I've been getting so depressed at the endless round of revelations and admissions from the men's peloton, so it was a real delight to have the Tour of Qatar this week, to remind me that I am still in love with cycling.
I've got to say, it was a bit of a surprise to me how much I enjoyed this one. After all, the parcours is exactly what you'd expect - long, straight roads through the flat desert landscape, with only the wind and the sand, and the occasional bad road surface to add variety to the course profiles.... But I was forgetting - this is the women's peloton! When they want to, they can make the dullest course explosive - and with Al Jazeera streaming 20-50km of each stage, we got to see exactly that. I'm not expecting you to take my word for it, so here's a post full of videos, so you can find out for yourself!
It was four stages, covering 392km, with intermediate sprint bonifications contributing to the GC, and you can see the course details at the excellent race website (it's run by ASO, so there's everything you need up there). Last year's winner, Judith Arndt, has retired, so wasn't there to defend, but Ellen van Dijk (Specialized-lululemon) who won in 2011 and Kirsten Wild (Argos-Shimano) winner of the first two editions of the race in 2009 and 2010 were well and truly there - not to mention all the other big teams, like Orica-AIS, Wiggle Honda and Hitec Products UCK, all wanting to show what their new line-ups could do - Wiggle, of course, is a brand-new team, and although double road World Champion Giorgia Bronzini is focusing on the Track World Championships, it's the first opportunity to show what they can do in UCI races, with team owner Rochelle Gilmore also targeting sprint wins. Orica brought a more Classics-style squad built around new signing Emma Johansson, with brand-new Australian champion Gracie Elvin and their escape experts Loes Gunnewijk and Tiffany Cromwell, while Hitec had former-Specialized sprinter Chloe Hosking for the sprints, and one of the riders to watch, Elisa Longo Borghini for the opportunities. Game on!
But enough talk, let's have a look at the action! If you only watch 1 of the 2 videos from each stage, make it the last kms, they're all excellent!
Stage 1: Museum of Islamic Art to Mesaieed, 97km
Short stage report:
Last few kilometres:
Stage 1 showed the benefit the Australians have of coming to this off the back of the Bay Crits and the National Championships, as, after the usual attacks and catches, and the winds (and Orica and Specialized) blew the peloton apart, Gracie Elvin and Chloe Hosking escaped in the last 20km. Track star Lisa Breannauer (Specialized-lululemon) and Belgian sprinter Liesbet de Vocht (Rabobank-Liv/Giant) managed to join them, and they worked well to get enough of a gap on the peloton to enable them to cat-and-mouse with each other while the chase grew tantalisingly close. Hosking started her sprint first, racing elbow-to-elbow with Elvin, crossing the line first, to take the stage win, and the leader's jersey. A fabulous start for her new team! But with the bunch coming in only 10 seconds behind, there was still everything to race for...
Stage 1 results:
1. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Hitec Products UCK, 2:23:51
2. Gracie Elvin (Aus) Orica-AIS, s.t.
3. Lisa Brennauer (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
4. Liesbet de Vocht (Bel) Rabobank Liv/Giant, s.t.
5. Marta Tagliaferro (Ita) MCipollini Giordana, + 00:10
6. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, s.t.
7. Simona Frapporti (Ita) BePink, s.t.
8. Shelley Olds (USA) TIBCO-To The Top, s.t.
9. Emma Johansson (Swe) Orica-AIS, s.t.
10. Ellen Van Dijk (Ned) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
Stage 2: Camel Race Track - Al Khor Corniche, 96km
Short stage report:
Last 4 kilometres - seriously, watch this, it's BRILLIANT racing!
