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Will Alexander Kristoff dominate Qatar like he did 12 months ago?

Photo: Qatar Cycling Federation/Paumer/B.Bade

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TOUR OF QATAR

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07.02.2016 @ 20:48 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Dubai Tour has come to an end but the block of racing in the Middle East continues with the race that got it off the ground. While the Dubai race was mostly a warm-up, the preparation for the cobbled classics will kick off in earnest over the next 6 days when sprinters and one-day specialists battle it out in the crosswinds in the Qatari desert. Let the war begin!

 

The idea was certainly not an obvious one but ASO had the guts to give it their full backing when the wealthy Qatari authorities came up with the novel idea of hosting a major bike race in a part of the world that had no cycling history and no topographical challenges at all. With the locals offering the financial support and ASO providing the cycling knowledge, the partnership has resulted in the creation of one of the marquee events on the early-season calendar.

 

At a first glance, one would wonder why anyone would travel all the way to Qatar to participate in a race that has no climbs at all! In the roadbook, organizers ASO have not even bothered making profiles of the stages, knowing that they contain no information at all. Nonetheless, the race has a very good reputation and for many it has been an inalienable part of the perfect classics preparation.

 

Having just watched the new Dubai Tour which was a pretty controlled affair for the sprinters, one would expect it to be the same in Qatar. Stages certainly can unfold in this predictable way and it is unlikely not to happen on some days. What makes the race unique and perfect classics preparation is the strong desert wind that blows on the long, straight roads.

 

On days when there is no wind or the direction is unfavourable, one can expect to see the usual break-chase-catch-sprint scenario that dominates so many races. When the climatic conditions are right, however, the race changes to a war zone where only the strongest survive. At extreme speeds, the riders battle for position whenever they reach a corner with a change of direction and echelons are almost guaranteed to wreak havoc on the peloton at some point in the race.

 

It is this kind of racing that turns the race into the place to be for the riders who target the cobbled classics. There is no better place to prepare for the battle for position that precedes the key climbs in the Tour of Flanders or the key pavé sectors in the Paris-Roubaix. Unsurprisingly, the race is also a rather dangerous one and we are almost guaranteed to see a few riders crash out of the race and get their spring campaign ruined.

 

No one can guarantee the spectacle and we are certain to witness a few traditional sprint stages as well. However, history proves that at least one stage is likely to turn into a real battle and it is all about being ready when the war begins.

 

In recent years, the organizers have included a time trial to break the monotony of flat stages in the desert. For several years, a team time trial was on the schedule but this made it possible for select teams to completely dominate the race. In 2014 the event had an individual time trial for the second time in its short history and this was again the chosen for format for 2015 and will be so for 2016 too.

 

Nobody should watch the Tour of Qatar to see any kind of spectacular nature or beautiful landscape. The race is held on straight roads surrounded by sand but what the race lacks in visual quality, it certainly has in excitement and drama when the wind is blowing strongly from the right direction.

 

When the Tour of Qatar was held for the first time in 2002, it was a stand-alone event that gradually developed into an important part of the early-season calendar. Since then, ASO have added the Tour of Oman to form a very solid block of racing in the Middle East and with the addition of the Dubai Tour, one can now get in 20 days of racing on the Arabian Peninsula. That may be a bit too much for most riders and only a few will do the entire schedule, especially since there is only one rest day between the Dubai and Qatar races. In fact, there was no rest between those two races in the past two years but this year the Tour of Qatar has been shorted to five stages which gives room for one day of recovery. With Dubai suiting the puncheurs and sprinters, Qatar appealing to the classics riders, and Oman being a big rendezvous for the climbers, the Middle East offers a rather complete race series for the riders to fine-tune their condition.

 

The dominant figure in Qatar has certainly been Tom Boonen. The Belgian classics specialist has always come out with all guns blazing and has won the race an amazing 4 times, taking 2 individual stage wins in the process. He made his debut when he finished 7th in the 2004 edition of the race and his poorest performance came in 2011 when he could only manage 11th. Apart from those two editions, he has never finished outside the top 4! His track record is certainly no wonder as no one can match Boonen when it comes to battling for position and he is the rider who is in the front echelon every day. If one adds his fast sprint to the equation, you have all the characteristics to shine in the Qatari desert.

