Words and additional photos by Nick Bull | Main photo by SWpix.com
Ah, the Tour of Qatar. Remember that one? A race that will be five years removed from the cycling calendar come February and one whose absence is seemingly not mourned.
Let’s face it: there was plenty that the Middle East’s once flagship early season stage race could be criticised for. It failed to engage the country’s residents, ensuing years of mocking on social media for its comparatively dreadful spectator numbers and near-silent roadside atmosphere. Its infrastructure was completely unremarkable, making it look less prestigious than a race on British Cycling’s National Road Series. The routes from year to year featured fewer changes than modern era Rolling Stones setlists. Anybody seeking even one of the three features – climbs, cobbles and famous roads – that the most famed races are known for was out of luck. And, of course, the host country continues to commit flagrant violations of migrants workers’ rights and its laws continue to discriminate against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
Even so, I stand before you (virtually) today to declare this: I miss it. I think that the cycling calendar is all the weaker in its absence, too. I get that it had its flaws and some people understandably could never forgive Qatar’s human rights record. I was never a fan of the binary choice: I’d say that it’s possible to have enjoyed the race while also being critical of the way the country operates. In terms of the event’s sporting stakes, it was popular – or, more accurately, revered – among riders. “People underestimate just how hard the Tour of Qatar is,” Luke Rowe told me in 2015. “It’s one of the hardest races of the year. You have to be mentally strong to come here and race hard day in, day out.”
The Welshman gave his assessment after a ridiculously fast day of racing. Stage two of the 2015 edition, held between Al Wakra and Al Khor Corniche on the country’s eastern coast, clocked in at 48.94km/h. A little under 200 kilometres were covered in under four hours; the stage finished approximately 50 minutes up on the fastest predicted schedule. The following year’s stage that finished along Al Kohr’s waterside – won by Mark Cavendish – averaged an even more impressive 50.58km/h.
Yet, quite remarkably, both pale into comparison with day four of the 2014 race. When Tom Boonen pipped André Greipel to win in Mesaieed, he did so after just two hours, 22 minutes and 34 seconds of racing. His average speed of 56.816km/h for 135 kilometres of racing was more than eight kilometres per hour faster than Michael Hepburn’s when he won the previous day’s individual time trial… over just 10.9 kilometres. In total, twelve of the 29 road stages between 2011 and 2016 averaged above 47km/h: put simply, when the racing at Tour of Qatar was really on, it was an unforgiving, seething cauldron of hostility.
“It’s almost a one of a kind race,” said Boonen. “Nowhere in the world do you get gruelling circumstances like that. If you’re a powerful rider, you can take advantage of the conditions.” The Belgian rider certainly did just that during his career: he holds the record for most stage wins in Qatar – 22 – and overall titles (four, plus four other podium finishes). “It’s simple: if you’re good in Qatar, you’ll be in the front.”
Cycle races can neither buy nor manufacture history. Instead, organiser ASO went about its delivery of the Tour of Qatar sensibly and sustainably, building the event up without much fanfare from a modest inaugural edition in 2002. In the absence of an Arenberg or Alpe d’Huez equivalent, they relied on the country’s seemingly soulless roads and the wind to spice up the racing. By tapping into the classics contenders as effectively as the petrochemical companies have done with Qatar’s oil-rich land, they were able to attract consistently strong fields.
Anybody who wanted to watch the one-day specialists honing their form in the opening weeks of the season needn’t look further than Qatar: between 2005 and 2016, seven winners of the men’s Tour of Flanders and nine Paris-Roubaix champions in waiting rode in the race. “There’s nowhere else where you ride like this at this time of the year,” said Ian Stannard. “It’s good build-up for the classics – but going along at 180 heart-rate on the flat is horrible. The intensity is different to anything else: you can climb mountains all day, but when it’s flat out here your lungs are burning. It’s hell.”
I remember coming away from listening to Rowe’s description of the aforementioned second stage six years ago with a greater appreciation for the race than I’d ever had before. “I made the first echelon when it split and then, for the first hour, I was always in the first 12 riders in line,” he said. I was in the 53×11 and I didn’t change down. I wish I had a 55, for sure – some guys did.” Sitting atop a drinks coolbox, his face covered in dirt, his Team Sky jersey covered with a sweat and sand lining, he added: “The race came back after about 100 kilometres and then it broke up again straight away. It’s relentless here – you don’t get that at any other race. It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on the bike.”
The only downside to Qatar’s straight roads and strong winds offering was that when the riders were greeted by a still, humid day, the racing suffered. Lizzie Deignan described the completely forgettable opening stage in 2015 as “a terrible race”. “When there’s no wind here it’s boring,” she added. “But when the wind is there you have to be focused from kilometre zero to the finish line. The slightest turn in the road can catch you out.”
