After seven editions the Tour of Qatar has become an established big race on the calendar. It may be early in the season, which is almost a shame given the quality of the race, but it is one of the absolutely most interesting stageraces of the year. The combination of crosswinds and sometimes brutally tough sprintfinishes gives it an identity of its own just like the men's version. Unlike the men, this year's edition isn't affected by any sandbox politics either and the startlist is as impressive as ever. For the women it also has the added bonus of being one of the best organized races in terms of travel and race hotels. Plus it has had live coverage for years which puts it in a pretty exclusive club.
This year the race comes with a little extra spice as the first stage will serve as a preview of this year's World Championships course. There is no map available for the Worlds course yet but presumably the circuit should be identical to the planned course for October. The big differing factor will likely be the weather as February offers gentler temperatures and more wind. Crosswinds always play their part in determining the outcome of the ToQ but word is that the chances of those winds in October are pretty slim, making that a less intriguing race. The preview value of a flat Worlds course is probably not the most intriguing thing around, it's pretty clear that national selectors have been much more interested in getting an idea of what to expect in Rio for instance, but it's still a nice little addition.
As for the competition we see a lot of familiar faces. The undisputed Queen of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, Kirsten Wild, is back after a one year absence and it would be a huge surprise if she didn't at least challenge for a stage or three. The competition for the overall looks much more compact now though than when she was here last. A few teams like Wiggle,Boels, Canyon and Orica come here absolutely armed to the teeth. Luckily for Wild she will be supported by riders like Lauren Kitchen and Julie Leth who both had strong showings in the Australian races that started off the season. So did many in the Orica team predictably. Katrin Garfoot and Lizzie Williams were both flying and are both riders who look likely to step up a level this year on a team that has lost their headline star, Emma Johansson. In Johansson's place comes Annemiek van Vleuten who is potentially equally winning as the Swede but likely to take up less space on the team, leaving more opportunities (and more responsibility) to the developing aussies on the team. The ability of these to step up will likely be vital for Orica this year when other teams are hoarding talent around them and they increasingly are looking like an underdog team. Here they will likely be looking to the sprinting abilities of Lizzie Williams to bring in the results as van Vleuten uses her season- and team-premier race to get up to speed for challenges further down the road.
And that brings us to the theme for the year: the matchup between the ridiculously loaded Wiggle-High5 and Boels-Dolmans teams. If you look at their teams it looks like lineups for Ronde van Vlaanderen or another of the biggest races of the year but they pretty much can't field teams that look any other way with the depth of talent they have. And the same can almost be said for Rabo/Liv even if their team here isn't as silly as Wiggle. The british team led by Rochelle Gilmore bring one young rider in Amy Roberts who isn't a superstar, the other five are, including the underrated Dani King.
Leadership could go to Chloe Hosking who usually figures in the sprints in Qatar or it could go to new signee Amy Pieters who may want to take her chance to establish her place in the pecking order at Wiggle. Fighting for space among top classics riders like Emma Johansson and Elisa Longo Borghini is a bit of a daunting task. Pieters likes the challenges of Qatar though so she may well be the team's best card this week. The multi-star approach worked well for Wiggle last year but now they are even more crowded and making a working unit of this roster will be an even more delicate task. If successful it will be an unstoppable team, if not it can end up a laugh-and cringeworthy season for Wiggle. Either way it should be good entertainment for us.
Boels Dolmans is facing a similar "problem" but they have the benefit of a steady roster, well trimmed in over two seasons now. It has worked from the start and if they keep on the way they have they will overshadow the furiously recruiting Wiggle juggernaut in the results column. For Qatar they may lack their biggest names on paper but it matters little as they have their top rouleurs in Ellen van Dijk and Chantal Blaak here which means they are as well set as any of their opponents. The crosswinds are fickle though and sometimes a teams strength might lie in numbers when it comes for the overall. A moments inattention could make you miss the winning split on a decisive stage.
The sprints this year could be wide open with the new Cylance team and AléCipollini both having been in action and successful in Tour DownUnder and San Luis respectively. Alé did well here bossing the sprints last year and even if they have lost Shelley Olds to Cylance they are well equipped to repeat that performance. There is also Canyon with Barbara Guarischi, Lisa Brennauer and a strong supporting cast to make things interesting. This will be their first race as a team with new equipment and a new look but with a backbone of riders and staff that is familiar from the Velocio squad of last year. Second year pro Mieke Kröger will be interesting to follow in a race like this where her pure power physique could serve her well. There is no timetrial for her to excel in but it might be even more interesting to see what type of rider she develops into outside the TTs. It's still early days for her but developing her might be the most exciting task for the Canyon management because the potential seems staggering. She'll probably look with interest on the roads of Qatar as the Worlds timetrial is most likely her main objective this year.
We'll see if the live video will be easily available this year, you never know these things beforehand with Qatar. The race is shown live on BEIN so chances are we can watch he action again though.