Sport needs underdogs, and in the Iran Cycling Federation and the Doha Team, the Tour of Qatar has two puppies. Procycling’s Ellis Bacon finds out more about the two teams who have been doing daily battle with the likes of Quick Step and Lampre.
While Lampre's Danilo Napolitano was winning the day’s stage here in Qatar, and Quick Step's Tom Boonen was up on the podium collecting his latest gold jersey as leader of the race, there were two teams who were simply pleased to be part of the race at all.
Lampre, Quick Step, Crédit Agricole et al were in their element; yes, in an unusual land, but in an ASO-organised event which, desert aside, could just as easily have been Paris-Nice. For the Doha Team and the Iran Cycling Federation squads, however, it was as big as the Tour de France.
And for Mustapha Faci, the Doha Team’s Algerian directeur sportif, it was an opportunity for his young charges to gain valuable experience riding against some of the sport’s biggest names.
“It’s true that we’re the youngest team here, but our objective is to finish the race. If we can show ourselves a bit, then great – it will mean the team is getting more confident, and will be good for everyone’s morale,” Faci told us.
Faci has been working with the Qatar Cycling Federation for the past two years to help develop local riders, but for now the team also has other nationalities riding for it. One of those is Tunisian Rafaa Chtioui – a former member of Procycling’s Fab Four future stars – who, although still only 22, brings a relative amount of experience to the team of youngsters. Along with four Qatari riders, there is also another Tunisian, an Algerian and a Syrian rider in the squad.
“We know that the Arab world is watching us,” said Faci. “And as the UCI internationalise cycling – as more top-level races are being organised all over the world – it means that the sport is getting bigger all the time in places such as Africa and Asia.”
Nearby, the Iran Cycling Federation squad was reflecting on another day of surviving in the bunch. Their team manager, the German Wolfram Lindner, has the experience of having coached Jan Ullrich until 2003, and of bringing Team Coast to the first Tour of Qatar in 2002, taking overall victory with Thorsten Wilhelms. His objectives this year, however, have, like Fuci’s, are far more realistic.
“Things are going well, but slowly – bit by bit,” said Lindner. “But we already have three riders from the federation who have qualified for the Beijing Olympcs, so that shows us that things are going in the right direction.”
Races need the smaller teams such as the Iran Cycling Federation and the Doha Team. Yes, pitting them against the Quick Steps of this world means that they’re on a steep learning curve. But what better way for them to gain experience, exposure, and for one of their riders to perhaps even catch the eye of one of the bigger teams? Everyone loves an underdog…