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With bonus seconds on offer, the final stage of the Tour of Qatar will be a nail-biting affair

Photo: QCF/Paumer/Kåre Dehlie Thorstad

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TOUR OF QATAR

RACE PROFILE
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NEWS
11.02.2016 @ 20:06 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Just as it looked like Edvald Boasson Hagen would crown a great week with a second consecutive overall stage race victory (after last year’s Tour of Britain), we were all reminded about the unpredictable nature of the Tour of Qatar and the battle for the overall win is now wide open ahead of the final stage. Despite the forecasted windy conditions, the final criterium in Doha is likely to come down to a big bunch sprint but with bonus seconds on offer and small time differences, all is still to play for in the 2013 edition of the desert race.

 

The course

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 route 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.

 

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

Thursday was a relatively calm day in Qatar but the wind still turned out to be enough to split the field. Tomorrow it will be a lot windier as Friday shapes up to be one of the windiest days of the week.

 

With a maximum temperature of 20 degrees, it will be the coldest day of the race but there will be bright sunshine all day. A strong wind will be blowing from a northwesterly direction which means that the riders will have a crosswind and a cross-headwind in the first part. On the circuit, it will mostly be a head- or a tailwind and it will be a tailwind sprint.

 

The favourites

Edvald Boasson Hagen looked like he had secured his first ever victory in the Tour of Qatar when bad luck again hit him in the Middle East. It was hard not to get a feeling of déjà vu to see him lose out on overall victory due to a double puncture after he lost victory in the 2012 Tour of Oman when his rivals attacked him after a natural break. Once again Boasson Hagen will have to leave the Middle East without what would have been a deserved overall victory but he can console himself with the fact that his Dimension Data team is still likely to have the golden jersey at the end of the final stage.

 

However, the game is a lot more open than it was just 24 hours ago. Greg Van Avermaet and Manuel Quinziato can both take the overall win by virtue of bonus seconds but none of them are fast enough to match Mark Cavendish. They have already admitted that their main goal will be to finish on the podium with both riders and they are unlikely to do much to try to dethrone Cavendish.

 

The real threat is Alexander Kristoff who is in a very similar position to the one he was in 12 months ago. Back then he also went into the final stage with a realistic shot at overall victory. However, back then he was chasing Niki Terpstra who was no sprinter and it all depended on Kristoff himself and his performance in the final sprint. This time he is up against another sprinter – and even the fastest in the peloton – so even a Kristoff victory may not be enough to take the golden jersey off Cavendish’s shoulders.

 

The final stage into Doha is a real classic as it has been used for most editions of the race and all the riders know the circuit very well. The racing has always been very predictable and it has always come down to a big bunch sprint.

 

For stages 1 and 4, we predicted that the wind would not be strong enough to split the field but racing in Qatar is always unpredictable. On much windier days, the stage to Madinat al Shamal has been decided in a big bunch sprint but today a relatively light breeze was enough to blow the race to pieces. That clearly shows that there will be no guarantees for tomorrow’s stage.

 

Friday will be very windy but it will mainly be a cross-headwind in the exposed part of the stage in the beginning. As the riders will be riding in the desert, we will have lots of nervousness and we are pretty sure that BMC and Katusha will at least try to split things. However, a headwind makes it the worst possible conditions to do some damage so we expect it to calm down before they get to the circuit. Instead, we can expect an early break to be formed and a slow first hour.

 

In the past, the breakaway in the final stage has often been very strong and that’s likely to be the case again. BMC have some very strong riders and it would be no surprise to see them add some firepower to the break to try to tire Katusha and Dimension Data out ahead of the final sprint. They know that their second place is at risk and that they can’t really do much against Kristoff in the sprint. Their best option is to try to get rid of his impressive lead-out train.

 

It will be interesting to see how the teams handle the intermediate sprints. Cavendish will be pleased to see the bonus seconds be taken by the breakaway. Kristoff knows that he is likely to get beaten by Cavendish and see the gap getting wider and as he is likely to maximally gain one second on Cavendish in each sprint, it won’t really change much when it comes to his chance to take overall victory. However, second place in the stage is not enough to take second overall but it would be so if he could add just two seconds in one of the intermediate sprints. However, we expect them to let the escapees pick up the seconds in the first sprint and as the final sprint comes too close to the finale for the sprinters to contest it, we expect him to focus on the finale.

 

However, BMC may try to bring things back together for the final sprint. It’s very close to the finish so Cavendish will be reluctant to go for the seconds. The same goes for all the other sprinters and this means that Van Avermaet can win the sprint. If Cavendish decides to focus on the final sprint, three bonus seconds would make Van Avermaet the virtual leader and Kristoff would no longer be a threat. Then he would just have to cross his finger that Cavendish fails to finish in the top 3.

 

We don’t expect Dimension Data to work for a bunch sprint as they would be pleased to see the breakaway take the bonus seconds. This means that most of the work will be left to Katusha but they could find some allies in Astana and Bora-Argon 18 that are both very ambitious for this final stage as Andrea Guardini and Sam Bennett are both past winners. In the end, there is no doubt that it will come down to a bunch sprint.