 

Boonen has only missed the race once since he made his debut. It happened in 2013 when an infected elbow almost cost him his arm. Instead, it was new teammate Mark Cavendish who got his career with Omega Pharma-Quick Step off to a fantastic start, dominating the sprint stages by winning on the final four days and benefiting from the best team in the business to keep him protected in the wind. Bonus seconds were enough for him to take a convincing overall win too and in general, the Belgian team which is now known as Etixx-QuickStep, have been dominant in the race. Niki Terpstra has won the last two editions and the team has a winning streak of four.

 

However, it will be vastly different in 2016 as the Belgians have opted to skip the race. It marks a general trend that has seen the Middle East calendar losing the battle to the traditional heartland of Europe. With more races added to the French calendar and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana returning to the Spanish schedule, both France and Spain now offer a very attractive block of races and most teams have decided to avoid the travel to the Middle East. This year only eight of the 18 WorldTour teams will be present in Qatar and this is the sign of the reduced interest from the major squads.

 

The trend is made even more surprising due to the fact that this year’s World Championships will take place in Qatar. The race even offers the riders to test the course on stage 2 but that prospect has not been overwhelming tempting. After all, the Qatari roads are pretty flat and there is no major reason to have an early look at what’s coming up in September

 

Last year’s race was a bit of an Alexander Kristoff show as the Norwegian kicked off his excellent season by winning three of five road stages. However, he was unable to defend his position in the time trial which was again won by Niki Terpstra who kept the lead in the final three stages to make it two in a row with a 6-second advantage over Maciej Bodnar. Kristoff’s many bonus seconds allowed him to finish third at 9 seconds even though he was only 26th in the time trial. As Etixx-QuickStep and Tinkoff are both skipping the race, neither Terpstra nor Bodnar will be present this time around but Kristoff will be back in an attempt to continue his recent domination of the Qatari desert.

 

The course

To get an idea of who is going to win a race, the most important aspect is usually to study the route. For the Tour of Qatar, things are different. The course designers always sesign a route that brings the riders to all corners of the small Middle East state, using the same roads numerous times throughout the week. Making sure that the riders will go in all different directions, they hope that the riders will at some point hit a crosswind section, meaning that the real information about the race will be found in the weather forecast and not in the roadbook.

 

In the past, the race consisted of 5 road stages that zigzagged its way through the country, with the capital of Doha being the central location where the riders can stay throughout the duration of the event. In 2007 a novelty was introduced when the race was extended to 6 days by adding an opening 6km team time trial to kick off the event. Since then, the race has had a short TTT each year, with 2011, 2014 and 2015 being the only exceptions. In the former year, the race started with an individual time trial and for the 2014 and 2015 editions, the organizers again decided to replace the collective test with an individual one. In the past, the organizers have made sure not to make the TTs too long so as not to make them too important for the GC but in both 2014 and 2015, the 10.9km race against the clock on the Lusail Moto Circuit had a distance that made sure that no one could win the race without possessing solid time trialing skills. Apparently, they liked the concept as the third stage will again be the an almost completely identical individual time trial.

 

The main novelty for 2016 is the reduction of the race to just five stages which will only make the time trial more important. Furthermore, the second stage is dedicated to the World Championships as it will allow the riders to check the course for the battle for the rainbow jersey. The remaining 3 road stages follow a very traditional format, visiting many of the places that have featured in the past and using the sparse, well-known roads in the Qatari desert. As it is early in the season, the stages will mostly be rather short, making for some fast and intense racing.

 

 

Stage 1:

For the fifth year in a row, the time trial will not be held on the opening day, with the race again kicking off with a road stage. Like last year the race will kick off from Dukhan on the western shores of the peninsula and then make its way to the eastern coast and a finish at the well-known Al Khor Corniche. At 176km, it is a pretty long stage and the final part of the course is identical to the final section of last year’s second stage.

 

Following a small loop on the northern outskirts of the starting city of Dukhan, the riders will head into the desert as they travel in a northeasterly direction for most of the early part of the stage. Along the way, the riders will take three turns that will cause them to change direction briefly. Along the way, they will contest the first intermediate sprint at the 74km to go mark.

