is Swede Emma Johansson, who together with Arndt has been the major threat to the dutch hegemony (oh yeah, it's already a reality in women's racing). Her 2012 season never really got off the ground after a nasty head-on collision with two cars on Gran Canaria in the pre-season. Despite recovering from a double collarbone break she still managed to end up 4th in our FSA DS rider ranking (3rd on CQ) but she missed out in both of her major objectives, Worlds and Olympics, and her favorite race Flanders was a dud too. She did however pull off some pretty amazing stats for someone who ha a disappointing season and that is probably why Orica have high hopes for her if she can get a mental boost from the change of scenery. This will be Johansson's first time racing Qatar just as it will be for Orica's newly crowned aussie champion Gracie Elvin who will be an exciting rider to watch for 2013. Elvin is another one of the successful mountainbikers who have turned to the road for new challenges. She already made her presence known at the end of last season and with time she could very well be the australian winner Orica is looking for to help build excitement around the project.
The departure of Johansson opened up some new opportunities at her old team, Norwegian Hitec Products - UCK. They have among others things elected to bring on two riders from Specialized-lululemon who will both make their debuts in Qatar. Chloe Hosking is the strong sprinter who is hoping to take a step out from under Ina Teutensberg's shadow given the chance to rider for herself in the major races and she is bringing along her friend and powerful support rider Emilia Fahlin. Combine them with the Norwegian talent Emilie Moberg (who will not be in Qatar) and Hitec are looking like quite a threat for the sprints this season. The star status on the team now quite clearly goes to Elisa Longo Borghini, last years winner of the youth jersey at the Giro Donne and also the only woman capable of going with Marianne Vos on the Cauberg, a feat that ended up earning her a bronze at Worlds. Longo Borghini will also start her season in Qatar but her main goal this year will probably be to improve even more in the Giro so she won't necessarily be competitive already now.
Changes are the theme at Tibco-To The Top who are coming with a new manager and some very high profile new riders. Manel Lacambra is making a return to team-management after a year away from it. With him he has brought two of his "old" riders Shelley Olds and Claudia Häusler. Häusler is a former GiroDonne winner who has struggled to find that level since leaving Cervélo but maybe Tibco will be where she does? Olds has to be the unluckiest rider of 2012 flatting out of an almost certain medal at the Olympics and DNFing at Worlds. She did win her first World Cup race in Chongming Island though so she comes into 2013 knowing she can compete with the biggest names. Also racing for Tibco for the first time this week is strong rouleur Chantal Blaak and combined with Olds they could provide the team with a lethal double-punch. It will be interesting to see what kind of international schedule Tibco will be doing this year, they certainly have the team to mix it up with the best of the european teams.
Another team starting in Qatar with interesting developments is Argos-Shimano, the sister team of the World Tour men's team. They have strengthened their squad by picking up supersprinter Kirsten Wild ho has been a prodigious winner on both Cervélo TT and the now disbanded AA Drinks. After a 2012 season with a split track/road focus for the Olympic year she can now perhaps go back to her sprint-winning ways on the talented dutch squad. Hopefully she might also work as a mentor for double junior World champ Lucy Garner as she makes her transition into the elite ranks. Closer to an elite breakthrough is perhaps dutch Amy Pieters who is a young allrounder who keeps putting in impressive results in the bigger races. 2013 could be her big year and she too will be riding this week.
Most eyes in Qatar will no doubt be on the team-debut of Wiggle-Honda, the Rochelle Gilmore project that is heavily backed by British cycling. Gilmore has built what already looks like an impressively professional outfit at least as far as public relations goes and they have a three year sponsor commitment to work with . On the road it remains to see what they can achieve though. The squad is very realistically built with a deliberately limited focus. Instead of trying to find riders for everything they have focused on assembling a group of riders who can do well in the sprints and one day races. Double World Champion Giorgia Bronzini, kiwi Emily Collins and perhaps Gilmore herself are riders capable of producing wins and they will have some strong backing. Much of the best of Britain's track talents have found a home at Wiggle-Honda, most notably the golden girl Lauren Trott. All of them strong riders but ultimately unproven on the road so the learning curve will no doubt be steep for them and it remains to be seen what their potential really is. Qatar should suit this team though but they may not have had much time to get their ducks in a row, having just had their first team gettogether last week.
Hopefully there will be some videoreports from the race during the week, if nothing else we should get some comedy camel-shots or some inventive packing-advice from the Orica girls.
MAJOR UPDATE: It was just announced that Al Jazeera will be streaming the race live so with any luck this will actually be available for all to see. Quite the rare event for a women's race. Don't miss it.