What I learned from the 2016 Ladies Tour of Qatar
The Ladies Tour of Qatar is always a fantastic spectacle, and although it’s really a pre-season race, it’s still important, not just for the results and the racing, but also for the hints it gives us about the season to come. And this year, with Stage 1 taking in the circuit that’s going to be the 2016 Road World Championships, it’s more interesting than ever. It’s too early to make definitive calls about what the 2016 teams will be like, but still, there were lots of things the race showed me – and if you’ve got more you want to add, let me know in the comments. If you didn’t get to follow the race, Dan and I podcasted about the first three stages here, and I’ve got daily collections of the video, media, results and race reports:
It IS possible to beat Kirsten Wild in Qatar
Kirsten Wild is the acknowledged queen of Qatar, coming into the race with 9 stage wins and 3 General Classification gold jerseys – check out how she’s dominated the race in 2013 and 2014. This is your average Wild approach to Qatar (she’s the tall rider in white, the only rider from her team in the break – she did this for about 3 stages in a row in 2013):
But while Wild started the race as the number 1 favourite, and started off well, winning the Stage 1 bunch sprint for her tenth title, the “Wild shows up and crushes everyone” narrative wasn’t there. Stage 2 was a disaster for her, uncharacteristically missing the break, then having a puncture and then having a nasty bike-cartwheel crash, and riding the race with an icepack on her face – but in Stage 3 she was back in the escape group, and beaten by Ellen van Dijk‘s km 1.5 attack, and in Stage 4, a finish that’s very familiar to her, Chloe Hosking beat her in the bunch sprint.
Now, of course the effects of Stage 2 could have been impacting on Wild, and she’s focusing on the track this year, so might not be on the same level of form, as the Track World Championships are in March, but its very interesting, because I, and a lot of other people, when we heard that the Road Worlds are in Doha, mentally handed the rainbows to Wild, and now it feels like that’s not such a foregone conclusion. However, while other riders will take confidence from this, we do have to note that much as Hitec Products is the “biggest little team in women’s cycling”, they are still a small one relative to the strength of Boels Dolmans and Wiggle High 5 and Canyon-SRAM…. but at Worlds, Wild will be racing with the Dutch National Team, and the idea of Wild and Van Dijk racing together, with so many other incredible Dutch riders, is already giving me shivers!
Doha Worlds might not show us the best of Qatar racing
The Worlds being held in Doha has been controversial from the start, with concerns about the heat pushing Worlds back into October, and concerns about the course just not being interesting enough – not to mention the general issues about major sporting events in the country (eg football and athletics, not to mention the human rights issues, which make bribery allegations pale in comparison). But if you can put all that aside, the Ladies Tour has always shown some fantastic racing, and there were rumours that the Qatari state building a hill for the race… which of course came to nothing, and we’ve now seen racing using the Stage 1 circuit.
It didn’t help that Stage 1 was uncharacteristically windy, but there weren’t many opportunities to escape on the loop around the Pearl manmade island, and in when asked about the Worlds loop by Cyclingnews, both Hosking and Wild said it was a difficult circuit, where positioning will be key, and were hoping for a big loop into the desert, and wind, so it won’t be the full peloton taking the circuit. We’ll see it again in Stage 2 of the men’s Tour of Qatar Stage 2 on Tuesday, and hopefully there’ll be wind then, so we can see if that makes a difference.
Racing in Australia helps riders win in Qatar… but doesn’t guarantee it!
This race tweet said a lot about what riders need to win here – speed from the Australian summer, Dutch wind-skills, and German wily tactics! It’s not just the miles in the legs that helps, it’s having the practice racing with new team mates, and in new positions. Now, of course, starting racing in January makes for a long season, and some teams come to Qatar as the beginning of their working up to the Spring Classics, rather than in top form, but it’s still very interesting. And Lauretta Hanson in 10th place is a testament to how Aussie racing can help – on the back of her Santos Women’s Tour performance, she got a place in the Aussie national team, and as a result of that, was one of the few riders who broke away on Stage 2 and got her first UCI podium! I’m hoping she’ll get snapped up by one of the big teams as a result, because that was clever racing from this young rider!
“Dutch style racing” isn’t just for the Low Countries
Dutch rouleur Iris Slappendel once described Qatar this way: “If you imagine the sand is grass, and the camels are cows, it’s just like racing at home”, and she’s so right. Although the roads are wider, and there’s none of the lethal road furniture, the race is ALL about the skills that come with Dutch racing: judging the wind to perfection; echelons and gutter action; and keeping your position perfectly, because if you miss the break at kilometre 3, your race is over, as some of the best riders in the race found out in Stage 2. And “Dutch style” skills aren’t something that come naturally – Evelyn Stevens talked about the “Dutch anxiety” she used to suffer for years (sadly the “world peace and happy babies” post no longer exists), and Wiggle High5 DS Egon van Kessel told me about how British riders, for example, are often missing these skills. There’s only one way to get them, and that’s get a lot of practice in Belgium and the Netherlands, in kermesses and their second-tier races. And Qatar proves that if riders think “that’s OK, not all races are in Holland, I’ll be fine elsewhere”, you can take the peloton out of the Netherlands, but they take Dutch-style skills all over the world.
Race radios are back, but it won’t stop team disasters
After a few years without radios in most of the races, they’re back – but luckily, or unluckily, depending on your perspective, that didn’t stop the aforementioned break at km3, or the Stage 3 breakaway staying away. I think this is great news, but of course, all that may change…
ORICA-AIS CAN win in Qatar!
