A short and sweet opening stage of the Tour of Qatar on Sunday reminded us all that Mark Cavendish isn’t the only fastman-Brit to watch at this year’s edition of the race. Our man in the desert – Procycling deputy editor Ellis Bacon – blogs in with the latest from behind the scenes in Doha.
Despite the sprinting showdown that is hopefully to come this week between Belgian Tom Boonen and Brit Mark Cavendish, it was another well-known rider from the UK who took centre stage on the opening day of the Tour of Qatar.
Bradley Wiggins and Cavendish may be friends again after their unsuccessful bid to take Madison gold on the track at the Beijing Olympics, but while everyone was talking about the Cav-Boonen battle, The Wig was leading his new Garmin-Slipstream squad home in a team time trial that saw Boonen’s Quick Step team beaten into second, while Cavendish’s Columbia could only finish sixth on the day.
Wiggins, with his hair back to its Paul Weller-esque best after its shearing for the heat of Beijing last August, was thrilled to be pulling on the yellow leader’s jersey, and admitted afterwards that there had been no plan for him to be first over the line for the team and take the race lead.
“We were just giving it everything, and knew we needed five men across the line as quickly as possible to stop the clock,” Wiggins told us.
“We really didn’t want to be second to Quick Step again like last year,” Garmin DS Johnny Weltz chipped in, “so we had to make sure that we pushed all the way.”
“The team did want a TT specialist to help on this opening stage,” Wiggins continued, “but I wasn’t brought in just for this stage, despite this mainly being a Classics line-up here for this race; I go pretty well on the flat, too.
“Besides, I didn’t really fancy the Tour of California. It looked a bit hilly, so I was happy to come here,” Wiggins admitted.
Mike ‘Meatball’ Friedman added that the team’s tactics had worked to a tee: “We used Rico Van Der Welde to pull on the front for most of the first part of the course, and then the rest of us took over. It couldn’t really have gone any better.”
Quick Step used similar tactics, with the two Kevins – Kevin Van Impe and Kevin ‘The Huls’ Hulsmans – used as the sacrificial lambs for the Belgian squad. There was a bit of a scare before they had even started, however, when Boonen received a pretty nasty-looking gash to his shin as a result of something being kicked up off the road while the team was warming up.
“Ah, it’s okay – it could have been worse,” Boonen smiled, brave boy that he is, as an ice pack was bandaged to his leg by a team soigneur.
“Yeah – at least he didn’t crash before we’d even started,” directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters mused.
Unlike Quick Step and Garmin, Columbia had decided on different tactics, and kept everyone together, finishing with all eight riders on the line, led home by Cavendish.
But there was no blaming anyone for the strong wind blowing in off the sea along the middle section of the 6km course along the Doha Corniche which beat Columbia back to sixth.
“It was the same for everyone,” Cavendish said afterwards, “but I’m feeling super-strong for the coming days.” Asked about the competition he is to come up against, Captain Cav Man said there was no single individual he feared. “I’ve already shown I can beat the best at the Tour de France, so I’m not worried about the bunch sprints,” he told Procycling. “I’m more worried about Quick Step as a team and what they might be able to do outside of the sprints.”
Despite the pleasant warm weather, it was a reminder from Cavendish of the fight that is to come out on the desert flats as frequent crashes and the strong winds that characterise the Tour of Qatar threaten to split the peloton to pieces. Only strong teamwork by squads prepared to grab the race by the scruff of the neck brings the race back together for the bunch sprints. And you can expect both Columbia and Quick Step to make this race tough for everyone; it will be anything but a walk in the park.
Garmin may have drawn first blood by beating Quick Step – who have won the past three editions of Qatar – in the opening TTT, but has the American team got the firepower to hold on to yellow? Or, as expected, will the race turn into the Boonen ‘v’ Cavendish show? In which case, who’s the better sprinter? There’s only going to be one way to find out:
See all the latest Tour of Qatar race reports and results at www.cyclingnews.com