 

With around 55km to go, the riders will turn again change direction as they turn to the southeast and heads towards the finish at Al Khor Corniche, hitting the course of last year’s second stage. Again the organizers have made a digression from the direct route which means that the riders will change direction a few times. The final intermediate sprint comes with 28km to go and a little later, the riders will turn to the south to head to the finish in Al Khor Corniche. Before reaching the line, they will do a small loop in the city.

 

The finale is not very technical. With 3.7km to go, the riders will go left in a roundabout and from there they will follow the coastal road which only has some sweeping turns. With 1.3km to go, there is a sweeping right-hand turn and from there it is straight to the finish on an 8m wide road.

 

This is a classic Tour of Qatar stage that will mostly take place in the desert and includes several changes of direction. If the wind is strong, we will probably have echelons at one point but it depends on the direction whether the race will be blown to pieces and have a big impact on the GC. Otherwise it will be a traditional sprint stage that will be decided in a big bunch kick.

 

Except for 2007, a stage has finished in Al Khor every year since 2005 when Lars Michaelsen was the first to win on a course that is similar to this year’s. In 2006, Tom Boonen won two stages there. In 2008, Alberto Loddo and Danilo Napolitano won bunch sprints while Roger Hammond was first across the line on a dramatic stage in 2009.

 

In 2010, Francesco Chicchi won a straightforward bunch sprint while Boonen was first across the line on a very windy opening stage in 2011. 2012 and 2013 saw the Corniche host bunch sprint finishes, with Mark Cavendish triumphing on both occasions. In 2014 Boonen was again triumphant when he won a very windy second stage and last year Alexander Kristoff opened his account on another very windy day. 

 

 

Stage 2:

When it was announced that the World Championships will be held in Doha, the Tour of Qatar was always destined to be the big dress rehearsal and it is no surprise that the course includes a stage on the circuit that will be used in October. At the end of the relatively short second stage, the riders will get a chance to test themselves on the 19km circuit in the centre of Doha as they will do three laps before heading to a finish at the Qatar University.

 

At 135km, it is a short stage that starts at the Katara Cultural Village in Doha and ends at the university just a few kilometres from the start. It can be split into two parts, with the first part consisting of a small loop on the northern outskirts of the city. From the start, the riders will head north along a long straight road as they enter the desert. After 27.5km of racing, they will turn around to head back towards the city along a different road while also contesting the first intermediate sprint at the 39km mark.

 

Having returned to the city, the riders will contest the second intermediate sprint with 63.5km to go and then they will hit the Worlds circuit just two kilometres later. It’s flat, technical circuit along big boulevards, with a big part being located on the Pearl island with a spectacular view to the coast. The riders will do three full laps of the circuit before they leave it to head to the finish at the University of Qatar. The final section is slightly longer than 5km and mostly consists of a winding road with two roundabouts. It leads to the final two turns which come at the 2.1km and 1.1km to go marks and then it is a straight, 8m wide road to the finish.

 

The first part of the stage takes place in the desert where the wind can potentially do some damage but most of it takes place in the centre of Doha where the roads are less exposed. The stage will give an indication of how much damage the wind can do at the World Championships but with a relatively short desert section and plenty of urban racing, we are likely to have a pretty straightforward sprint stage.

 

The University of Qatar has never hosted a stage finish before.

 

 

Stage 3:

The third day of the race will be the one for the fourth individual time trial in the race's history and while much of the race will be determined in the crosswinds, the 11.4km race against the clock will open up significant time gaps that will play a crucial role in the final GC.

 

Like last year, the stage will be held on the Lusail Circuit just north of Doha where the team time trial took place in 2012, a stage that was won by Garmin-Sharp. The area hosts a shooting complex, a motorcycle circuit and the Technical Center of the Qatar Cycling Federation which the riders will pass along their way.

 

Compared to the inaugural time trial of the 2011 edition which was a very short and very technical affair held in the city of Doha and which was won by Lars Boom ahead of Fabian Cancellara, the 10.9km stage used in 2014 and 2015 was much longer and still very technical. This year the riders will use the almost the same course but as one of the turning points has been moved slightly, the distance has been increased to 11.4km.