 

History shows that the fastest riders prevail in Doha. The wide finishing straight and short distance means that it is perfect for the pure sprinters and it is no surprise that it has been won by very fast riders like Guardini, Bennett, Cavendish and Francesco Chicchi. The road is extremely wide so there is room for everyone and this makes lead-outs less important. Furthermore, there will be a tailwind which will make it a very fast sprint.

 

Mark Cavendish had no chance in today’s sprint. He was isolated and had no protection from the crosswind. Hence, he could only focus on staying with the Katusha train to make sure that he didn’t lose any time and was never a threat in the battle for the stage win. It was similar in stage 2 where he had to try to pass Kristoff in the wind after the Norwegian had been protected by his team and that made it impossible for him to beat Kristoff.

 

However, there is no doubt that Cavendish is the fastest rider in the peloton, especially in a “pure” sprint like this one which comes at the end of a short and easy day. In this finale it is more about pure speed and less about lead-outs so Kristoff will not be able to benefit from his strong team in the same way that he has done in recent stage. Finally, Dimension Data won’t have to be concerned with Boasson Hagen who will focus fully on the lead-out and play an important role in the train. On paper, the South African team are strong and even though they don’t have Katusha’s power, they will be able to drop Cavedish off in a good position. He is the fastest rider in the field and so has to be the favourite to take both the stage and the overall victory.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff failed big time in this stage at a time when the overall victory was still within reach. This year he hopes to make amends but it is not really a stage that suits him. In a pure bunch sprint, Kristoff is not as fast as the fastest riders and he usually needs a much harder race to really excel.

 

Kristoff’s big advantage is that he has the strongest lead-out train and he is likely to start his sprint from the perfect position. However, lead-outs play less of a role in this sprint so Kristoff has to rely more on his own speed. Finally, Katusha will have to work a lot harder during the stage and may not be as fresh for the lead-out which was the case 12 months ago. It will be harder for Kristoff to win the stage but if things fail for Cavendish, the Norwegian is still the obvious favourite.

 

Last year Sam Bennett won this stage after one week of suffering in the wind. This year he is obviously a lot stronger and goes into the race on the back of an impressive performance in the hard stages. He has proved that he is much more than a pure sprinter but he remains one of the fastest riders in the bunch at the end of this kind of short, easy stage.

 

Furthermore, the Bora-Argon 18 train has become a lot stronger and they have done a great job in positioning the Irishman. That was evident in today’s stage where he was in the perfect position on Cavendish’s wheel. Unfortunately, he often gets lost in the finale but that plays less of a role on this wide road. If Bennett gets a clear run to the line, Cavendish has to be at the very best to beat him.

 

Andrea Guardini is another former winner of this stage and he was also second last year. This is the kind of stage that he loves: short, fast and easy. It is similar to the one that allowed him to beat Mark Cavendish in the 2012 Giro and he has proved that he has the speed to beat everyone in such a stage. He doesn’t have the best lead-out but that’s not very important in this stage. This could be the time for Guardini to open his account.

 

Sacha Modolo has been impressive throughout the race as he has made most of the splits despite limited team support. Today he was again there in the finale but again his team let him down and made it impossible for him to contest the sprint. Furthermore, he has been sprinting well and seems to be faster than ever. This is not really a sprint that suits him and he is unlikely to win but he should still be up there.

 

Another riders that really likes this kind of easy race is Yauheni Hutarovich. The Belarusian was once a bit of a specialist in these races but he is no longer as fast as he once was. However, he seems to be getting closer to his former level and he has a great lead-out to support him. If Steven Tronet, Boris Vallee and Daniel McLay can set him up well, he should be up there.

 

Brenton Jones is another pure sprinter who is very fast but doesn’t need many challenges to be taken out of contention. This stage suits him down to the ground and he has a powerful lead-out to position him. He showed himself during the Australian summer where he was often the biggest threat to Caleb Ewan and with Graeme Brown as final lead-out man, he can count on experienced support.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo did a big attack in the finale of today’s stage but failed to finish it off. Now they hope to deliver Moreno Hofland to victory in the final stage but it doesn’t really suit him. The Dutchman usually needs a harder finale as he is not as fast as his rivals. On the other hand, LottoNL-Jumbo have a really powerful team for the finale and if they can finally get the lead-out right, Hofland could be on the podium.

 

Today Andrea Palini missed the split and he will be keen to make amends tomorrow. He has confirmed the great for that he has shown throughout the winter and despite his lack of team support, he has been great at positioning himself. He is probably not fast enough to win but he is almost guaranteed to finish in the top 10.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Mark Cavendish

Other winner candidates: Alexander Kristoff, Sam Bennett

Outsiders: Andrea Guardini, Sacha Modolo, Yauheni Hutarovich

Jokers: Brenton Jones, Moreno Hofland, Andrea Palini

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