Opinion: Middle Eastern racing is about more than just money

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The inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour, which came to a close on Sunday, has prompted renewed criticism from riders and fans alike of the UCI’s continued expansion of road cycling into the Middle East. The extreme conditions, the ‘bleak’ landscapes, the fact the races seem to exist largely for financial rather than sporting reasons — the concerns are many.

Having raced in the Middle East in 2012 Lee Rodgers has a different view. He looks back fondly at his time at the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman and believes the Middle Eastern races offer far more than many critics would suggest.

“GET OUT OF THE F$%&ING WAY!” he screamed, leaving no doubt that the guy on my wheel wanted me to leave the single, strung-out line that was hitting 45km/h on the way out of a long corner with a beast of a crosswind broadsiding us like a battleship.

My blood boiled in an instant. I was only a metre off the wheel in front and yes, I may have been at full tilt and losing the fight, but I wasn’t going to be pushed around by anyone, no matter the reputation of the riders at the 2012 Tour of Qatar.

Just as I turned to deliver my own expletive-laden backhand, I saw that the rider on my wheel, gritting his teeth and frothing at the gills, was a multiple winner of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and the winner of six Tour de France stages.

My pride died a little as I switched out immediately as he swept past me and closed the gap in an instant. I allowed myself to think, some pride returning: “Wow, Tom Boonen just swore at me…”

One thing was certain from the look in Boonen’s eye: he was there to race.

I mention this because there’s been plenty of discussion in recent days (and indeed in the past few years) about the pointlessness of the races set in the Middle East: the Dubai Tour, the Tour of Qatar, the Tour of Oman and, new this year, the Abu Dhabi Tour. These are UCI Asia Tour races that are, in effect, largely comprised of WorldTour teams.

With the recent Abu Dhabi Tour rumoured to take over WorldTour status from the poorly received Tour of Beijing, and the 2016 Road World Championships slated for Qatar, it’s a viewpoint worth considering.

Let’s take a look at what are perceived to be the negative aspects of the UCI’s expansion into the Middle East, the first being that it’s all about filling UCI coffers rather than it being a worthwhile move to develop cycling and fan interest in the Middle East.

Some might argue that there aren’t too many UCI initiatives that are about truly developing the grass roots of the sport rather than making a profit. Indeed, this was a criticism that was laid at the foot of the Tour of Beijing when it first got off the ground too.

There have been anecdotes from cycling journos of pre-recorded applause being played at the finale of some stages in Oman and Qatar due to the lack of spectators, something which I also have first-hand knowledge of from my time there in 2012.

However the same lack of road-side support can be seen at the supposedly ‘big’ races in Asia (outside of Japan, where the big names are cheered on raucously by thousands when they appear at the Tour de France Saitama Criterium and the Japan Cup). In fact, cycling in the Gulf states is growing, both on and off-road, with a significant rise in event participation each year.

The core is made up of foreigners but with a growing interest from local people, there is evidence that the shine and glamour brought by the world’s best riders is reaping reward. The United Arab Emirates even has its own Continental cycling team, Team SkyDive Dubai, and though its roster features some dodgy riders, you can be sure that with the money behind it the team’s management will have Pro-Conti status (and higher) in their sights.

John Lelangue, a former sport director at Phonak and BMC, works for the Qatari cycling federation and says he regularly sees more than a hundred riders lining up for Monday night criterium series races in Doha, Qatar’s capital.

“It’s not like in Flanders, when kids are starting to ride a bike at two or three years old,” said Lelangue. “But more and more people are riding their bikes. We are sending our junior and under-23 riders to the UCI training center in Aigle. Our goal is to get them into the Olympics, and even into the European peloton. It will take time, but there is excitement here.”

Another criticism of the racing in Oman, Qatar and Abu Dhabi is that the environment and weather lend themselves neither to action-packed racing nor sumptuous landscapes for the armchair fans watching at home.

The heat played its part early on in the Abu Dhabi Tour, forcing the shortening of stage 1 and complaints from many at the race, which is a fair point. However, I coach several riders who live out there and they say the worst of the summer heat has passed and that generally the weather at this time of year is manageable, with temperatures usually being lower than on that first stage.

The ‘winter’ tours of Oman and Qatar are certainly warm but the heat posed no problem when I raced it, even thought the ferocious crosswinds did. However, this is the main feature of these races and one of the main reasons people do in fact tune in to watch. Combined with the fact that they’ve been largely race-starved since the Giro di Lombardia back in October.

True cycling fans don’t tune in to the big races like the Spring Classics or even the Grand Tours for shots of castles nestled on mountaintops, no matter how romantic they may be. They tune in for the racing. The desert tours are no different. To describe the landscape there as featureless or boring also does the region a great disservice.

In Oman one day we started atop mammoth red clay cliffs at 3,000m that saw us hit 104km/hr at one point on the descent. That country in particular is quite stunning in places.

Sure, we don’t see the battles in the mountains between Contador and Froome (which are often all too predictable anyway) but we do see proper hard racing at a ferocious pace in even harder winds. Personally, I think the sight of a peloton shredded into echelons is one of the greatest sights in bike racing, and, despite our previous contretemps, I know Tom Boonen agrees with me.

“I’m always very happy to come back to Qatar,” Boonen said recently. “You don’t find these windy days anywhere else in the world. It’s a hardman’s race. It’s 60km/h in the first hour of the race sometimes.”

Not all agree with Boonen, such as Alejandro Valverde, who came out with this memorable quote after this year’s Tour of Qatar:

“This is inhuman. It is crazy. In the first stage we saw that this was a bit hard, but today was… I have not seen anything like this. It’s not just the wind, the sand too, you can not even breathe or anything,” Valverde said. “There were splits, regrouping, more splits, crashes,… Everything. There are no climbs, but I prefer them. I would rather do the Tourmalet five times.”

I can attest to that because that’s what I experienced too but I’ll tell you this: I loved it. It was the hardest racing I had ever done and it was full-on and balls-out so often that you forget the times when there’s no wind and you just soft pedal to the last 20km, listening to all the banter going on in the pack.

Boonen went on to make an excellent point about these races, one often overlooked by those who dismiss them.

“It’s logical, when you’re good here, you will be at the front and fighting for victory at the Classics.”

This is why the world’s top Classics men turn up to the Middle Eastern races ready to rock and looking to take no prisoners. It could be argued that thanks to these desert marches, the Classics are actually faster and feature fitter riders than they would otherwise.

Despite all the criticisms, these races — including the recent Abu Dhabi Tour — are popular with quite a few riders and managers and seem to be doing something to get locals more involved with the sport, all while making a lot of money for quite a few folk.

As ever, the real concern must be where this money is going to go and how much of it is being used to create sustainable initiatives that will benefit the most people.

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