 

Shortly after the start the riders will turn right in a roundabout and Less than two kilometres from the start, they will turn around in another roundabout and head back to the start-finish area. From here the riders, will head along straight roads that should give the powerful riders the chance to shine as they will only have to turn right in two roundabout for the next several kilometres. With a little less than 4km to go, they will reach the shooting complex where they will turn around in another roundabout. From there, they will head the same way back to the finish, with the final left-hand turn coming just after the flamme rouge.

 

With no less than 8 roundabouts in an 11.4km course, acceleration and technical abilities will be important but as it will be possible to pedal through most of the turns, the course remains one for the powerful riders. With the course set to be dominated by strong winds, it will be important to gauge the effort depending on when the riders will face a headwind.

 

The Lusail circuit has been used for three stages in the history of the race. After Garmin-Sharp won the team time trial in 2012, Michael Hepburn took the biggest win of his career when he beat Lars Boom and Daniele Bennati to win the 2014 time trial. Last year Niki Terpstra was the fastest as he put 8 seconds into Cancellara and 9 seconds into Bradley Wiggins.

 

 

Stage 4:

The riders will be back to fight potential crosswinds on the fourth stage which is another pretty long one compared to usual Qatar standards. As it has become tradition, the penultimate stage sees the riders return to the northern part of the country which has been the scene of some rather dramatic racing in the past. The 189km stage does not get close to the Doha area and starts in at the Al Zubara Fort on the northwest coast of the peninsula, with a finish in Madinat Al Shamal in the very north of the peninsula. The stage is very similar to the one used 12 months ago but a few modifications have been made, mainly by increasing the number of laps and circuits that will be done in the finale.

 

From the start, the riders will travel in a southeasterly direction before doing a small lap of a circuit in the middle of the desert that will see the riders head in several different directions. After completing the lap, the riders will head back along the same road to Al Zubarah Fort where they will contest the first intermediate sprint after 73km of racing.

 

The peloton will now follow the coastal road to the northern tip of the peninsula until they reach the finishing city after 98.5km of racing. Instead of heading to the finish, they will turn right and do one lap of a big circuit on the eastern outskirts of the city before they get to the finish line for the first time with 54km to go. The final part of the stage is made up of four laps of the well-known 13.4 finishing circuit that has been used in the past. There will be an intermediate sprint at the end of the first lap.

 

The finish is rather straightforward as the road will only bend slightly to the left just after the 2km to go mark while the last challenge will be a roundabout that the riders will head straight through just 750m from the finish. From there, it is a straight road with a width of 7m all the way to the finish.

 

With a long trip through the desert, a run along the coast and the final circuit offering plenty of changes in direction, the scene is set for a true drama if the wind is blowing strongly, and there will be plenty of nervousness and need for attention. That was the case when a stage first finished in the city in 2009, with Mark Cavendish making the selection and beating Heinrich Haussler in the final sprint. One year later Tom Boonen won a rather straightforward bunch sprint and the Belgian was again the winner in 2012, albeit after a big drama that saw him arrive at the finish as part of a select group that only consisted of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Veelers, Juan Antonio Flecha, Gert Steegmans, and the Belgian classics star. In 2013 the stage again ended with a classic bunch sprint won by Cavendish and in 2014 André Greipel took his only win of the race from a bunch kick. Last year Alexander Kristoff won his third stage by beating Peter Sagan and Nikias Arndt after a relatively selective stage.

 

 

Stage 5:

With one exception, the road stages of the Tour of Qatar can usually all end in a true crosswind battle. The one exception comes on the final day. Like plenty of other stage races, the race ends with a criterium-like race in the capital, with the riders ending their stay in Qatar by doing 10 laps of a 5.7km circuit on the Doha Corniche.

 

The stage has varied a bit in length from year to year but has mostly had the same format since the inaugural edition in 2002. At 114.5km, the course race will be almost identical to the one used 12 months ago and will again start at the Sealine Beach Resort south of the capital as it has been the case for most of the races. From there the riders will head straight north through the cities of Mesaieed and Al Wakra before reaching the final circuit after 55km and crossing the line for the first time at the 60.5km mark.

