There was a tale I heard a couple of years back about the then-best professional team in Asia politely but firmly declining an invitation for them to race for the second consecutive year at the tours of Qatar and Oman.
This was a team that conquered all on the Asian circuit, and yet here they were turning down a chance to ride in these increasingly prestigious races.
Turns out that their riders – and these guys were no chumps – had suffered so much the previous year from the vicious crosswinds that they were getting dropped en masse within the first ten kilometers almost every day, and they’d decided they wanted no more of that kind of early season ‘training’, thank you very much.
As a result of them not going, the team I was on at the time got the place instead, and I ended up lining up alongside the likes of Boonen, Cancellara and the Schlecks.
What ensued was two weeks of terror, fear and sitting up into the wee hours of the Arabian night wondering if I was going to die the next day. Sounds like an exaggeration? Not one bit, trust me.
Lee on the startline in Qatar
The speed (105km/hr on one descent, often 60km/hr+ on the flats for long stretches), the whiplash corners, the echelons, the mad, terrifying scramble for the front of pack into each and every turn, it left my nerves frazzled and strung out like nothing else I’d ever experienced.
If anyone thinks these races are just little morsels before the real racing begins and that the peloton is taking it easy, think again. They may not mean as much as Milan-San Remo or Flanders, the races so many are getting ready for by being in the desert in the first place, but these guys turn up locked in and ready to race.
And as a result of this, we can learn a lot about rider form and about how the early season Classics might unfold.
First things first: Taylor Phinney’s hair.
Now that is a serious do. There are rumors coming from a mole within BMC that it is in fact a knitted hat, but I hope it’s real. The peloton needs some personality and a bouffant is always welcome in my book.
Secondly, Taylor Phinney. The boy done good, real good, taking the prologue and the overall in Dubai with an assertiveness and no little maturity that was a relief, in many ways, to see.
With this confidence lifter it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the year pans put for the likeable American – who’s still only 23. It would be great to see another contender emerge for the ‘biggies’, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. These are both races in which Phinney looks built to have a crack at, and there’s a big hole waiting to be filled behind Boonen and Cancellara.
Speaking of Boonen, the Prince of the desert emerged from his winter training looking like an Arabian/Belgian racehorse in fine fettle, yet again, and had it not been for teammate Nikki Terpstra’s sneak-away win on Stage 1, he’d have added another Tour of Qatar win to his palmares.
What’s interesting about that is this: on the last three occasions that Boonen’s won in Qatar (2008, 2009 and 2012), he’s also won Paris-Roubaix. That last time, 2012, he went on to win Flanders too.
One other thing that was starkly obvious from Qatar was the all-round condition of the Quickstep team. They were in phenomenal form, cracking the peloton apart at the first sniff of a cross-wind, on one occasion having 8 riders driving a front group of 20.
There’s simply no other team to compare with them when it comes to being ready for the Classics. Cancellara must look on with a glean of envy.
He’s a one-man show over at Trek.
Boonen recently said in an interview in ProCycling that he’s hoping that Fabian will be in top shape for April’s big one day races, as he’s up for a fight this year. But is Spartacus up for it? His poor showing in the time trial in Dubai and later in the TT in Qatar (for him, anyway) were put down to fatigue. It may be too early to read too much into this and if there is one rider who knows how to get ready for Flanders and Roubaix, it’s this guy.
Cancellara on his way to 4th in the Qatar time trial
Certainly us cycling fans will echo Boonen’s sentiments – we want to see these two go head to head over those famous roads when both are properly fit, it’s one of the greatest sights in modern sport, never mind just cycling.
A potential future Classics star emerged in Dubai, putting in a great ride in the opening prologue to take 3rd, a position he held all the way to the end of the race. Garmin-Sharp’s Lasse Norman Hansen is a rider of some talent, grounded on the track and full of power. Keep an eye on him in these coming months.
One rider you write off at your peril is the cactus-like Mark Cavendish, who has started slowly in the past and then come rocketing back to conquer all, making grown men look like ankle-biters with oversized thighs, but it has to be said, Marcel Kittel is looking better and better all the time.
The premier fastman in the pack these days? That may be a stretch but the avowed anti-doper (who also has great hair, by the way) is doing something right. Three wins in Dubai says he is flying right now and must be a favorite for a potentially shortened Milan-San Remo.
I’m gonna throw that one out there – Kittel wins SanRemo, you read it here first.
One guy who can’t seem to fight his way out of a paper bag these days is BMC’s Thor Hushovd. Seems not that long ago that the big Norwegian was everywhere, winning at ease and exuding that class of his like the white-toothed, chisel-jawed cycling behemoth that he was.
Not no more though. The illness of 2012 took the wind out of his sails and things look less than rosy in Thor’s garden. Still, a rider like Phinney can learn a lot from Hushovd, and maybe his wily ways will serve the youngster well somewhere along the road in the Classics.
Finally, one more BMC rider that looks a little shell-shocked of late – Philippe Gilbert. The guy’s a living legend and one of the more charismatic riders in the peloton, beloved by anyone who like to see exciting racing, but I fear his gravy days are over.
Not that he’s losing it, it’s just that there’s a guy around who can ‘out-Gilbert’ Gilbert. Peter Sagan, on form, will beat Gilbert, on form, every day of the week I reckon.
The young Slovak has the Belgian’s number, and I would not be surprised if Sagan racks up two or three very good wins in the Spring Classics, as Gilbert’s expense.
With talk of the traditional GC guys looking to race hard in the Classics, it should be a very interesting few weeks ahead.
Lee Rodgers leads a double life as a pro racer on the UCI race circuit with the Lapierre Asia Cycling Team, competing in the UCI Asia Tour as well as some European events and the likes of the Tour of Qatar and Oman, rubbing shoulders with the best the WorldTour has to offer, whilst keeping up a day job as a cycling journalist. The highlight of his cycling career so far was winning the Singapore National Champs – road race and ITT – as well as claiming the Green Jersey at the 2.1 Tour de Taiwan in 2012, and naturally, writing for PEZ. His writing appears in several magazines and websites and you can catch up with him regularly on his blog, http://crankpunk.com/