With early-season (or early pre-season) races such as Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman gaining importance, we muse on the impact that these races have on the traditional spring classics season in Europe.
Here are a few plots to consider, from Weather.com: the year-long average high and low temperatures, plus precipitation, comparing Doha Qatar and Gent Belgium.
There is no need to squint, the message is obvious: Weather in Belgium sucks for winter and spring training. According to Weather.com, Doha is warmer than Gent by 30F (17C) and Gent is wetter than Doha by 26.4 inches. So the advantage of traveling to Qatar and Oman for training is obvious.
How did ToQ and ToO gain such prominence, and how will this impact the European spring classics season? Here is our view.
Tours of Qatar and Oman Fill a Need
In the olden days of cycling there are many one-day races in the south part of France and Italy, along the Mediterranean coast. These were low-key races used as warm-up and training races by the top guns as they prepare for the spring classics. These races had a casual, nearly carnival atmosphere that allowed top riders to stretch their legs with little stress. Unfortunately for us, most of these races have gone extinct: they were run by local organizers, and over time most have gone extinct.
In the absence of ToQ and ToO, the contenders are left with only few season openers. With fewer competition, there is greater risk due to weather and there is greater ambition to win, changing the characteristic of the race.
This is where ToQ and ToO come into play: flat course in Qatar and strong winds mean good practice for the spring classics with little consequence of being dropped from the front group (unless you are Tom Boonen and you have GC aspirations). The long winding climb in ToO means the peloton is naturally splintered and each rider can ride their own pace up the Green Mountain (unless you are Robert Gesink and you have stage win aspirations).
Say what you like about Tour Down Under - a great race in a by itself - but other than a nice vacation down under, non-sprinters do not exactly use it as a critical test.
The Not-so-invisible Hand of ASO Guarantees Participation
Speaking of which, when both ASO and Eddy Merckx insist that a team puts on a good show at ToQ and ToO, that team is obliged to put in a good dig. This is exactly why big teams such as QuickStep, Lotto, and even small ones such as Topsport-Vlaanderen come with their better riders. This pressure was key in the early history of ToQ and ToO as it wasn't a certainty that any top contenders would even show up. Now with the tradition of ToQ and ToO already fairly established, top teams and riders need less corralling to show up.
Established European Races Need Not Worry, Less Established Ones Should
As a closing comment, compare the start list of ToQ/ToO to that of l'Etoile de Bességes. Sure, ToQ and ToO are run by ASO and therefore invited teams are obligated to put on a show lest they be left off of the invite list of established races. But one can't help feeling that teams that come to l'Etoile de Bességes to win do so because it's one of the places where they can possibly contend, while teams that come to ToQ and ToO come because they want to win at bigger races.
This means that smaller early season European races are deprived of stars that otherwise would come to test their form. In turn, this hurts attendance at races such as GP l'Ouverture and GP Coppa Etruschi. We worry that as the younger riders are getting used to testing their form in ToQ and ToO, future generations that would otherwise include these European openers in their program will instead get used to flying elsewhere. Thus, we expect that in 5-10 years' time, these races will lose their importance.
On the other hand, established classics need not worry that their place in the calendar is being usurped.
What do you think is the impact of Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman on the classics season?