 

The riders will then start their first of 10 laps on the 5.7km circuit which is a banana-shaped one held completely on the main coastal road in the city centre. The riders will simply travel 2.6km in one direction before making a very broad U-turn and head back in the opposite direction. The road has a slight bending trend but is completely flat. The final U-turn comes 1.3km from the finish and from there the scene is set for a big bunch sprint on a very wide road with a width of 11m. The intermediate sprints come at the end of the third and seventh laps.

 

The wind could potentially play a role in the first half of the stage but with the circuit being less exposed, there is plenty of time to bring things back together. It will be a big surprise if the race doesn't end as a huge opportunity for the sprinters to show off their fast legs one final time. With the stage being short and really flat and the sprint taking place on a wide road with plenty of space, the pure sprinters with the highest top speed usually come to the fore. In 2013 Mark Cavendish took the spoils and he is preceded on the winners list by great sprinters like Arnaud Demare, Andrea Guardini, Francesco Chicchi, and Cavendish himself. Of course Tom Boonen has also won this stage, having crossed the line in first in both 2007 and 2008. In 2014 Demare won the stage for the second time in his career while Sam Bennett was fastest 12 months ago and it offers a fitting end that perfectly reflects a week of fast, high-speed racing in the desert.

 

 

The weather

As said, the weather forecast is even more important than the roadbook when it comes to preparing for the Tour of Qatar and so the teams will all have taken a careful look to find out what to expect. Unfortunately, it seems that there won’t be much room for aggressive riding in echelons during the next few days.

 

Every day will be sunny with maximum temperatures of 23-25 degrees while the wind is very varying. Tuesday and Friday are forecasted to be pretty windy but unfortunately stages 2 and 5 are those that finish on city circuits where the roads are less exposed. Furthermore, it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind as the wind is coming from a northwesterly direction. The wind will also be pretty strong for the time trial but there will barely be any wind for stages 1 and 4 which are exactly the stages that are suited to aggressive racing.

 

The favourites

In most of the past editions, the Tour of Qatar has been made up of five potentially windy road stages and a team time trial. With that layout, the winner of the race was usually a rider that was strong enough to be in the front echelon each day, fast enough to score bonus seconds in the sprints, and had a strong team that could limit the losses - or gain time - in the team time trial.

 

With the latter stage having been replaced by an individual time trial, the dynamics of the race has changed, making it open to a whole new group of riders and thus more exciting. Now the classics specialists and sprinters will have to limit their losses in the time trial and hope that they can pick up the needed bonus seconds in the sprints while the time trial specialists - who are not necessarily very good in the battle for position - need to stay near the front every day to not get caught out.

 

This interesting dynamic makes for an interesting clash between two different kinds of riders. No one can win the race without the ability to time trial. If you don't master the art of racing in the Qatari desert, however, all your hard-earned time gains from the TT are turned into a deficit in a matter of seconds. This makes the race much more open and unpredictable than it has been in the past.

 

Some of the sprinters are pretty good at handling windy conditions and many of them can time trial well over shorter distances. However, the time trial us pretty long and in the past two years they have lost some time. On the other hand, they will have ample opportunity to pick up bonus seconds and this could bring them back into contention. In general, the race is open for three different kinds of riders: sprinters who hope to pick up bonus seconds, classics riders who hope to split things in the windy and time triallists who hope for an easy race and a good ride on the third day.

 

In the last two years, the race was won by a classics rider with decent time trial skills as Niki Terpstra made use of a strong riding in the crosswinds and two solid time trial performances to win the race on both occasions. In 2015 Tom Boonen picked up lots of bonus seconds by winning two stages but he lost too much in the race against the clock and had to settle for second. Last year it was Alexander Kristoff who was close to the win but three stage victories were not enough to make up for his losses in the time trial.

 

The formidable line-up of sprinters means that it will be harder for the fast finishers to be in contention for the overall win. The bonus seconds could be spread equally among a big group of bunch kick experts and this means that those who will manage to make the first echelon each day will have a harder time defending their advantage over the time triallists. At the same time, some of the time triallists are pretty strong classics riders, meaning that they will be able to stay with the best in the crosswinds.

