Niki Terpstra has defended his Tour of Qatar title, making it eight wins in ten years for his Belgian based team at the windiest race of the year. He produced an excellent time-trial to see off his rivals, but Alexander Kristoff applied late pressure by collecting back to back wins and earning 20 bonus seconds. The Norwegian ended up third, 9 seconds adrift, with Tinkoff rider Maciej Bodnar finishing between the two.
The Tour of Qatar is associated with two things; the Etixx-Quickstep team and the swirling winds. Both were very much involved in proceedings again this year, with Terpstra and four time champion Tom Boonen leading Etixx. With stages often switching direction and doubling back on themselves, it was common for the conditions to go from a stubborn headwind, to a potentially race-changing crosswind.
The win on Stage 1 went to José Joaquín Rojas and not many would have bet on the Spaniard. Winds led to a strung out peloton with groups all along the roads of Mesaieed. Predictably, the front group had been driven by Etixx-Quick Step who sort to eliminate sprinters and rivals. Still, the final sprint consisted of a group around 50 strong with Boonen looking for his 23rd Qatar stage. The numbers had dwindled but many sprinters remained near the front, albeit without their lead out trains. Rojas came late and accelerated past Boonen, Arnaud Demare and Peter Sagan. Rojas is consistently fast and clever but looks happier in breakaways than smaller sprints. Notably, Bradley Wiggins and Fabian Cancellara were on the wrong side of a split and lost time. Stage 2 marked the end of their hopes of winning with the pair losing a further nine minutes. Cancellara never seems to do well in the early season and Wiggins looked like he cared little for this race. He later said ‘no one really enjoys it’ but emphasized it was good preparation for Paris-Roubaix.
Crosswind sections were the cause of the splits on Stage 2 and Kristoff won the final sprint showing the same fine form as last year. The stage was tough and pictures show sand blowing across the road; cycling conditions unique to this part of the world. The lead group was smaller, around 15 finished together, with others just behind. Kristoff hit the front and accelerated hard holding off Andrea Guardini- once again a nearly man here. Greg Van Avermaet, who had launched a doomed solo attack the previous day, looked strong back in third. He won the battle of the Belgians, with Boonen down in sixth. With the various time bonuses taken into consideration, Kristoff took the overall lead by one second.
Stage 3 was the time trial and, predictably, shook up the standings. Every team would have kept up to date with weather updates as the wind had the potential to change direction. Lars Boom, second on the equivalent stage last year, was one of the early leaders but was nearly a minute slower than his previous effort. Specialists Wiggins and Cancellara set off at around the same time. Wiggins took first by nine seconds, but minutes later his Swiss rival snatched the lead by one single second. Later, good rides by Bodnar and Ian Stannard confirmed they would be moving up in the overall classification with the former the favourite to take the lead.
The stage belonged to Terpstra however, who came home with a time eight seconds clear of Cancellara; a comprehensive margin on a course just 10.9km long. He had finished in the front bunches of Stages 1 and 2 and now lead the classification by 11 seconds. His cause was strengthened by the fact his nearest challengers were unlikely to attack him on the remaining stages, or take the bonuses available on the line. It was Kristoff, 36 seconds back, who was most likely to win the sprints but would need all three to make a serious dent.
It started well for the 2014 Milan-San Remo winner when he took first the next day. He might not have known it at the time, but the force of the sprint had taken himself and others five seconds clear of Terpstra’s group. Kristoff gained 15 seconds in total and Bodnar, who also finished in the front pack, moved to six seconds off the leader. Peter Sagan swooped in for second, a position he has come accustomed to in the last 12 months. Stage 5 saw a similar finish with Kristoff taking his third victory after another powerful sprint. Sagan got even closer to the Katusha sprinter but still had to settle for second. On both stages, the best lead out work was done by Giant-Alpecin, but Marcel Kittel, out of sorts for the third race running, was taken off leadership duties and the team worked for Nikias Ardnt. The 24 year-old performed admirably to come third two stages running, but lacked the pure speed needed to challenge.
And so, with one stage remaining, Kristoff was 11 seconds behind Terpstra which meant he had to grab some seconds at an intermediate sprint before going on to win the stage. With the daily breakaway kept at bay by Katusha, Kristoff succeeded at the intermediate sprint. Etixx sent two men to contest but the Norwegian grabbed two seconds. Ultimately, the challenger was unsuccessful as Sam Bennett grabbed the stage victory in the biggest win of his career. The final circuit of Qatar had wide roads that made it difficult to control and encouraged many sprinters to get involved. Kristoff, the best sprinter all week, was strangely absent suggesting he got his tactics wrong as he was unlikely to have been suffering any effects from his mid-stage sprint. He finished third overall, ahead of Stannard and Van Avermaet. Terpstra’s brilliant 10.9km proved to be the difference and the Dutchman finished atop the podium just as 12 months ago. The conditions are testing in these parts but the winds of change stay well away.