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Stage 4 offers the riders the final chance to split the peloton in the wind

Photo: QCF/Paumer/Kåre Dehlie Thorstad

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11.02.2016 @ 10:45 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Edvald Boasson Hagen crushed the opposition in the time trial and gained enough time on the sprinters to feel relatively secure ahead of the final two stages. The only real chance to dethrone the Norwegian will be to drop him in the crosswinds in Thursday’s stage 4 but with little wind on the menu, we could be heading for a straightforward bunch sprint in Madinat al Shamal.

 

The course

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, 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.

 

 

The weather

With the final stage being a bit like a criterium, stage 4 is the final chance to really make a selection in the wind. Hence, many riders that have time to make up, will be reluctant to learn that Thursday will be the least windy day of the entire week. As usual, it will be sunny but unlike in the past few days, there will be  few clouds too. The maximum temperature in Doha will be 23 degrees.

 

There will only be a light wind from a westerly direction which means that the riders will mainly have a cross-headwind or a cross-tailwind in the first part of the race. It will be the same on the two circuits, with a cross-tailwind in the first half and a cross-headwind in the second half. The sweeping turn with 2km to go leads into a headwind on the finishing straight.

 

The favourites

As we said yesterday, Edvald Boasson Hagen was always one of the big favourites to take the golden jersey and win the time trial but few would have expected him to deliver the extremely dominant performance that allowed him to crush the opposition. To beat a big specialist like Jos van Emden by almost half a minute on a short 11.4km course confirms that Boasson Hagen is likely to finally show himself as a true classics contender. Last autumn he showed that he was finally back at his best level and this year he seems to be continuing the trend.

 

Mark Cavendish did one of the best time trials of his life to finish seventh and if it hadn’t been for Boasson Hagen’s dominance, he would have been the big favourite to win overall. To take back enough time, he needs to win the final two stages and score and pick up another six bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints. If Boasson Hagen hadn’t been his teammate, Dimension Data would probably give it a try but now they won’t be concerned with the intermediate time bonuses. Instead, they will try to keep the jersey on Boasson Hagen’s shoulders and go for two stage wins with Cavendish.

 

Alexander Kristoff did a poor time trial and was frustrated to have produced 10 watts less than he did last year as he had expected to be stronger than he was 12 months ago. The overall win is no longer within reach and it will be virtually impossible for him to pass Cavendish unless he gets rid of the Manxman in the wind. However, another third place is still within reach if he can pick up a few top 3 results in the final two stages.

 

The final stage into Doha always ends in a bunch sprint and it won’t be any different his year as there will be a headwind in the desert section. Hence, the only real chance to turn the GC on its heads comes in tomorrow. The stage to Madiat al Shamal has produced some of the most memorable and exciting racing in the history of the race. Just remember Tom Boonen’s fantastic stage win in 2012. However, it has also seen its fair share of bunch kicks and everything depends on the wind and its direction.

 

As we wrote in our overall preview at the start of the week, Thursday has always been forecasted to be the least windy day of the race and unfortunately, things haven’t changed since then. There will be a little more wind than expected last Sunday but it doesn’t change the fact that it will only be a light wind from a westerly direction.

 

Furthermore, the direction is not really suitable to creating major splits. There will be some cross-tailwind sections in the first part and we could potentially see some splits here but we doubt that it will be the case. On the final circuits, it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind and as the wind won’t be strong, it will be difficult to create much selection. If we get any splits in the early part of the race, there is still a long way to the finish so we expect this to come down to a relatively straightforward bunch sprint.

 

This doesn’t change the fact that the race will be very nervous and there is no doubt that BMC and Katusha will do their utmost to create some splits. We again expect a fast and action-packed start and like in stage 1, there is no guarantee that we will get an early break. However, we expect the race to calm down at some point and a break to be established. From there, Dimension Data and Katusha should take control to set up a bunch sprint. The final part of the race is uncomplicated but the headwind will make things difficult and it will be difficult to get the timing right when it comes to launching the lead-outs and the sprints. The long finishing straight should suit the real power sprinters.

 

As we expect a bunch sprint, it is hard to look beyond Mark Cavendish as the favourite. The Manxman was clearly the fastest in stage 1 and it was actually no different in stage 2 despite the fact that Kristoff got the win. Cavendish had to try to pass Kristoff in the wind while giving shelter to the Norwegian so it was actually a solid performance to get so close to the win.