 

This year a number of elements have changed. First of all the race has been shortened which offers one less chance for the sprinters to pick up bonus seconds and the classics riders to make a difference in the crosswind. At the same time, the addition of a stage on the Worlds circuit means that there will be one less potentially windy stage and we should have two straightforward bunch sprints on stage 2 and 5. This is a disadvantage for the classics riders. Finally, the line-up of time triallists is not as is impressive as it has been in recent years and so the sprinters may be able to limit their losses better than they have done in the past.

 

This year the sprinters will be extremely pleased to know that we are unlikely to see much crosswinds action. With stages 2 and 5 likely to finish in bunch sprints, the difference has to be made in stages 1 and 4. However, there won’t be much win on Monday and Thursday which means that we expect four bunch kicks and a time trial. That takes the classics riders out of contention and opens the door for more sprinters as they are likely to survive every day. At the same time, the time triallists don’t have to fear that they will be taken out of contention in the road stages. Hence, it should come down to a battle between the sprinters who can pick up bonus seconds, and the time triallists.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff dominated the race by winning three stages but he came up short in the battle for the overall win. The Norwegian lost 44 seconds to Terpstra in the time trial and even though he picked up lots of bonus seconds, he missed 9 seconds in the end. This year he goes into the race with a different goal though. In 2015 he didn’t expect to be an overall contender but after seeing how close he was in 2016 he will now start the race with the GC as his main objective.

 

It is a big disadvantage for Kristoff that the number of stages has been shortened as it gives him one less opportunity to win a stage. Furthermore, the lack of wind definitely not benefits him as he is one of the best at riding in windy conditions and is much stronger in a sprint when it comes at the end of a hard day. He is not as fast as the likes of Mark Cavendish, Andrea Guardini and Sam Bennett in a pure bunch kicks and it will be hard for him to dominate things like he did last year.

 

However, at this time of the year, it is all about condition and last year Kristoff proved that he can get into very good form purely by training. He seems to be very confident in his own opportunities and he has a few aces up his sleeves. First of all he is extremely consistent in the bunch sprints due to his good positioning and that means that he could easily end in the top 3 in the bunch sprints. Secondly, he is supported by a great lead-out train of Michael Mørkøv-Marco Haller-Jacopo Guarnieri. The latter two formed the best train at last year’s Tour de France and they know how to set the Norwegian up in the sprints. They will be up against a formidable Dimension Data train too but they have less experience in riding together. Katusha’s strong lead-out means that we expect Kristoff to be up there every day.

 

The main challenge will be to limit his losses in the time trial. Last year he was far off the pace but later he proved that he can time trial pretty well when he finished third in De Panne where the course is very similar to the one in Qatar. That made him motivated to work on his TT skills and he has reportedly improved a lot. This time the biggest specialists are not present in Qatar and we expect Kristoff to be able to limit his losses enough to win the overall. He is our favourite to win the race.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo have not got much attention in the build-up to the event but that could be a huge mistake. The Dutch team goes into the race with Jos van Emden and the Dutchman stands out as one of the big favourites for the time trial. In the beginning of his career, he was already a TT specialist but for some reason he failed to build on his promises. That suddenly changed in July last year when he finished fifth in the Tour de France TT and he confirmed his skills by winning the Eneco time trial later in the year in what was a very strong field.

 

Both those time trials had a similar length to this one and that distance seems to suit van Emden very well. He is a strong classics rider and should easily handle the conditions, especially as there will be little wind. On paper he is the best time triallist in the race but it all depends on his form. He hasn’t raced yet so everything is a bit uncertain but if he has prepared well, he will be one of the big favourites.

 

Lars Boom will also have his eyes on the overall win. Last year he was one of the favourites but after falling ill he lost time in the crosswinds. This year he goes into the race with lots of racing in his legs as he has been doing cyclo-cross and riding on the road in Australia and Dubai.

 

In the early part of his career, he was a great time triallist but like van Emden he suddenly saw his level decrease. Last year he seemed to get back on track and even though he is still not the time triallist he once was, he will be one of the best in this field. His cyclo-cross races will serve him well for this kind of short, intense effort. If he can win the time trial, he will be a strong contender.