This was such an interesting stage, and it showed that numbers are not everything in racing. A group of three riders - Audrey Cordon (France), Małgorzata Jasińska (MCipollini-Giodana) and Xiu Jie Jiang (China Chongming-Giant Pro Cycling) had escaped up the road, and it looked for a while until, at the half-way mark, in the kind of move we're used to seeing from Specialized or Rabobank, Orica used the turn into the headwind as the point to attack, getting five of their six riders - Emma Johansson, Tiffany Cromwell, Loes Gunnewijk, Gracie Elvin and Amanda Spratt clean away, with only four other riders able to make the move with them. That should spell an Orica victory, right? Well, not when you consider who those four were - three of the very best sprinters, Kirsten Wild, Chloe Hosking and Ellen van Dijk, and Van Dijk's team-mate, Trixi Worrack, an absolutely tenacious, opportunistic rider, woman most likely to win "most aggressive rider" jersey in any race! This was going to be thrilling!
The lead extended, and they caught the lead trio, dropping Cordon and Jiang, and then it was all tactics. Orica had the advantage of numbers, and while they had no pure sprinter, Johansson, Gunnewijk and Cromwell are just the type to escape from a group and win solo - while the others were aiming for a bunch sprint. The last kilometres were just textbook tactical racing, with Van Dijk and Wild racing on the front, keeping the pace as high as possible, to prevent escapes, and then the Orica riders attacking over and over, with Wild watching every hint of a move, leaping across the road to cover anyone who tried, Worrack in her wheel. It was one of those stage ends where there were too many attacks to mention - but Wild, using all her track skills, wouldn't let anything go, and brought it down to a sprint where, and despite Worrack's best efforts, she won in a photo-finish. Gorgeous racing!
Stage 2 results
1. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, 2:38:54
2. Trixi Worrack (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
3. Ellen Van Dijk (Ned) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
4. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Hitec Products UCK, s.t.
5. Emma Johansson (Swe) Orica-AIS, s.t.
6. Gracie Elvin (Aus) Orica-AIS, s.t.
7. Malgorzata Jasinska (Pol) MCipollini Giordana, s.t.
8. Tiffany Cromwell (Aus) Orica-AIS, s.t.
9. Loes Gunnewijk (Ned) Orica-AIS, + 00:06
10. Amanda Spratt (Aus) Orica-AIS, + 00:14
GC after Stage 2
1. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Hitec Products UCK, 5:02:33
2. Gracie Elvin (Aus) Orica-AIS, + 00:06
3. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, + 00:09
4. Trixi Worrack (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, + 00:16
5. Ellen van Dijk (Ned) Specialized-lululemon, + 00:18
6. Emma Johansson (Swe) Orica-AIS, + 00:19
7. Tiffany Cromwell (Aus) Orica-AIS, + 00:21
8. Lisa Brennauer (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, + 01:38
9. Rochelle Gilmore (Aus) Wiggle Honda, + 01:50
10. Marta Tagliaferro (Ita) MCipollini Giordana, + 01:51
Stage 3: Al Thakhira - Madinat Al Shamal, 112.5km
Short race report:
Last 7 kilometres - watch this too! It's genius!
Another desert stage, and a very fast one, with tail-winds and long, straight roads helping the speeds up to 70kph - which meant none of the early attacks were successful. It was always expected that the race would really start at the 60km point, when the course took a hard right along the coast, and the winds changed, and Orica took the opportunity to force a break again - but all the big favourites were ready, and went with them. A crash took Liesbet de Vocht and Rocchelle Gilmore out of the race, and splintered the peloton, and echelons and attacks meant more and more riders were dropped. As they hit the laps that made up the end of the race, riders attacked over and over again - Breannauer, Blaak, Fahlin, Elvin, Spratt, Worrack, Longo Boghini, etc etc - but Wild was having none of it, and she and her team-mates chased everything down, ruthlessly. Pretty much everyone has compared how she rode the final kilometres to a points race - I think it was Jens who said he was expecting her to attack and take a lap - and as Exergy Twenty16 boss Nicola Cranmer tweeted, her six-day skills were most DEFINITELY showing, as she countered. recovered, countered. Once again, spectacular, skilful racing. Ellen van Dijk started her sprint early, and looked very strong - but Wild was on her wheel, accelerated and overtook, with Giorgia Bronzini ending in third place.
