Qatar calling: Cipo, Boonen and Maggy start season

Qatar plays host to some of professional cycling's top names' first race outing of 2005 this weekend

Qatar plays host to some of professional cycling's top names' first race outing of 2005 this weekend
PICTURE BY TDWSPORT.COM A truly international field takes to the roads of Qatar on Saturday, with the one-day Doha International Grand Prix providing the warm-up for the start of the five-day Tour of Qatar, which starts on Monday. With 34 nations represented by 17 teams, in that respect it rivals even the grand tours, and Qatar cycling federation president Sheikh Khaled Al Thane hopes that, in sporting terms, one day it will. The Doha International GP will be the first race of the season for many of the sport's top names, including super-sprinter Mario Cipollini, 2004 Paris-Roubaix champion Magnus Backstedt (both Liquigas), Quick Step's young gun Tom Boonen and French Tour de France star Thomas Voeckler of Bouygues Telecom. The same field will start Monday's Tour of Qatar with defending champion Robert Hunter and his new team Phonak, with its new management, keen to impress Tour de France organisers ASO, who provide the Qatar cycling federation with the technical organisation for the race, in the hope of landing themselves a place in the Grande Boucle in July. The second edition of the Doha International, and the fourth running of the Tour of Qatar, enjoys the patronage of Eddy Merckx, who was approached when Al Thane wanted to stage an international bike race, and who in turn brought in ASO. "Yet again, with the help of Eddy Merckx, we have been able to bring together a quality field, increasing to 17 teams this year over last year's 15, welcoming two Asian teams in the Aljazeera Sport Channel squad - this region's first UCI-registered team - and the Marco Polo cycling team from China," said Al Thane. Both Merckx and the federation president admitted that it would be difficult for the two relatively inexperienced teams to give the seasoned pros a run for their money. "To compete will be out of the question, but the aim is for the teams to finish," said Al Thane. "But it's important that they race against European teams in order to develop," added Merckx. Besides the warm weather and flat roads, teams are also attracted by the prize purse on offer: 25,000 euros-worth of prize money for the Doha International, and 106,810 euros for the Tour of Qatar. With the economic support and sponsor-interest in the region, "the Tour of Qatar is here to stay," stated Al Thane. "One day we hope that Asian teams will develop and move up a level, and we'll have a race with equal numbers of Asian and European teams. Maybe one day the Tour of Qatar will even be as big as the Tour de France." In fact, besides Marco Polo and Aljazeera, there is another non-European team participating in the Discovery Channel. But, despite what was reportedly a huge offer of a fee to ride, the American team's star rider will not be in Qatar. "It's true that we'd hoped to have Lance Armstrong here," said Al Thane, "but we understand that he preferred to spend some more time at home with his family, so our best wishes to him, and we'll hope he can make it next time." Instead, Discovery will be headed by the experienced Max Van Heeswijk and third place in last year's Paris-Roubaix, Roger Hammond, with fellow Brit Sean Yates in his first race for the team as directeur sportif since leaving CSC at the end of last season. It will be a fast finisher who takes Saturday's Doha GP, which this year will be held on the spectator-friendly Losail International Motor Circuit, just north of the Qatar capital, Doha. Riders will compete over 92km, which equates to 16 laps of the almost 5.5km circuit, with three intermediate sprints when the line is crossed at the end of the fourth, eighth and 12th laps. Teams and principal riders for the Doha International GP (29/1) and Tour of Qatar (31/1-4/2): Phonak (Swi): Robert Hunter, Aurelien Clerc T-Mobile (Ger): Daniele Nardello, Serguei Ivanov CSC (Den): Giovanni Lombardi, Fabrizio Guidi Discovery Channel (USA): Roger Hammond, Max Van Heeswijk Quick Step (Bel): Tom Boonen, Servais Knaven Davitamon-Lotto (Bel): Axel Merckx, Fred Rodriguez Saunier Duval (Spa): Andrea Tafi, Rubens Bertogliati Bouygues Telecom (Fra): Thomas Voeckler Domina Vacanze (Ita): Jorg Ludewig Credit Agrcole (Fra): Damien Nazon, Andrey Kasechkin Liquigas-Bianchi (Ita): Mario Cipollini, Magnus Backstedt Ag2r (Fra): Andy Flickinger, Erki Putsep Chocolade Jacques-T Interim (Bel) Team Wiesenhof (Ger) Shimano-Memory Corp (Hol) Marco Polo Cycling Team (Chn) Aljazeera Sport Channel (Qat)
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