RIP Tour of Qatar, the race built on sand

There was a lot to like about the Tour of Qatar.

 

Its illustrious list of past winners included Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Mark Cavendish. Fans liked the flat and empty desert roads of the Gulf state, which could distil road racing down to its very essence through a total dearth of obstacles.

 

There was a lot for riders to like; the race always attracted a line-up of big name Classics stars who would cautiously eye each other up or relish the chance to land an early psychological blow on their rivals.

 

Racing in Qatar wasn’t a guarantee of Classics success; of the last 10 years of Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, exactly half of the winners had raced in Qatar earlier that year. But it was likeable enough for the peloton, thanks to its predictable, dry, mild weather and five-star luxury race hotel. Beginning in 2009, there was a women’s race at a point in the season that could guarantee a good line-up too.

 

Journalists liked it for all of the above, and the tremendous access to relaxed riders who would happily consent to interviews. For some, the only downer was the price of a pint on the top floor of the Ritz Carlton.

10/2/2010 Tour of Qatar 2010. Stage 4 - The Pearl to Al Khor Corniche. Fabian Cancellara rides along with a camera. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe.

If you looked hard enough you could find shallow glimmers of charm, too. The public announcer would often call riders surname first (Kristoff Alexander worked nicely but nowhere near as well as Wild Kirsten).

 

There were ironically named stage towns like Dukhan Beach (an empty sandy coastline next to a natural gas refinery), Madinat al Shamal (a brand new football pitch encased in a mock ancient castle) and Sealine Beach Resort (an empty hotel down the road from a natural gas refinery).

 

There were camels. There were birds of prey. For several years, the race was accompanied by a group of Qatari Hells Angels, who would ride their noisy Harley Davidsons along the empty motorways for no other reason than they could.

29/1/2013 Women's Tour of Qatar. Stage 1 - MUSEE DE L'ART ISLAMIQUE to MESAIEED. A motorcyclist wearing a leather jacket, with a picture of Betty Boop on his helmet. follows behind the peloton. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe.

But deep down, there was something artificial about it. In fact, scrape away at the surface of the Tour of Qatar and there was barely anything there at all.

 

Organisers bought in riders, endless barriers, a brand new fleet of imported cars to act as team vehicles, the involvement of Eddy Merckx and the logistical oomph of Tour de France owners ASO – it was a mere drop in the Persian Gulf for Qatar to host and accommodate the race and all its trimmings – but they couldn’t buy authenticity.

 

What good is a fan-friendly race if there are none there to see it? Rather than representing endless possibilities, that featureless landscape seemed rather bland and unexciting. Even after two weeks there, it is easy to come away from Qatar and find it a rather disagreeable place.

 

Meanwhile, its presence undermined the future of long-established races in the south of France like the Tour of the Med and the Tour du Haut Var, events that could no longer rely on the presence of WorldTour megastars and therefore could no longer convince sponsors to back them.

 

All the while, the race floated just above the undercurrents of human rights abuses in the Gulf state in the building of infrastructure for the upcoming 2022 football World Cup.

5th February 2014 - Tour of Qatar (Women) - Stage 2 (AL ZUBARA FORT to MADINAT AL SHAMAL). The peloton heads along the superhighway through the desert of Qatar Photo: Offside / L'Equipe.

 

Lack of sponsorship or otherwise, the future of the race was down to the whims of the sheikhs who created it in the first place.

 

Just as Oleg Tinkov ditched his WorldTour team at the drop of a hat, there was nothing to stop the Qatar Cycling Federation – funded by the Qatari state – from turning off the tap for the race. The curt press release from the UCI and the fact that, at the time of writing, the website for the 2017 races was still live suggests the decision was not part of a long-term strategic plan.

 

Ultimately though, there wasn’t much to love about the Tour of Qatar. And after 14 years of a race built on sand have blown away in the desert winds, all that’s left is a timely reminder of cycling’s fragility.

 

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