The most unlucky rider of the day was race leader Chloe Hosking, whose puncture in the final 500m meant she couldn't contest the sprint. The 3km rule meant she wasn't out of the GC, but Wild's stage win and intermediate bonifications had taken her up in the GC - the race had a new leader, with a stage to go!
Stage 3 results
1. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, 2:28:15
2. Ellen van Dijk (Ned) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
3. Giorgia Bronzini (Ita) Wiggle Honda, + 00:02
4. Marta Tagliaferro (Ita) MCipollini Giordana, s.t.
5. Shelley Olds (USA) TIBCO-To The Top, + 00:04
6. Simona Frapporti (Ita) BePink, + 00:05
7. Trixi Worrack (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
8. Emma Johansson (Swe) Orica-AIS, s.t.
9. Gracie Elvin (Aus) Orica-AIS, s.t.
10. Tiffany Cromwell (Aus) Orica-AIS, s.t.
GC after Stage 3
1. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, 7:30:43
2. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Hitec Products UCK, + 00:03
3. Gracie Elvin (Aus) Orica-AIS, + 00:16
4. Ellen van Dijk (Ned) Specialized-lululemon, + 00:17
5. Trixi Worrack (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, + 00:26
6. Emma Johansson (Swe) Orica-AIS, + 00:29
7. Tiffany Cromwell (Aus) Orica-AIS, + 00:31
8. Lisa Brennauer (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, + 01:52
9. Marta Tagliaferro (Ita) MCipollini Giordana, + 01:58
10. Lauren Kitchen (Aus) Wiggle Honda, + 02:02
I really liked this tweet from Van Dijk:
The video footage of our finales in Qatar are great to watch for fans. And for me to recognize embarrassing mistakes youtube.com/watch?v=eA47Ps…— Ellen van Dijk (@ellenvdijk) January 31, 2013
Stage 4: Sealine Beach Resort - Doha Corniche, 86.5km
Short race report
Final 6km lap:
So, this was it - a chance for teams to redeem themselves, or to stamp their mark on the race, a leader with a 3 second advantage, and a course that ended with four laps of a 6km course through Doha. The Hitec team were racing to regain Hosking's lead, with Longo Borghini and Emilia Fahlin putting in early attacks - but the big break came at 45km, with 9 riders getting away - Longo Borghini again, with Shelley Olds & Jasmin Glaesser (Tibco-To The Top), Carmen Small & Loren Rowney (Specialized-lululemon),Jessie MacLean (Orica-AIS), Tatiana Guderzo (MCipollini-Giordana), Lucinda Brand (Rabobank-Liv Giant), Silvia Valsecchi (Be Pink) and Audrey Cordon (France). There were no GC threats up there, but it was clear Wiggle wanted to give Bronzini another chance, and they lead the chase with Orica's support, as the break sped around the laps. The riders in front weren't going to go quietly, with plenty of attacks off the front - but it became clear that Wiggle and Orica were happy to give them a little bit of distance, preventing any more dangerous escapes, until it was time to pull them in.
As the distance ticked down, Argos-Shimano took control, leading the race in the last 10km, keeping the pace up and chasing anything that even tried to move. Wild had done a lot of work in the previous two stages, and the rest of her team being able to take things relatively slowly really paid off. But wherever Wild was, there was Hosking, Van Dijk, Worrack. In the last few kilometres, Longo Borghini and Fahlin attacked, forcing the Argos riders to chase them down - until it was time for a sprint, and Hosking made a bit for the overall title, starting an early sprint.... but Wild was just too strong, and Lucinda Brand and Marta Tagliaferro rounded out the stage podium. Wild took her third race title - Hosking kept her second place, while Van Dijk's intermediate points gave her third place overall. All in all, a beautiful race!
