Never underestimate the ability of great cyclists to put on a great race on any circuit in any conditions in any country in the world. Sunday’s elite-men’s World Championship road-race proved that. A deserted circuit in the desert, the conditions were baking hot and the country was Qatar. And yet, the race was brilliant.
I was still in bed when the Qatari winds blew and the big-name opportunists split the race to bits. Echelons were the name of the game. The UCI must have been praying for those winds such was the negativity around these championships. Too hot, too remote, nobody watching. Barriers erected to keep stray camels off the course rather than for fans to lean against, or so it felt. A pan flat circuit that seemed made for a bunch sprint.
By the time I tuned in, there was a group of about 30 ahead with a chasing pack behind. The race was on and there was so far still to go. Some big names had made the split while other big names were reeling. This would be one thing in normal racing conditions, but across the desert? For over 250km? It would prove to be relentless. It would leave some broken. Only 53 of the 197 who took the start, finished.
Of the names you would expect to be alert to this kind of blitz, there was Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, as well as the vast majority of the Belgian team. It was the Germans who suffered worst with sprinters Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel both left behind. The heat built, the strain took hold and perhaps while gazing off into the deserted wilderness around him, John Degenkolb went a little crazy. The German rider lost his cool with Belgian rider Jens Debusschere for not helping the chase. The fact that half the Belgian team were up the road mattered little to Degenkolb. He felt that with Debusschere being on Andre Greipel’s trade team, that he should pull his weight. Degenkolb’s afternoon of lunacy was complete when he then sprayed water on the Belgian rider with his bottle. That Debusschere didn’t chin him was testament to the Belgians ability to keep cool under such conditions. Degenkolb should have been pulled from the circuit right there and then, though the race referees need not have worried. The German, along with most of his team, withdrew shortly after. Stunned by the heat and the ambush that had caught them napping.
And so the race for world glory was reduced to a small pack. Given the pace and conditions few had the legs to try split it up further and few tried. The result was the sprint we thought we might get, albeit with some familiar faces missing. It seemed made for Mark Cavendish but when he failed to follow the wheel of Adam Blythe it was just the mistake that someone like Peter Sagan needed. Cavendish found himself boxed in. Sagan’s kick was enough to take him to the line and to retain his title. Cavendish in having to check his sprint to avoid the back wheel of Michael Matthews and allow himself a gap to come through, could only get up to second. Cavendish was furious, but unlikely Degenkolb earlier, it was only with himself. He was the fastest man there, but that moment of hesitancy was the difference over 5 hours 40 minutes of racing. Such is bike racing. Such are the fine margins by which world championships are won and lost.
Peter Sagan goes down into a select group of six who have won the world championships back to back. The last was Paolo Bettini in 2006/2007. It always seems fitting when the best cyclist in the world wins the rainbow jersey. It was a joy watching him wear it throughout the season, not least for myself in Montreal, and so it should be great again in 2017.
After that heat and that intensity of racing in Qatar, the peloton have earned a good break as the season comes to a close. The UCI might regret the decision to take the worlds to Qatar. At least I hope they made some good money that they can invest in something good. But Yorkshire in 2019 will stand in stark contrast to it. Still, Qatar, Yorkshire or wherever, thank goodness for these fine athletes to still have it within them to put on a superb show.
1. Peter Sagan (SVK) in 5h40’43”
2. Mark Cavendish (GBR)
3. Tom Boonen (BEL)
4. Michael Matthews (AUS)
5. Giacomo Nizzolo (ITA)
6. Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) all same time
Rider of the week
For all of Sagan’s fine spriting on Sunday, the prize must go to Tony Martin. The German led his team to the team-time-trial prize and then won himself the individual time-trial title by 45sec over his nearest competitor, Vasil Kiryienka. A fine week though unfortunately he missed the major splits in Sunday’s road race.