Many of us have been following the Tour of Qatar this week, on Youtube replays or perhaps the inhumanely-timed live broadcasts. And though nary a word of English has been spoken save for Anthony McCrossan's incessant shouting in the background, we have all shared the identical experience. Namely, we have watched the inevitable litany of plot twists and turns and thought, how does this affect my FSA DS team?
The answer is, a lot. Statistics show that people respond to what they actually get to watch in a bike race, notwithstanding Ursula's effort to turn the sport into a cold, heartless spreadsheet. Riders who succeed in February get picked at a higher rate than they might otherwise, while those sitting on or falling off the back get X'ed out of countless teams. Anyone who crashes is immediately off the list of pickable riders, even if he's destined to return to greatness starting in late March. In short, these races do matter.
Not so much in and of themselves. Even the sheikhs sitting in the VIP tents are fiddling with their FSA DS team on their tablets and phones. Yeah, someone wins and gets to stand on a podium, where they are given dried plants and chump change for their efforts. But what counts most is information. With that, here's a little information... from a guy who has seen one stage live and a lot of replays.
1. Draft Alexander Kristoff. Now.
With his third stage win of the race today, Kristoff made himself the single most compelling story, for those of us who aren't terribly bothered by Niki Terpstra's presence as the overall leader. Kristoff is winning repeatedly, which is nice and is, alone, a decent basis for anticipating a good season from him. But it's how he wins, and who he beats, that is so impressive. Yesterday there was a massive headwind and Kristoff took a slow, grinding sprint over Peter Sagan et al. Today it was less dramatic, but came after crosswinds split the peloton with about 6km to go. This is hard racing, and he's succeeding at the hard part, against Sagan and Boonen, whom he can expect to see in March and April. That counts for something. I had him on my team last year -- even my Editor's League team, proving that blind pigs really do find an occasional acorn -- and he was nails. Considering he is already faster at the end than those two, if the weather in Flanders is not selective enough, Kristoff could be in for a big haul.
2. Don't shy away from Boonen.
Tom Boonen, sole proprietor of the Ronde van Qatar, is looking like a guy who shouldn't be winning bunch sprints, since he mostly doesn't do that anymore. Beyond that, however, he is razor sharp. When the peloton split today, he was on Sagan's hip and knew exactly what to do in the crosswinds. You can discount him a bit since the field is becoming more crowded, but then his price is already discounted after last year's meh-fest, so there you go.
3. Niki Terpstra is probably worth the price.
Sigh. Etixx-Quick Step are always tough to game, since the conversation starts with Boonen, always, which happens to be a great tactic when you secretly plan to end the conversation with someone else. Not that Terpstra's two classics wins last year were ordered from the car, but the Beverwijker had the motive and the opportunity. All well and good. But the reason I'm talking about him today is that he just beat Wiggins and Cancellara in a time trial. Yes, it's February and yes, it was 10km. But there is a pretty long list of high-scoring one-week stage races with a winnable time trial in them, and the ones up north tend to rely entirely on the outcome of the ITT. Translation: Terpstra is in position to score a lot of points in SSSRs. And yeah, the classics too.
4. Lars Boom is... Lars Boom.
A change of teams and an apparent loss of a few pounds has brought Boom into a new season looking... what? Less confidence-inspiring? Surely the powder blue pajamas are worth a 10 percent hit to our collective confidence in him, for starters. Making it worse, Boom got sent home today after drafting team cars. I don't really care about the infraction, but why was he back in the cars? Why was he sitting close to the very bottom of the standings? Why should I expect anything more than his usual forgettable performance in... OK, fine, I'll draft him.
5. Theo Bos goes boom.
Very few riders have crashed out of Qatar, but one you might care about is Theo Bos. Newly signed to MTN-Qhubeka, the SSSR-specialist sprinter and trawler par excellence for forgotten points banged his knee up pretty good in a tumble. Twenty stitches later, he was on his way back home. I'm guessing he won't be worth any stealth points before April, at the earliest.
OK, I think I will actually stop at five. I could go on to say things like Sagan is Sagan, but you knew that already. He has never won anything in Qatar, including in 2012 when he was a god among mortals most of the year (he skipped it in 2013). His track record shows that Sagan doesn't come flying out of the gate in early February, though if he hasn't won by the end of the month, then you might start to worry. He does seem alert and relatively fit, with a nice squad of helpers around him constantly -- all factors suggesting things will go well before long. Oh, and Guillaume Van Kiersbulck looked good in that mini-ITT too. Just sayin.