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Qatar: What Is It Good For?

The Tour of Qatar gets underway Sunday, raising the question: so what?

Desert Fashions
Desert Fashions
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

tour of qatar
If you pushed me to name when the cycling season got underway, I would almost certainly answer the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, as homage to my slavish devotion to all things Cobbled. If you held a gun to my head, pointed out that road racing has been going on for nearly two months, in Europe, by then, and asked me the question again... I might say the Tour of Qatar. Sure, things are getting crowded in January/early Feb with a robust Antipodean season and as of last year the Dubai Tour is trying to hone in on some of that sweet Arabian Peninsula action, but for me Qatar will always be a bit special. It harkens back to the earliest days of the PdC, and may very well be the first race we covered in earnest. Its existence and rise coincides with that of Cycling.TV, which was an exciting development before it became a frustrating one. Its bright beginnings were full of pictures of Tom Boonen, draped in rainbows, as well as of riders in tents and on camels, of bright sunshine and newly revealed tattoos, of new kits and the race's very cool leader's jersey. It all felt exotic, and came with just enough crosswinds to work as a legit training race.

But as other races turn up the noise, what does the race stand for? I'd offer one idea: a pretty fair sneak preview into some spring and sprinting action. I'm not going to preview the stages in any detail; they're all pretty straightforward and familiar (sprints with crosswinds, unless the latter negates the former completely). Instead, let's spin through modern Tour of Qatar history and see if we can spot any patterns.


Overall Winner: Tom Boonen

Stage Star: Ditto

Predictive Power: These earlier years aren't as fun to discuss, given what we know now about the sports, um, evolution. But Boonen dominated de Ronde and the rest of the spring slate, at least until a young Swiss rider went on an epic attack in France and the crossing gate came down on Boonen's authority.


Overall Winner: Wilfried Cretskens

Stage Star: Tom Boonen

Predictive Power: Boonen won four of five sprints but it was left to Cretskens to cover a winning break on stage 5. He went from there to a spring campaign which was hardly his finest, but anyone else would consider it a minor rampage: wins at Dwars and E3, third in Sanremo, and sixth in Roubaix. He also won his only points jersey at Le Tour later that summer.


Overall Winner: Tom Boonen

Stage Star: Boonen, sorta

Predictive Power: No fateful breakaway to steal his thunder, Beans takes three of five sprints to seal the deal. But he loses a couple, to Danilo "Unibrow" Napolitano and Alberto Loddo. Things happen... and Boonen wins Paris-Roubaix, though his classics campaign is a disaster until then, and his appetite for the sprints is replaced by an appetite for... what? Mayhem? Cocaine? Anyway, not his finest year. [Napolitano goes on to three more spring wins, decent for him. Loddo, I dunno, not worth blogging about.]


Overall Winner: Boonen

Stage Star: Mark Cavendish

Predictive Power: The torch is passed, at least as far as the fastest human thing, but Boonen continues to win Paris-Roubaix almost out of habit.


Overall Winner: Wouter Mol

Stage Star: Boonen and Francesco Chicchi

Predictive Power: Boonen went on to be a few watts short in his epic running battle with Cancellara as well as in Milano-Sanremo. Chicchi went on to do Chicchi things, winning oh-so-memorable stages of California, Slovenia and Coppi e Bartali.


Overall Winner: Mark Renshaw

Stage Star: Heinrich Haussler

Predictive Power: Haussler looked great in Paris-Nice and was second in the Omloop, but sort of fell apart from there, leading to discussions of his "confidence" at Garmin. Renshaw didn't win again until the Tour of Britain, which is odd since HTC riders were winning races by simply getting out of bed then. [OK, Renshaw probably set up 25 wins that don't show up on his palmares.]


Overall Winner: Boonen

Stage Star: Boonen and Cav

Predictive Power: Uh yeah. Boonen proceeded to go on an historic rampage through the classics, albeit with Cancellara marked into oblivion and then crashing out of Flanders.


Overall Winner: Cavendish

Stage Star: Take a guess

Predictive Power: Freed of both the Rainbow Jersey and the Sky shackles, Cav gets a real team (Boonen's) and completes his most productive season ever.


Overall Winner: Niki Terpstra

Stage Star: Boonen, sorta

Predictive Power: Tombo's two stages landed him the points, so I guess that makes him the top scorer. He then went on to his quietest spring campaign basically ever. Part of the reason is that his teammate Terpstra kept taking off never to be seen again, until the podium ceremony. So we certainly learned a lesson from last year's Qatar, even if it wasn't the one we thought we were learning.


OK, so does this all add up to anything? I'd say yes: it's a pretty good way to predict Tom Boonen's spring campaign. If he's going gangbusters at Qatar, chances are he will keep it up through April, presumably for the simple reason that he's on or ahead of schedule for his spring preparations, and a seasoned pro on a great team is likely to deliver on that sort of solid preparation. Boonen is also a generational talent, so if he's going well, it's not hard to find the evidence, even years later.

As for the rest of the peloton, surely a number of them use Qatar as key preparation for the spring classics, given the fact that they start in three weeks. [Hold me.] But few do it as loudly as Boonen, so it's not as easy to round up the numbers and concoct a coherent narrative. Still, for sprinters like Cavendish and to some degree lessers like Haussler and Chicchi, it's similarly shown them to be on the right path. For others, like Demare and Greipel, they may flash a little speed here, but not necessarily with the intention of going big on their program right away. Basically, lack of results in Qatar doesn't predict anything for anyone except the handful of guys who use it to tee up their whole spring, like Boonen, for whom Qatar is a fairly strong predictor of everything.

And with that in mind, his defeat today to JJ Rojas of Movistar should have all of Belgium deep in panic. JK! Wait a few days before we really know.