British champion Mark Cavendish will not defend his Tour of Qatar title after Omega Pharma-Quickstep announced four-time winner Tom Boonen will lead the team at the next of the desert races.
The race runs from Sunday February 9 to Friday February 14, and with Cavendish currently in action in Dubai his participation in the race at which he won four stages and the overall title last year was always doubtful.
And the Belgian team have confirmed Boonen will instead take leadership of the team as he bids to step up his preparations for the Classics. ‘Tornado Tom’ won the race in 2012.
The Belgian, who went one to win all four of the cobbled Classics in 2012 before suffering injury last year, said: “After the Tour de San Luis, in which I did some good work, the Tour of Qatar will be another important step in the first part of my season.
“I’ve always done well in this race. This year, too, we’ll be lining up for the start with the ambition to do well, to achieve prestigious results.
“I really like the Tour of Qatar, it’s a race that is perfectly suited to my strengths. The wind is a fundamental factor in this competition; whether you want to or not, it forces you to always try to stay out in front and never underestimate any racing situation.
“Luckily, pedalling in the wind is one of the things OPQS excels in. I’m really looking forward to this race.”
The winds have wreaked havoc on the peloton in previous editions, with most stages in the entirely flat race often settled from reduced bunch sprints.
Boonen has won 20 stages in his career in Qatar, and will be backed this year by a team including Nikolas Maes, Niki Terpstra, lead-out man Gert Steegmans, and Brit Andrew Fenn.
Directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters said: “They are unusual sprints because after hours of battling the winds, riders come in to the sprint very tired.
“We are lining up for the start with a squad selected for this type of route. It will be headed by Boonen but athletes like Nikolas Maes and Niki Terpstra can also do well.
“There will also be a 10.9 km time trial to be ridden on a normal road bike in which Niki could figure prominently. We are setting out with the desire and ambition to come back with a good result.”
Belgian trio Iljo Keisse, Guillaume van Keirsbulck and Stijn Vandenbergh round off the Omega Pharma-Quickstep squad.
Among the riders bidding to derail Boonen’s will be Britain’s Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard meanwhile, with Team Sky having also confirmed their squad for the 2.HC-classified race.