That Deignan was able to compete in Qatar is something that often got overlooked in critiques of the race. Quite remarkably, given the country’s oppressive attitude to women, Qatar launched its Ladies Tour in 2009 and held eight editions of it. The race wasn’t perfect – it comprised just three stages to begin before expanding to four in 2013, compared to the men’s six-day event – but that’s still 28 more racing days than, say, the Giro d’Italia has ever afforded women. Staggeringly, even now, there have been 20 more racing days in Qatar for women than ASO have ever delivered at La Course. Even in 2021, only two races on the Women’s WorldTour calendar comprise more days.
“Four days is good, but stage races like this can never be long enough for me,” Lisa Brennauer told me a few years ago. “Overall, it’s an important race for a lot of people. It’s a good place to start the season for many riders – Qatar is a big part of the calendar. It has a good status.”
Like the men’s version, the ladies race also served riders well come the spring: Judith Arndt (2012) and Deignan (2015) won Flanders and the Trofeo Alfredo Binda respectively weeks after taking the GC honours in Qatar. Podium finishers Giorgia Bronzini (2010), Ellen van Dijk (2012, 2015) also made it into the top three at the Ronde van Drenthe.
Qatar is a country where football is king. beIN Sports, a major player in the broadcasting industry, show every Premier League game live across their multitude of channels. On my last visit there, central Doha was still decorated with banners and adverts promoting the Handball world championships in the country that had finished a few days earlier (and had taken place in a new, state-of-the-art, purpose-built arena). Aside from the occasional direction arrow and the obligatory start and finish gantries, I never saw anything that promoted the race.
Its annual finale, which culminated in a bunch sprint along the Doha Corniche, felt slightly familiar. It was the one stage that attracted a (modest) crowd, helped in part by the fact that some 80 per cent of the country’s population live in and around the capital city. This was the antidote to those long, straight roads, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with the occasional oil refinery or huge construction site in the background, that we associate the race with. I always appreciated the eeriness that was associated with this backdrop. Until the Tours of Oman, UAE, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia came along, it was unique. And I’ll defy anybody to tell me that the desert is less charming than a ski-resort like La Mongie or the industrial bleakness of Liège. “If the race is in the gutter, it’s neither here nor there where you are,” said former BORA rider Zak Dempster of the surroundings. The nature of sporting events in January 2021 arguably gives us a reason to reassess the widely-held opinion that the Tour of Qatar was a lesser event because of its poor roadside attendance. After all, owing to the pandemic, many unforgettable moments that will be long-remembered have occurred across several sports in the absence of a crowd over the past 10 months. Fans can enhance the greatness of those moments, but they’re never the sole driver in creating them.
In addition, there’s a lot of things from Qatar that people standing by the roadside, let alone watching on TV at home, would not have seen. The pre-race atmosphere in the communal dining hall in the race’s always-luxurious hotel always offered a first day back at school vibe; there was a charming bonhomie between riders and team personnel who hadn’t seen colleagues past and present for several weeks. The lack of team buses gave me an insight into what covering the sport would have been like before I was born. From a journalistic perspective, the absence of autograph-hunting fans nor a large headline-seeking press pack meant that riders could be themselves at starts and finishes. I was fortunate enough to share a lift with Philippe Gilbert and Michael Mørkøv as they discussed a crash the latter had been involved in with extraordinary detail. And it’s always a good sign for a race organiser when the biggest thing you hear riders complaining about is the hotel WiFi speed. It may be easy for me to say this having benefited from journalistic privilege to witness such moments, but it felt like a race that never carried any delusions of grandeur. “Yes, the racing is stressful here, but the rest of the time in Qatar is relaxing,” said former Team Sunweb rider Albert Timmer. “You get to the hotel quickly after each stage to recover. This is not a race where there is a lot of pressure.”
Qatar’s demise was, in part, through no fault of its own. A farcical stage in the 2015 Tour of Oman, in which a sandstorm and exploding tyres in extreme heat led to a rider protest, resulted in several teams removing that race from their calendars the following year. As a result, there was little practicality in sending riders and staff to Qatar for just six days of racing over European events or a training camp. The 2017 edition was cancelled weeks before the opening women’s stage, citing a lack of sponsorship. However, given ASO’s resources, it makes you question how much offence they took to the team boycott in 2016.
Oman may have Green Mountain. The UAE Tour may attract bigger crowds. But I’m yet to see a Middle Eastern cycle race that has a continued ability to produce such fascinating racing as Qatar had. Timmer summed up the event as well as anybody I’ve ever heard it. “Every time I come here I look forward to it,” he said. “But when I get here and start racing, I hate it! That’s what makes this race special.”
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.