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The Ladies Tour of Qatar mightn’t be the most scenic of bike races, what with its abundance of dead-straight roads, sand and repetitive landscapes, but that doesn’t mean the racing is dull. Far from it. In this post, Orica-AIS rider Jessie MacLean takes us inside the peloton and shares the experience of racing in the wild and windy 2014 Ladies Tour of Qatar.
One of the joys of cycling is visiting places you wouldn’t have considered going to otherwise. Qatar is one of those places. This ostensibly barren desert emirate has the world’s largest natural gas reserve (that’s on top of the oil reserves) and unimaginable wealth as a result.
This is my third year here and each time I am blown away by the amount of construction taking place, how many new buildings there are compared to a year ago. They must have a construction vehicle for every man, woman and child.
The race is a favourite for riders and staff (although the mechanics can be forgiven for cursing the damage sand wreaks on the equipment) as we stay at the Ritz Carlton on the outskirts of Doha.
If you were plonked in the city you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into the future or on to an alien planet. No two skyscrapers are the same, and the manicured lawns and parks belie the fact you are on the edge of a desert scattered with towns, camels, cranes, and the occasional old fort.
The style of any race is characterised by the arena in which it takes place. To be honest, despite the best efforts of the ASO and Qatar Cycling Federation, there isn’t a lot to work with when it comes to parcours in Qatar. In fact here’s a summary: flat, windy, straight roads, beige.
It could be likened to Dutch racing for the flat, windy conditions; and the Dutch do do well here (particularly Kirsten Wild) however it is still markedly different. The weather is mild, and sandy. The roads are wider than bike lanes — in fact we race on three and four lane highways for sections.
There is also a distinct lack of the traffic furniture and narrow corners you find in Europe. This makes it a slightly less stressful affair and a good way to start the international season.
The Ladies Tour of Qatar has four stages, it is flat, open and if it weren’t for the wind it would be very boring racing. This race is for the sprinters but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To win this race you need to be on your game — depending on the wind, the race can split into echelons and if you miss the front move it’s all over.
Kirsten Wild from The Netherlands has dominated the race since its inception winning four of the six editions. Ellen Van Dijk (also a Dutchie) has won it once and the German Judith Arndt won it in 2013 as the first international race for the GreenEDGE outfit.
This year the rider to watch was once again Wild (Giant-Shimano) … or as the announcer preferred to address her “Wild Kirsten”. Chloe Hosking, the Australian sprinter riding for Hitec Products was motivated after a disappointing race last year. Also on the watchlist were Lizzie Armitstead (Boels Dolmans), Trixi Worrack (Specialized-Lululemon), and multiple world champion Georgia Bronzini (Wiggle Honda).
For the first time our Orica-AIS team brought a designated sprinter in Melissa Hoskins. She had literally come straight from Track Nationals to Qatar which is not an easy thing to juggle but she handled it with aplomb, making the front selection each day and getting third on the final stage.
Being the first real race of the season it is difficult to know what kind of form everyone is in and the peloton is nervous and twitchy. It’s the first time for months that anyone has had to fight and navigate their way through the bunch. Combine that with different levels of experience and fitness, add wind and you get crashes.
Stage 1: Museum of Islamic Art Doha – Mesaieed (97km)
We always go into a race aiming for the win. Like any team, we make a plan each day laying out our best opportunities to get that win and we execute to the best of our ability. The day might not go to plan, but the most important thing is that we get the processes right.
We didn’t go in targeting the GC, instead we focused on getting a good result the first day which by default would put us in a good position for the overall.
If we had any chance of beating Wild it would mean isolating her from her team, then attacking to put the pressure on her to chase everything herself. This meant splitting the race at the first hint of crosswind.
At the first intermediate sprint we left Mel to follow Wild so we could use our energy to have a bigger impact later in the race. While time bonuses are important, making the front split in the crosswinds is more so. The race split in the crosswinds, as predicted, after making a right-hand turn at 54km.
When you hit a crosswind — and it doesn’t have to be much — it’s a war zone. There are people making desperate moves into gaps that aren’t there, there’s yelling, chopping, there is literally blood on the streets as people hit the deck.
If there’s one thing you need in windy conditions, it’s safety in numbers. If you can’t fight your way into an echelon (teammates will let you in saving massive amounts of energy and stress) then you’re left in the wind working twice as hard. Eventually in the line of people behind the echelon, gaps will open as it’s impossible to hold the speed of those able to gain respite as they swap off in the front.
