The last two days in Qatar went pretty awesome! The wind picked up a little more and we were faced with a lot more crosswinds. After our team’s dominance on stage 4, Tom [Boonen] had a buffer of 31 seconds. It may not sound much, but here in Qatar that’s a huge advantage. Our goal now was, of course, to control the peloton and keep that jersey on Tom’s back. ‘Control’ is a word that’s not often used alongside the Tour Of Qatar so we had a job on our hands. Myself and Franti Rabon were given this job. So, how exactly do you control this crazy mob in Qatar?
Firstly, we keep an eye on the early attacks, make sure nobody in the top end of GC goes up the road, or any significant riders that may be hard to catch. We then actively encourage a small group to go away. Fingers crossed, something will go pretty quickly and the peloton will relax a little. This is normally a good time to answer the call of nature or fill up the bikes with bottles and the pockets with food.
After a short lull in proceedings, it’s time for me and Franti to go to work. We head to the front and start to pull. Its now down to us to decide how big the time gap is allowed to go to the breakaway. This, of course, depends on the length of the stage, who is in the group and indeed who is up there on GC. So sometimes we will have to speed up, sometimes we have to slow down!
As most days in Qatar are pretty short, we generally didn’t allow any groups more than five minutes. So the gap has slipped out to a comfortable margin; this way nobody else will attack and the group will be relatively at ease. We will then set a pace according to how fast the guys are riding in front. As a rule of thumb a strong team or two can usually pull back 1 minute every 10km on a tired breakaway, so we do our calculations and get to work.
Here in Qatar, it’s a little bit tougher than normal to keep the peloton at ease, give us all a stress-free day and ultimately keep the jersey and give us another chance at a stage win from a bunch sprint for Tom. As you can imagine when you see the full Quickstep team heading to the front in this wind, things soon get pretty nervous. No matter how much we assure the guys we will not attack, we just want to control, they never seem to believe us.
So each and every time we head towards a crosswind section there is a crazy battle not too dissimilar to the finale of a race. We fight for the corner, go full gas out of it and hold our breath [for how long? – ed] hoping nobody will attack. 9 times out of 10 it’s just nerves, each rider and team wants to be at the front just in case somebody attacks.
Most of the time, nobody will. The majority of guys want the same outcome as us; a tranquil and safe day out! As you can imagine, this is pretty frustrating for me and Franti; we have gone from pulling at the front to hanging on for our lives into a corner trying to stay in front. After the carnage has finished we then battle back up to the front and resume work! This happened a fair amount of times in the last few days!
Faster and faster
So, kilometre after kilometer, we start to get faster and faster and eventually bring the breakaway back, all the time sitting at the front with the other six team mates sat comfortably in our wheels, out of trouble and ready to go! Eventually, if all goes to plan, the breakaway is caught. If there is anything left in the tank we then get stuck into the lead-out.
So the last two days went pretty much like this, pretty tough going as you can imagine. The last stage was one to remember, or maybe one to forget. As I mentioned above we ‘should’ keep an eye on who goes in the breakaway and not give ourselves a hard time. After an unbelievable first hour at 55km/h, a breakaway finally slipped away.
The group was too big, too strong and the gap got too big. Panic mode set in briefly when we were struggling to peg back the group. I’m pretty sure I totally emptied the tank that day. As I mentioned, I had been pulling from km 0 so I was pretty puffed coming into the final kms of the race. Each lap of the finishing circuit we would be joined by a few more fresh guys who had been sat comfortably in the wheels for most of the day and in fact most of the race. These fresh legs and sharp accelerations sure helped us out in closing the gap but man, did they hurt me!
To cut a long story short, the day ended in a mass sprint as predicted. I did all I could in the closing stages of the race to keep the pace as high as possible and make sure there were no more attempts at breakaways. Tom made the smart decision to stay out of trouble in the finish and narrowly missed a crash in the closing meters.
We finished the six days of chaos with the leader’s golden jersey, the team prize, the points jersey and fourth on GC too! Not a bad haul!
So after a few days of easy training in the rain and 3degC temperature in Belgium, I’m already looking forward to heading south to my next race in Laigueglia, Italy.
With all of our wins so far we are now the most ‘winningest’ team of 2012 so far! Chapeau, Guys!
PS. What you think of the wheels in the photo? We’re trying to get Zipp to knock us some up for next year’s Qatar!