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After the peloton had split inside the final 15km, Rojas took a rare sprint win by holding off Boonen and Demare in the first stage of the Tour of Qatar; the Spaniard is the first leader of the race

Photo: Sirotti

ARNAUD DEMARE

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JOSE JOAQUIN ROJAS GIL

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MOVISTAR TEAM

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TOUR OF QATAR

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08.02.2015 @ 15:38 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) became a hugely surprising winner of the first stage of the Tour of Qatar when he produced an impressive sprint to beat Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) on a windy day in the desert. After the peloton had split inside the final 15km, the Spaniard launched a long sprint off Niki Terpstra’s wheel and easily held off his rivals to take the first leader’s jersey in the race.

 

Jose Joaquin Rojas is known as a fast rider but he has always had a hard time winning the big bunch sprints. Hence, his name didn’t feature prominently among the top contenders for the first stage of the Tour of Qatar which usually has one of the most impressive line-ups of the entire season.

 

Nonetheless, the Spaniard created a big surprise when he came out on top on the opening day of the six-day race. In a sprint from a reduced 50-rider group, he beat Tom Boonen and Arnaud Demare by a convincing margin.

 

The stage took place in the usual windy, Qatari conditions but with a strong headwind dominating most of the day, it turned out to be a slow affair. A change in direction at the midpoint caused a brief split in the peloton but when they turned back into the headwind, things came back together.

 

No one planned to go into a suicide move in the headwind and so the peloton just rolled along at a slow pace, waiting for the final sprint to unfold. However, Astana decided to try to create a surprise when the sent off their pair of time triallists Lars Boom and Lieuwe Westra who were joined by Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo).

 

Inside the final 15km, the peloton turned into a crosswind and this suddenly changed the script completely. A big acceleration saw the peloton split into several groups and it was a 50-rider first bunch that caught the escapees with 10km to go.

 

From there, everyone was fighting for position with no single team being able to take control. Inside the final 2km, Astana finally seemed to have won the battle when Westra and Borut Bozic lined out on the front with Andrea Guardini on his wheel but despite an impressive turn by the Slovenian, it was too early and Guardini had to drop back.

 

Instead, a Trek rider briefly got a gap before Niki Terpstra hit the front to lead Boonen out. However, it was Rojas who came off his wheel and even though Boonen tried to pass him, the Spaniard took the win. Arnaud Demare narrowly edged out Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) for third.

 

With the win, Rojas is of course also the first leader of the race and he will wear the golden jersey tomorrow when the riders tackle the second stage. At 194.5km, it is much longer and it is another typical Qatar stage along flat desert roads where the wind can wreak havoc on the peloton as crosswinds are expected in the finale.

 

A typical Qatar stage

The Tour of Qatar started with a very traditional stage that brought the riders straight across the peninsula over 136km from Dukhan on the west coast to Sealine Beach on the east coast. As always, most of the stage took place along long, flat desert roads where only the wind could prevent a bunch sprint.

 

The riders took the start under unusual Qatari conditions as it was overcast. However, the usual strong desert wind was blowing and was set to get stronger as the day went on. With a headwind forecasted, however, all was set for a bunch sprint at the Sealine Beach.

 

An early break

The strong headwind meant that most of the riders were keen to have an easy ride in the peloton and when two riders attacked straight from the gun, they were allowed to build an advantage. Jarl Salomein (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Luca Sterbini (Bardiani) made a brave move and while Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) fought his way back to the peloton after an early crash, they extended their lead to 40 seconds.

 

The peloton was in no mood to organize a chase and so the gap reached a massive 8.30 after just 20km of racing. Surprisingly, Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-QuickStep) and Matti Breschel (Tinkoff-Saxo) took up the task of trying to bridge that big gap and at the 25km mark, they were 7.25 behind while the peloton had already lost most than 10 minutes.

 

Arndt takes a bonus second

A change in direction caused some nervousness in the peloton that brought Michael Mørkøv (Tinkoff-Saxo) down in a crash. He got back on his bike and the increased pace had brought the gap down to 7 minutes and the chasers back in the fold.

 

Salomein beat Sterbini in the first intermediate sprint while Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) beat Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) in the battle for the final bonus second. Giant-Alpecin and FDJ had now started to chase and at the 47km mark, the gap was down to 4.10.

 

The peloton splits

Due to the strong headwind, the pace was very slow and the riders only covered 60km during the first two hours. At a change of direction, however, the peloton suddenly became nervous again and the subsequent acceleration brought the gap down to just 30 seconds in just a few kilometres.

 

At this point, Etixx-QuickStep – led by Tom Boonen – managed to split the peloton and when the dust had settled, three groups were spread across the road. Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep), Boonen, Fabian Cancellara (Trek), Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) were among the riders in the 45-rider first group that quickly swallowed up the escapes. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) found himself in a second group 25 seconds behind which quickly merged with a third one.

 

More seconds for Arndt

The gap stayed around the 30-minute mark for some time but at the 81km mark, things came back together. The riders were now again riding into a headwind and this caused things to slow down.

 

Boonen and Sagan both hit the deck but got back on their bikes. Meanwhile, Arndt beat Terpstra and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida) in the final intermediate sprint to pick up another three bonus seconds.

 

Van Avermaet attacks

The attacking started again, with several small groups trying to get clear. However, it wasn’t until Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) gave it a go that someone was able to create a gap.

 

The Belgian battled on for a few kilometres while Gatis Smukulis led the chase for Katusha. However, he decided that the move made no sense and waited for the peloton.

 

Boom and Westra make a move

During the next few kilometres, nothing happened as Matthieu Ladagnous was leading the bunch in the strong headwind but with 26km to go, Boom and Westra attacked. Breschel joined them but after he had taken a few turns, the Dane decided not to do any contributions.

 

The gap reached 55 seconds with 20km to go as Katusha had now again started to chase. However, the riders were turning into a crosswind and this made the peloton nervous.

 

The peloton splits again

With 16km to go, the peloton had split, with Bora-Argon 18 riding on the front. Trek, IAM and Cofidis were also doing a lot of work and with 10km to go, the break was caught.

 

No one was able to take control as everyone was fighting for position. Tinkoff-Saxo, Etixx-QuickStep, Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) all took some huge turns on the front while a second group was desperately trying to regain contact.

 

With 2km to go, Astana managed to assert their dominance with Westra, Bozic and Guardini but in the end it was Rojas who took the win.

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