 

Cavendish’s disadvantage is that Katusha have proved to have the strongest train. At the same time, Dimension Data also have to take care of Boasson Hagen so they can’t be fully committed to their fast Brit. On the other hand, the South Africans have had the next best train and Mark Renshaw is one of the best lead-out men in the business. This means that Cavendish could very well find himself on Kristoff’s wheel in the sprint. Tomorrow it will be a direct headwind so the sprint will be more on equal terms and in a classic bunch sprint, Cavendish is faster than Kristoff. Hence, the Brit is our favourite.

 

His biggest rival will of course be Alexander Kristoff. As said, the Norwegian’s big advantage is his lead-out train of Marco Haller, Viacheslav Kuznetsov, Michael Mørkøv and Jacopo Guarnieri. That should allow Kristoff to start his sprint from the best possible position as it has been the case in the first two road stages. He likes this kind of power sprint which suits him really well. He will hope for some nervous and aggressive racing that will make it harder as he benefits from a tough race. He has proved that he can beat Cavendish if the circumstances are right and he will try to do so again tomorrow.

 

Sam Bennett may not have had many results yet but the Irishman has proved that he is in excellent condition. He has made all the splits and today he did one of the best time trials of his life. Unfortunately, he crashed in stage 2 but his performance today indicates that he is not badly injured.

 

Furthermore, Bora-Argon 18 have been very strong, placing numerous riders in the first group whenever the peloton has split. They have also been strong in the lead-outs even though they don’t have the firepower of Katusha and Dimension Data. Bennett excels in pure bunch kicks and that’s what we are likely to get tomorrow. If he can – for once – stay with his teammates in the finale, he has the speed to win.

 

The same can be said about Andrea Guardini who is also in outstanding condition. Despite being known for his fragile nature, he has made all the splits. Like Bennett he crashed in stage 2 but he is not badly hurt and will try to go for glory tomorrow. He will benefit from an easy race and if he gets that, he is one of the very fastest. He doesn’t have the best train but if Tleubayev can drop him off close to Cavendish, he is one of the select few with the speed to beat the Manxman.

 

Sacha Modolo again underlined his fantastic form by doing one of the best time trials of his life and he now sits just 3 seconds outside the top 10. He will try to move up a few spots by scoring bonus seconds in the final two stages and tomorrow’s stage is his first chance. He has lots of fast guys to support him but he has actually handled the sprints mostly by himself. He has been positioning himself in a great way and has been sprinting really well too. He is not fast enough to win but a top 3 spot is within his reach.

 

We have pointed to Andrea Palini on numerous occasions and we will do so again. The Italian is extremely consistent in these races which is very impressive as he is on his own in the sprints. Nonetheless, he us is usually close to the best wheel at the start of the sprint which proves his fantastic positioning skills. In stage 2 he also proved his speed by coming around Modolo. He won’t win but the top 3 is within his reach.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo got the race off to a bad start but they are getting better and better. Today they were close to the win with van Emden and yesterday Moreno Hofland and Mike Teunissen were strong in th wind. They messed the lead-out up but none of their riders hit the deck. Furthermore, they all seem to be in very good condition. Hofland is not fast enough to win this sprint but he is surrounded by one of the best teams and this could allow him to sprint into the top 3.

 

Drapac had a great day as Jordan Kerby finished in the top 10 in the time trial. Brenton Jones also proved his good form with a solid ride and he will be ready to go for glory in one of the sprint stages. He has no chance if the race becomes selective but as we expect a straightforward bunch sprint, he should be up there. An in-form Graeme Brown will be ready to set him up and in general Drapac have lots of firepower to put him into a solid position.

 

Finally, Roy Jans deserves a mention. The Belgian did really well to take third in stage 2. He managed to position himself ahead of the crash which was thanks to a great lead-out performance by the Wanty team. They have lots of fast riders and seem to be working well together. Jans is not fast enough to win at this level but with an improved Wanty train at his side, he will be up there.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Mark Cavendish

Other winner candidates: Alexander Kristoff, Sam Bennett

Outsiders: Andrea Guardini, Sacha Modolo, Andrea Palini

Jokers: Moreno Hofland, Brenton Jones, Roy Jans

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