The winner of the fifth Ladies Tour of Qatar won’t just be the most consistent rider who’s cunning (or lucky) enough to be in the front group when the peloton blows apart in the cross winds in today’s first stage.
She’ll also need to be the rider who’s well supported, understood and believed in by her team-mates. Because 2013 starts as a year where many top women riders have made moves to other teams: Emma Johansson (SWE) to Orica-AIS, Chloe Hosking (AUS) and Emilia Fahlin (SWE) to Hitec, and two-time world champion Georgia Bronzini (ITA) to Rochelle Gilmore’s new team, Wiggle Honda.
New team dynamics and the first race of the season (for most) mean a number of question marks over form and fitness.
Predictably, high winds and opportunistic echelons have determined the top 10 on the general classification after just the first stage for all four of the previous tours.
This week, after the 88 riders from 15 teams drag themselves from Doha’s seven-star hotels and leave behind the most extraordinary buffet breakfast they’ll ever want to binge on, they’ll take on four days of endlessly flat, windy and sandstormed roads.
Last year, Canberra’s Hosking posted her Strava file from the first day: half the 97km stage was with a tail wind and took less than an hour. Then they turned into cross winds and it all blew apart.
Despite the urge to look only at the rear wheel in front, paying attention to the front of the race on the first day has never been more important.
The first two years of the Tour of Qatar were won by the tall, powerful Dutch sprinter, Kirsten Wild, then riding for Cervélo Test Team, winning the stage from a break of 12 riders that got more than seven minutes on the peloton and the time never came back.
Last season she rode for the now defunct AA drink-Leontien.nl, winning Stage 1 and Stage 3 but not the overall. Through consistent performances and a strong support team, the 2012 Tour of Qatar was won by the now retired Orica-AIS powerhouse, Judith Arndt.
This season, Wild is riding for Argos-Shimano, and will have extra firepower from Germany Olympian Charlotte Becker, another fast finisher and former lululemon rider, well versed in aggressive bunch sprints.
Specialized-lululemon is undoubtedly the team with depth and options, boasting a former winner in Ellen van Dijk (2011). The Dutchwoman is a very classy road and track rider who made huge contributions to Marianne Vos’s gold medal ride in the London 2012 Olympic Games road race, and won gold in the world teams time trial championships in the Netherlands in September 2012 for lululemon.
Her back-up comes in the form of the tiny Trixi Worrack (GER) and the Gold Coast’s own Loren Rowney, in her second year as a professional.
Rowney had a great opening professional season in the US last year after winning the 2011 Honda Women’s Tour here in Australia. She was effectively racing solo for lululemon in the US, and won stages of Redlands, Tour of Gila and criteriums in Santa Cruz and Canada.
Not to be discounted are the two speedsters in the US based Team Tibco, New Zealand Olympic omnium representative Jo Kiesanowski and Shelley Olds, arguably the unluckiest victim of a puncture ever.
Olds was in the four-woman break in the London 2012 road race, and had shown her sprinting form in the lead-up, winning the Chongming Island world cup and a stage of the Giro Donne.
American cycling fans will say she would have won the gold were it not for her ill-timed puncture, but I think the rest of the world saw the indomitable Vos as a shoo-in. Still, the tiny blonde has a point to prove.
So despite the early-season timing for American and European riders, there are plenty of incentives to go all the way to Qatar in February, not least the plush hospitality and the organisers paying for all travel expenses for teams.
A new four-year Olympic cycle officially begins, there are ample International Cycling Union (UCI) points up for grabs and plenty of prize money to take home.