Going to Qatar must be a harsh awakening for the women's peloton. Right from the start, except for the aussies and assorted others who have started their season with some summer racing Down Under, you get thrown into a four stage race that pretty much goes straight into the gutter from Km 0. There is no subtlety in Qatar. It's four flat stages that offer two things, crosswinds more often than not and sprint finishes for those that can hang on to the front group. More often than not it has also been Kirsten Wild who has led the bunch home in those sprintfinishes but not so this year. The Dutch four-time winner of the race will not be here unfortunately but instead focusing on her preparation for the Track (Omnium) World Championships. Her fighting spirit and dominant riding will be missed but it also opens up the race.
In short it means the door is open for some of the other top sprinters. Bronzini is here, Chloe Hosking (unlucky last year) is here, Jolien D'Hoore is here as is Shelley Olds, Barbara Guarischi and Wild's former teammates Amy Pieters and Lucy Garner. Absurdly the three first named there are all on the same Wiggle-Honda team. Good luck DSing your way out of that pecking-order problem....
Pieters was on fire here last year and could have won had she not been working for Wild. She has the killer combo of classics toughness and a fast finish that perhaps makes her the no 1 favorite this time around. Along with young sprinter Garner, who may be posed to take a step up to the top level in her second pro year, Liv-Plantur look set to succeed even without Wild. Pieters is not the only strong allrounder though as for example Orica have Emma Johansson and Gracie Elvin here. If the aussies continue their, last year not-so-succesful, tactic of trying to bust the race apart at every opportunity those two might be the main beneficiaries. Maybe they've drawn conclusions from last year and will try a different strategy this time? It was almost painful, but funny, to witness their constant futile tries last year. Either way they have class riders, including their Dutch roadcaptain supreme, Loes Gunnewijk to direct any crosswinds action.
There's also Elisa Longo Borghini, Ellen van Dijk, Lizzie Armitstead, Lisa Brennauer, Tiff Cromwell, Alena Amialiusik and Rossella Ratto in case the race is ridden hard and the sprinters get shredded. Van Dijk has won the race in her HTC days and has enough of a sprint to be a factor again and Brennauer is pretty much perfectly built for Qatar success. Who's in form at this early point remains to be seen though. A handful of the ones just mentioned will likely show themselves not yet fit and out of contention after stage 1 but guessing who is about as easy as finding a KOM point in Doha. It's unlikely you win Qatar without at least a decent sprint but the list of candidates has been trimmed down some years by a small successful breakaway in the windy conditions. Anyone who can't stay at the front, either by themselves or with the help of a strong team, won't be a winner overall for sure. Bronzini for example usually struggles to stay in contention, as good a rider as she is.
Live video is looking a bit dodgy at the moment but all the stages are being streamed live so we should be able to see it somehow. We'll see tomorrow just how much. The first stage starts at 11:45 CET tomorrow Tuesday, a good guess is that they go live sometime around 13:00 CET or a bit later. We'll try and post links in the live thread as we find them. It might be that it will take a VPN or Hola or similar to access it depending on how lucky we get.