As it’s obvious the front group is settled and riding away, a second echelon generally forms. That’s where Gracie Elvin and myself found ourselves after seeing our teammates move up on the opposite side of the bunch before the crucial corner.
It’s a horrible feeling. You know what’s coming, but you’re caught on the wrong side of the tracks, unable to do anything about it except hope you can pull off a desperate move up in time to join them … without crashing.
The final 20km was a tailwind. We were sitting on 55-60km/h as Wiggle, Rusvelo and Rabo Liv (along with a few individuals) tried to bring the front group back. We got within 30” before it blew out to 53” as the legs faltered and attacks came.
From what the girls said at the finish, they tried to attack but it was too fast, then as they approached the final kilometres they didn’t have the legs to bring Mel up for the sprint. It was always going to be hard to beat Wild in a tailwind sprint. The woman can push over 950 watts for 15 seconds.
To give you an idea of what it’s like racing with her, imagine a drop bear on a bike, with the ability to pedal and push into any spot they choose. She is exceptionally fast, and exceptionally intimidating.
Click here to see the results from stage 1.
Stage 2: Al Zubara Fort – Madinat Al Shamal (112km)
Some races you go into knowing what is going to happen. Like this day. Although the plan was to wait until later in the race to put it in the gutter, you don’t always get a choice.
A strong north-westerly meant it was obvious it would be in the gutter as soon as the flag went down. Even though you know this, you know you need to be up the front in the right wheels and with your teammates. Sometimes things just don’t click … or they click at the wrong time.
Today, as with yesterday, the front bunch formed when a group of strong, smart, and skilled riders started swapping off in the gutter. There are no attacks flying in this situation, and it is certainly not pretty — it’s ‘hardman’ racing. If you’re in the front the idea is you don’t necessarily use the whole road as you want the front selection to be small.
Ideally our plan was to swap off only once we had grouped together as a team and could keep it tight enough to only allow our riders in. This is incredibly hard to do — you will undoubtedly get other teams pushing their way in either from the back, or by sprinting up the outside in the wind to push in at the front (which takes a lot of energy.)
It didn’t go exactly to plan for us; we weren’t all together from the start. Some riders are more aggressive than others so it is a lot like playing chicken. Who is more prepared to risk crashing to get in the chop off?
By the 5km mark the front 21 were away. After 20km the race turned and we went from a cross to tailwind/headwind for the rest of the race (a large lap then four laps of 13km.)
Amy Pieters (Giant-Shimano) won from Anna Van Der Breggen (Rabo Liv) Charlotte Becker (Wiggle Honda) and Inga Cilvinaite (RusVelo) who broke away from the leading group in the final 10km. Race favourite and Gold jersey wearer Kirsten Wild (Giant-Shimano) had to settle for fifth on the day.
In the 1.5km section of crosswind in the finishing circuits Rabo, Specialized-Lululemon, and Orica-AIS all attempted to break away so as not to take Kirsten and Chloe Hosking to the finish. They succeeded in the end, but unfortunately for us Emma Johansson, Valentina Scandolara and Mel Hoskins missed the move after trying hard to set it up.
Interesting to note was that Pieters worked in the front group even though her teammate was in yellow. Also interesting, Wild was the one driving the remainder of the front group for the final kilometres even though there were others (Orica, Hitec) that missed it and would benefit more from bringing the winning gap down. It says something about the dynamics in the Giant-Shimano team camp, and the character of Wild in particular.
For the record the peloton spent the day counting kilometres. It was all about saving energy for the next two days. Normally you might take the opportunity to admire the scenery but that doesn’t really apply in Qatar.
Click here to see the results from stage 2.
Stage 3: Katara Cultural Village – Al Khor Corniche (93.5km)
While Hitec were aggressive from the start, and a few moves formed on the front, there was too much headwind for anything to last long. The race did split as a slight bend in the road meant more cross but it came back together as we turned into a long section of headwind.
Kirsten Wild remarked to me just before the race reformed that we’d done all this hard work for nothing. The truth is it won’t always work the first time but that doesn’t mean it was for nothing.
The second bunch had to work to rejoin, and every time it’s in the gutter it’s stressful — it takes energy if you have to fight in the wind for position. It was a good situation for us as this time we had all made the front, and that in itself can be concerning if you’re from another team.
We place an importance on communication during races, even if it’s nothing but a “you good?”. Just keeping the talk up means when it’s crunch time things come more easily. There are no race radios for women except at World Cups so communicating with each other on the road means you need to be near one another, which is in itself a good thing.
