Qatar’s official dalliance with cycling may be over. The Tour of Qatar canceled its 2017 edition, just five weeks away, thanks to a lack of funding, the UCI announced today. Apparently the race was looking around for a sponsor that never quite materialized. As a result of this decision, there are conspicuous holes in both the men’s and women’s World Tour racing calendar.
The pressing concern is whether teams will have difficulty changing their plans into something as productive as the Tour of Qatar, which was mostly a dull march across the desert every day leading to a sprint, but which for the riders was excellent winter training, with sidewinds and headwinds often making for a heavy day in the saddle. The weather also tended to be reliably warm and dry, which is also a useful thing for cyclists prone to asthma, colds and flu in the colder climes back home.
Competitively, the race won’t be missed — not by fans anyway. Qatar has no natural connection to cycling, even after 14 editions of this race, a point which was driven home by the World Championships earlier this year which attracted embarrassingly few spectators. It seemed more like an excuse to make some money off the wealthy oil nation, and to work on the sprint train. The race was scheduled to join the World Tour this coming year, but that’s out now.
The race’s demise coincides with the impending retirement of its lone iconic figure, Tom Boonen, who dominated a few editions of the race in the mid-aughts, including 2006 when it represented his first racing appearance in the rainbow jersey he’d won at the end of the 2005 season. He won four of the five stages in 2006, plus the Doha GP (a stand-alone event before the race starts), making for a triumphant start to a brilliant rainbow campaign. Boonen’s four GC wins and 22 stage victories will go down as unbroken records.
As to what else riders can do without Qatar on the schedule? Pickings are pretty slim. The calendar shows La Mediterraneene, a UCI 2.1 race in France formerly known as the Tour Mediterraneen, a Paris-Nice “warm-up” race known for sprint endings. That race happens Feb 8-12, almost the same window as Qatar and an easy jumping off point for subsequent races in Spain (Ruta del Sol) and Portugal (Volta ao Algarve). But that’s the men’s side; the ladies have no UCI-rated alternatives to stay sharp in this window. Undoubtedly there are local races they can find, somewhere, but I’d guess the race will be pretty sorely missed by the women, much more than the men.