Stage 4 Results
1. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, 2:09:38
2. Lucinda Brand (Ned) Rabobank Liv/Giant, s.t.
3. Marta Tagliaferro (Ita) MCipollini Giordana, s.t.
4. Giorgia Bronzini (Ita) Wiggle Honda, s.t.
5. Simona Frapporti (Ita) BePink, s.t.
6. Maria Giulia Confalonieri (Ita) Italy, s.t.
7. Trixi Worrack (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, s.t.
8. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Hitec Products UCK, s.t.
9. Barbara Guarischi (Ita) Italy, s.t.
10. Pascale Jeuland (Fra) France, s.t.
Final General Classification
1. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Argos-Shimano, 7:30:43
2. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Hitec Products UCK, + 00:14
3. Ellen van Dijk (Ned) Specialized-lululemon, + 00:29
4. Gracie Elvin (Aus) Orica-AIS, s.t.
5. Trixi Worrack (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, + 00:39
6. Emma Johansson (Swe) Orica-AIS, + 00:42
7. Tiffany Cromwell (Aus) Orica-AIS, + 00:44
8. Lisa Brennauer (Ger) Specialized-lululemon, + 02:05
9. Marta Tagliaferro (Ita) MCipollini Giordana, + 02:07
10. Lauren Kitchen (Aus) Wiggle Honda, + 02:15
Wild also took home the Points jersey, Hosking won Best Young Rider, and while Orica-AIS may not have won a stage, but they won the team competition.
So, what does the race tell us about the season? Well, it's a long way before the season starts in earnest, so it's not surprising some teams weren't up to speed - and with Orica-AIS' sprinters racing the Australian Track Champs and preparing for Track Worlds, it's not surprising their Classics squad weren't able to challenge the big-name sprinters - but damn, they're already working beautifully together, and I'm sure they will have learned a lot from Stage 2. They had the advantage of racing the Bay Crits, but if they can bring that kind of team-work to the Classics season and the big stage races, they should be truly awesome.
Specialized-lululemon may have lost a lot of their dominant sprint train, but they're still super-strong, and it was great to see riders like Brennauer and Rowney, as well as new signing Carmen Small, making their marks. And the ex-Specialized sprinters are going to be so much fun to watch in their new teams - Charlotte Becker racing with Kirsten Wild again, recreating their Cervélo days on Argos, and Hosking proving she can step into the cleats of her mentor Ina-YokoTeutenberg, as Hitec's lead sprinter. Emilia Fahlin and Elisa Longo Borghini teaming up to attack for her was great to watch - seriously, people, Longo Borghini's stage with at Thüringen-Rundfahrt and bronze at Worlds last year are just the beginning, this girl is GOOD!
It was less good for Wiggle Honda, but Gilmore's crash was unfortunate, and Bronzini was all about the track - while Rabobank really missed Marianne Vos and Annemiek van Vleuten.
The interesting things for me was how this race is turning the typical post-Olympic year on its head. The four-year cycle hasn't helped women's cycling, but this defied all stereotypes of riders taking the post-Olympic year off. There seemed like there was a really exciting energy, from the riders on the road, and from the teams online - and the fact the end of each stage was streamed live, every day, was fantastic. Al Jazeera provided some of the best race coverage I've seen, men's or women's - top quality, free streaming, with great graphics, and while I couldn't understand the Arabic commentary, it was clear from the names of the riders that they knew a lot more about who was riding than Carlton Kirby, commentating for the UCI's Global Cycling Network, did. (It's amazing how many clones Emma Johansson has out on the road - and none of them in the Swedish kit, either) Seriously, a little bit of research, or even a glance at the startlist, would help!). I'm really interested to see what GCN does with women's races this year - they say this is just the start, but the Tour of Qatar has really thrown down the gauntlet. THIS is how to promote women's racing! Daily streams, repeated at times that mean they can be watched worldwide and a great race website - it's simple. Watching people who don't follow women's racing check it out and fall in love with the attacking style made this such a happy week for me. If the rest of the season is half as good as this, I can't wait!