For many a casual cycling fan, pro cycling is the Tour de France. Nothing wrong with that, of course; through our TV screens it’s glossy and glamorous, all dramatic mountains and picturesque country towns, and surrounded by media, celebrity and general hubbub. Others take an interest in the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta Espana too, and perhaps the one-day classics: Milan San-Remo, Paris Roubaix and the like.
Beyond that there are those who follow everything else in between…the races that are not so much glitz and glamour, but more like the day job of the pro cyclist. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of great racing beyond the jewels in the crown mentioned above, but some races, when you catch them on TV or via clips on the internet, seem as if they are being beamed in from another planet…
…which brings me to the Tour of Qatar.
Take a look at this clip of Niki Terpstra winning stage 1 of this year’s race. It’s a fantastic finish; five riders 25 seconds clear of the peloton, barrelling along and working hard to stay clear, before Terpstra makes a hard-man move with a couple of hundred metres to the finish and takes the win. But it’s not so much pro tour as post apocalyptic tour.
The riders are hammering along through the dust, the peloton barely visible in the background through the haze. The road is an urban highway, big and wide, and surrounded by apparent nothingness, cutting a tarmac swathe through barren desert. The roundabouts are vast concrete spaces, and there’s little green, few people, and no atmosphere. The city looms menacingly in the distance, but the riders cross a finishing line in the outskirts; an arbitrary and unremarkable line chalked in the suburbs, a smattering of fans and onlookers mark the moment.
To be fair, the Tour of Qatar is unusual in that it takes place in a fairly featureless natural landscape, and consists of a time trial and five sprinter friendly stages; the contrast with the colour and variety of the big European races couldn’t be greater.
But the racing does have a kind of purity to it; there’s no media caravan, no overt sponsorship, no melee to grab the victor at the finish and get a pound of flesh. There’s just a bike race. And a winner of a bike race. The riders compete hard and grasp furiously to take not so much the glory as simply the spoils, to write their name in the records, to earn their corn, just rolling out from the start line and racing to the finish…it’s bike racing minus the show.
I might add that I’ve never been to see the Tour of Qatar. Maybe when you’re there it looks and feels different?
But it’s all good. Blazing desert sunshine or Belgian rain, sand dunes and concrete highways or rolling European countryside, global interest or niche market. One side complements the other; there’s room for everything. And one look at the roll of honour for the Tour of Qatar tells you that the teams and their riders take it seriously, if for no other reason than it’s a great time of year to hone your race pace for a tilt at the spring classics. The previous ten editions have seen wins by Cavendish, Renshaw and Tom Boonen…4 times.
So it’s a race for the sprinters, and for Tom Boonen…and it never did him any harm as a warm up for the European spring.