 

Mark Cavendish is a former winner of the race but that was when it still included a team time trial. That’s no longer the case so now he will have to limit his losses in the time trial. The Brit is actually pretty good in shorter time trials and when he is in his best form, he should defend himself in this kind of stage.

 

Cavendish has been focused on the track and admits that he doesn’t have the best road condition yet. He is worried by his recovery and as he comes straight from Dubai he will end up with nine racing days and just one rest day. That could be a bit too much and set him back in the time trial.

 

However, he is still the best sprinter in the race and on paper Dimension Data has a very strong lead-out here. He claims to have produced his best power in the sprints since 2011 in Dubai and even though he failed to win, he proved that he has the speed. We expect him to dominate the sprints but we doubt that he will be strong enough in the time trial. However, it’s definitely not impossible if he can do as well as he has done in the past.

 

Lieuwe Westra is the second strong Astana contender. The Dutchman claims to have lived like a monk in the off-season and is very motivated to get some personal results in the early part of the year. He came up short in Australia where he crashed and the Dubai Tour didn’t suit him. Now he is aiming for the win here.

 

Westra will have to win the time trial to come out on top and he was once one of the best time triallists in the world. However, that hasn’t been the case for the last couple of years. He hopes to return to his former level and will give more attention to the TT but he still has to show that his efforts have paid off. He will have a chance to do so on the third day and if he can get back on track in his favourite discipline, his form is definitely good enough to win the race.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen is tailor-made for this race as he can both sprint and time trial. Unfortunately, he won’t get any chance to pick up bonus seconds as he will be working for Cavendish in the sprints and with little wind on the menu, he won’t get any chance to get rid of his teammate. That means that he has to make the difference in the time trial.

 

Boasson Hagen is a good time triallist but he is rarely among the very best. However, the field is not impressive here and if he can get close to the lead, Dimension Data may turn their attention to him in the final two road stages. If he can pick up some bonus seconds there, he could win the race even though his form in Mallorca was not outstanding.

 

Daniel Oss had an injury-plagued 2014 which made him fly under the radar in 2015 but he proved how brutally strong he is in the classics. On paper, Greg Van Avermaet is the BMC leader but we have higher expectations for Oss. He is not a real TT specialist but he time trials decently. Last year he was 6th in the Tirreno prologue and he is usually very good right from the start of the year. Furthermore, BMC don’t have a real sprinter in the race so he will be given his chance in the bunch sprints. It will be hard for him to pick up any bonus seconds but it won’t be impossible.

 

Time trialling was once one of Greg Van Avermaet’s weaknesses but it all changed in 2015. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he was suddenly flying in short TTs and he confirmed his progress later in the year at the Eneco Tour. However, he is still not powerful enough to win this kind of TT. To have a real shot at the overall win, he would need some windy conditions but as they are unlikely to be there, he is more of an outsider that a real favourite.

 

On paper Jesse Sergent is one of the best time triallist in the race but he has not really been at his best since he crashed at last year’s Tour of Flanders. He did a terrible TT at his national championships and needs to show considerable signs of improvement to win this race. However, if he can return to the level he had in 2014, he will be one of the big favourites for the TT and so also for the overall.

 

Another strong time triallist in the race is his teammate Patrick Gretsch. The German is very inconsistent but tends to produce great results occasionally, most notably in the Giro. Unfortunately, he is rarely very good at this time of the year so we don’t expect too much from him. On the other hand, his past performances mean that he is one of the riders with a realistic shot at overall victory.

 

Sam Bennett is one of the best sprinters in this race and could very well come away with a few stage wins. The Bora-Argon 18 train is getting better and better and he has proved that he has the speed to beat almost everyone. There is a big chance that he will get a big haul of bonus seconds. Unfortunately, he has never done a good time trial so it will be hard for him to be a contender. On the other hand, he has rarely had any incentive to go for it so he may do better than expected.

 

***** Alexander Kristoff

**** Jos van Emden, Lars Boom

*** Mark Cavendish, Lieuwe Westra, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Daniel Oss

** Greg Van Avermaet, Jesse Sergent, Patrick Gretsch, Manuel Quinziato, Sam Bennett

* Damien Gaudin, Mike Teunissen, Tom Bohli, Daniel Eaton, Marco Canola, Søren Kragh Andersen, Jens Mouris

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