OK, this is possibly a bit mean, but one of the features of the Ladies Tour of Qatar has been ORICA-AIS really, really going for the stage win, working really hard… and failing to get the win! I think about the 2013 Stage 2 video I posted upthread, where there were 5 ORICA riders in the break of 11, and their highest-placed rider ended up 5th. I’ve always wondered why, and to be fair, when Wild has won so much, it’s hard for anyone else to, and of course Judith Arndt did win the GC in 2012 off the back of a breakaway stage… but they’ve never won a stage here, until Stage 2. That cemented Katrin Garfoot as a rider to watch out for, and put in all your fantasy cycling teams – she was always a great ITT rider, but now she’s had a full season of racing under her belt, her road skills are matching her power.
There is, of course, an irony that we get to see more live women’s bike racing from Qatar, with their less-than-stellar approach to women’s rights, than we do from major European countries. But BeIn Sport, who stream it, do an excellent job, with all the race graphics, split screens and on-screen information we need, with two of the stages free-to-air this year, and streams to be found for the other two. And if the Arabic isn’t easy to follow, we had great race twitter from Kevin Bottin at the ASO. People who know me know I do live race tweeting for the Aviva Women’s Tour and others, so I know it’s not an easy job – it’s not just a case of repeating what the race radio says, you need to add some context, and keep people interested, especially in a race like Qatar, where Stage 2 had pretty much 10 corners entirely, and Stage 1 had no wind. I loved Kevin’s touch – his little jokes and fun extras, and tons of photos. When there’s no tv for races, social media is so much more important.
And while I haven’t tracked down any videos of what was streamed, I love having Felix Mattis’ race videos to look back on. I’ve always liked Felix’s work – he’s a German journalist, very thoughtful in his approach, does a lot of research and has got to know riders well over the years. I liked his combination of roadside footage (and I’m a sucker for those shots where the camera’s on the floor as riders stream past) and his clever filming of the big screens, to show key action. And I always love the rider voice-over over race footage. It’s great! I hope someone pays Felix to go to every race. Make sure you bookmark his YouTube.
Team media makes races more enjoyable.
I really liked how Boels Dolmans was tweeting instant reactions from riders and DS after the race, with mini rider quotes, and Cylance’s team twitter, but the winner of the Tour of Qatar Social Media Jersey has to be Wiggle High5. I have a love-hate relationship with their team videos, because of course I love the insights they give, but so often I want to remix the sound levels, and take off the music (eg in their conversation with Eddy Merckx). And I thought Stage 3’s video was so brave, showing Egon van Kessel’s frustration immediately after the race, and then the team meeting where he told the riders it was the most disastrous day he’d ever had since he’d become DS.
It’s a new iteration of the team, so of course it’s not the well-oiled machine it’ll be by the end of the Classics, but showing us that, rather than making excuses, is not something you see every day. And then to know about that low, from the videos, and from Chloe Hosking’s rider diaries on Ella Cycling Tips, where she had been talking about her high hopes for the race, and how they’d been dashed, and then to go to Hosking’s victory the next day on Stage 4, was a fantastic story arc of redemption and triumph over adversity. Of course fans who watch the sport would have known that without the video, but it added so much more, and I can’t praise Rochelle Gilmore enough for putting the media resources into the team to give us so much extra like this.
Our twitter community
Over the winter I can forget how fantastic our twitter women’s cycling community is, but Qatar always leaves me on a huge high, as it all floods back. I joke about the Twitter women’s cycling detective club, and Qatar always starts with conversations about “Can we watch it?” and a level of anticipation, and this year my huge thanks go to JSG of Velorooms for his sterling work finding streams, and Peter van de Veen of CyclingFever for being everyone’s online IT support for making streams work, and providing excellent commentweeting. It’s frustrating, hunting down the sources, and when TV schedules are just a suggestion, but the happiness when it works, and getting to share the streams with other people, adds so much.
And then when things go wrong, like when the Stage 4 streams were hard to access, all the people who helped out – especial shout out to NSantam and the Cylance team twitter, who knew a lot of us were struggling, so kept us all updated with the race action, and Lazer Helmets for tweeting the final, working stream. It’s such a community, and after a week where women’s cycling was dominated by a general baying for blood over “mechanical doping” (ugh, that phrase), it was lovely to be back to the happy side of the sport. It’s going to be a really interesting year for women’s racing, with more racing broadcast than ever, and of course with the influx of attention the Olympics bring, and knowing there are all these fantastic people to share that with makes it even better.
If you liked the new 2016 team kits you saw in the race – or of you changed your mind about a kit when you saw it in action – vote for your favourite one here.
Dan and I talked about Stages 1-3 of the race in our last women’s cycling podcast, and we’ll cover Stage 4 and more of our thoughts in the next one. If you were subscribed to our old RSS feed, you might have missed that we’ve changed servers, and so have a brand-new RSS for the ‘casts and interviews over here.
The next women’s road race is the Omloop het Nieuwsblad on 27th February and then we go into the frantic Spring Classics. I’ll put up a post this week about the races we’re likely to be able to watch live, and how to follow women’s road cycling this year, and I try to post “How to watch” posts in the Live racing section of the site, whenever I know something’s being shown.
I’ll also try to collect any video and media from the races on this site, and I post that, and other things that catch my eye from the wide world of women’s road, track, cyclocross and MTB on my women’s cycling Tumblr as I see them.
I’m funded to write this kind of things by my wonderful Patreon supporters, who pay me to make women’s cycling media from as little as £1.50/€2/$2 a month. If you’d like to join them, all the information is here – and as always, if you want to talk about Qatar, or anything women’s cycling related, I’m on twitter as @_pigeons_ and you can leave me comments below.