This week our intrepid roadman finds himself based in Doha for the Tour of Qatar. The cross winds are familiar to our Lionhearted resident of Flanders; the sun and sand - not so much. We caught up with Macca once he'd caught his breath back in his hotel room after a hectic Stage 2...
Well, my first race of the year and we're in the sunnier climes of Qatar. It's like seeing an old friend you haven't seen in a while - pinning those numbers on for the first time in a season.
Qatar is unlike most other races due to the ferocious cross winds which force you to ride in the infamous echelons (the Flemish call them 'waaiers'). An echelon forms when the wind comes from the side and forces us to ride in two parallel diagonal lines, with one line going forward and one coming back. When you get to the back of each echelon - a place I like to call the "danger zone" - there is limited room on the road and only a certain number of men can stay within the safety of the echelon. When you reach the danger zone you need to leap across from the back line to the front line. It sounds simple but you have guys who are trying to squeeze their way into the echelon and as a result squeeze someone else out (I like to call this technique "gutter sniping"). If you're resorting to this tactic then you're more than likely going to be so deep into the red that you're already going crosseyed. So you only get one chance, and if it works you squeeze another guy out and you take his place, nestling snugly within the safety of the surging pack. If not, you get cruelly spat out the back and your day is more often than not as good as done.
The first day in Qatar is always nervous. In fact EVERY day in Qatar is nervous! But the first day particularly so and after about 30 km of "rabbit-nosing" (a term I use to describe how the peloton is when it's nervous - because everyone keeps twitching like a rabbit's nose) we turned and hit the cross winds. I made my way to the danger zone of the first echelon but I missed my chance and got spat. I then spent the rest of the day riding about 1 minute behind the front group. We had a short stretch of headwind and for a while it looked like we may come back, but unfortunately when we got near to closing the gap the guys who had team mates in the front group stopped riding and we lost the momentum. The gap went back out and I eventually finished 1"45 down on the delighted winner Mark Cavendish.
I'd been really looking forward to my first race of the season and it didn't disappoint. Stage 1 was tough! Don't believe me? - check out my strava for the evidence. An "EPIC" suffer score of 253 on the 176 km coast-to-coast course from Dukhan to Al Khor Corniche.
Then came stage two - University of Doha, which doubled as the test event for the UCI World Road Race Championships later this year. With a 75 km out and back followed by 4 x 15 km laps followed by a 7 km stretch from the circuit to the finish. We started into a headwind and turned into the most vicious of all winds - the fearsome "tail cross wind". After 27 km me and my team mates where fighting a good fight but a slight twitch put me into the gravel just before we turned. I tried not to panic and made sure I got into a group that was moving forwards. We made an it into an echelon and slowly picked-off each group until we made it back to the second group on the road. When we turned into a tailwind on the route to the circuit I had 3 team mates in the group: Marcato; Napolitano; and our sprinter for the day Jans. We managed to do 40 km in 40 min 25 seconds in the tailwind, then we managed to make it back to the lead peloton shortly after we entered the circuit.
As we completed the 4 laps the peloton swelled to nearly full strength - so we knew it would be a bunch sprint and we started working to set Roy up. The end of a bike race is always stressful - it's like a rugby scrum at 50 km/h, with tired legs and heads. We kept loosing each other then finding each other in the melee. Then as we crested the last kilometre I lost Roy, but I could see Marcato was with him and he was well placed. He finished off a good day for the team with a 3rd place behind two world class sprinters in Kristoff and Cavendish. All-in-all it was a good day out and I think we're gaining confidence as a team. Tomorrow we have an 11 km Time Trial which will hurt but I'm strangely looking forward to it.
For now I'm going to rest up and enjoy the view from my hotel room. In case you missed it here are the last few km's of today's race and Roy's fantastic third place finish:
Follow Mark's training and racing on Strava.
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