On this day things clicked for us. Loes Gunnewijk, our captain on the road, is the best in the business and it was a relief to finally be there when she called. And when she calls it, you act because you know it means business time.
Missing the move the first two days makes you hungry. We love riding our bikes, but we race because we love everything that comes with racing. Sitting in the second group or the peloton without even having an impact on the race is the lowest feeling.
Not everyone can win, but everyone strives for it, and you race with a team to achieve it and play a part in it. When you virtually exit a race without leaving a mark, merely being a pack filler, it’s just shit.
I’m not saying stage 3 was a particularly outstanding day for me — I didn’t have the legs in the final 15km — but it was a vast improvement and confidence boost for the season.
From all accounts the Orica girls attacked until they dropped in the final stages of the race … then they attacked again! It sounded insanely exciting and it’s one of the reasons I love this team so much. They may not have pulled off the win (Wild is just too strong) but bloody hell, way to make the race! They gave it everything.
Click here to see the results from stage 3.
Stage 4: Sealine Beach Resort – Doha Corniche (85km)
The final stage started at the Sealine Beach Resort south of Doha, and finished with five 6km circuits along the Corniche in Doha. As with the first and third stages, today was won by the unstoppable Kirsten Wild. It came down to a bunch sprint after some aggressive crit-style racing on the circuits that saw attempts from just about every team to get off the front and spoil the Liv/Giant-Shimano party.
As with every other day, how it unfolded would depend on the wind. Despite the forecast for a headwind, driving in it looked like there was a bit of cross so there was still a chance to split the race and make some gains.
It was a stressful start as everyone jockeyed for position with the danger that the wind could again wreak havoc on the field. But it wasn’t to be — the wind ended up coming too much from the north to do any damage.
This didn’t stop riders attempting to break away. There was a chance a group of riders low on GC would be let up the road given the overall was all but wrapped up.
Qatar finally sent me batshit crazy & off the front. Affected poor Burchenkova more-she tried to cut circuit,don't blame her #flat&straight
— Jessie MacLean (@aussiejessmac) February 7, 2014
When everyone wants to be in that move the chances of it actually getting a gap and keeping it are slim to none. Unless of course the group that goes away has no hope of staying because it’s two riders into a headwind.
This is how I found myself off the front with Berchenkova (RusVelo) for 23km. It was a suicide mission but it was worth the effort to feel like I had an impact on the race. We were caught on the circuits after Berchenkova got disorientated with all the corners after riding on straight roads all week (she turned one U-turn too early).
From there it was fireworks again, as teams constantly attacked to make Wild work for the win. It wasn’t to be — Wild got her fairytale ending and Mel made us all proud getting third behind Bronzini.
While it’s clear Wild is in a league of her own on the flats of Qatar the results aren’t a true reflection of how exciting the racing was. It was aggressive, dynamic, fast, and the talent on show was exciting.
Click here to see the results from stage 4.
The Ladies Tour of Qatar is a mixed bag, a teaser for what’s to come in the Classics. It won’t necessarily indicate the riders to watch come Het Nieuwsblad but it’s a good litmus test for general form. It’s also a reminder for the Australian riders of what’s waiting in Europe … 140 odd girls on narrower roads, colder temperatures, lumpy technical courses, and cobbles.
I often rave about how awesome my team is (we’re the number one ranked team in the world for a reason) and it can get a bit sickening to be honest. So a special shout out to fellow Canberran and top placed Australian, Chloe Hosking who finish 3rd on GC. She is one of Australia’s most successful sprinters and she is one to watch this season as are a host of others I hope you will come to know through their various successes.
About the author
Jessie MacLean had a childhood full of volleyball, hockey and rowing and it was only in 2000 that she left those behind and took up cycling. The year after receiving a scholarship with the ACT Academy of Sport, Jessie won the U19 Pursuit at the Australian Nationals. She won gold at the Junior World Pursuit Championships the following year.
In 2011 Jessie placed fourth in the Open de Suède Vargarda Teams Time Trial and fifth in Stage 1 at the Premondiale Giro Toscana Int. Femminile Teams Time Trial.
Jessie joined the Orica-AIS team in its first season, in 2012. That year she placed third in the opening stage of the RaboSter Zeeuwsche Eilanden ITT, sixth on Stage 3 of the Tour of Chongming Island and eighth overall in the women’s Tour of Qatar.