The world championships came late in 2016 and the action is now over. In Doha and the surrounding desert riders battled wind, heat and one another to decide who will wear rainbow jerseys for the coming year.
Giles Belbin was our man on the ground in Qatar. He filed this overview after the elite men’s road race on Sunday.
– Photos: Yuzuru Sunada
Another year in the rainbow jersey for Sagan
The talk this week in Doha has been about what this world championships has been lacking. No atmosphere, no spectators, no carnival spirit. No sense that this is actually the UCI’s flagship event. But for all the things that Doha didn’t bring us, for all the problems and questions about the heat and lack of roadside interest, on its final day no-one could credibly deny that Doha delivered us a race worthy of the world championships.
The final race of the 2016 worlds gave us a charismatic champion and winner who will enjoy a second straight year parading the rainbow bands.
When your day ends with the world champion sat in front of you in a press conference humming the theme tune to Star Wars you know it’s been a pretty good day.
Peter Sagan’s version of the John Williams’ classic perhaps wasn’t perfect but his display on the bike an hour or so earlier had been.
Everybody knew where to be at that crucial turn in the desert with around 180km to go – at the front! But only a handful had made it. The Belgian train went to work with the Italians. And that was that. With over 150km still to go the race was done for nearly 90 percent of the peloton.
Belgium had five riders in the break and Italy four. Tom Boonen, Greg Van Avermaert, Jurgen Roelandts, Daniele Bennati, Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo were all there.
Australia had Mathew Hayman and Michael Matthews.
Great Britain had Mark Cavendish and Adam Blythe.
Norway had three men including Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alexander Kristoff.
Slovakia had Michal Koler and, of course, Sagan.
This was a strong group, as strong as there could be. It wasn’t coming back. And we should take some time to celebrate that, while plenty of other teams didn’t make the break – Germany, USA, Denmark to name just three – Eritrea and Morocco did! Hats off to Natnael Berhane and Anas Ait El Abdia who, in brutal conditions, stuck with the very elite riders this sport has for over 175km, finishing 13th and 22nd, respectively.
Hayman later said that the race had worked out well for the Australians. That they had wanted it to be a hard race and that was what they had got. “The Belgians committed and the race was pretty much shut down from then,” he said.
“With Michael it was always planned for the sprint here if it was a hard race, and it certainly was. I was a bit disappointed. I couldn’t do more in the final kilometre.”
Matthews came close to the podium. Just half a wheel separated him from Boonen.
Cavendish cut a frustrated figure in second while Sagan surged to the win, stealing the day and the championships.
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On the preceding Friday, Sagan had been the epitome of cool in his very brief press conference. He came here late, just a few days before, while everyone else was here for the week attempting to acclimatise. He kept saying he had nothing to lose, that he’d already earned his stripes. Well, he’s earned them a second time now.
“You come here late, you say you have nothing to lose, and then you win. Explain,” said one journalist. The 26-year-old looked nonplussed.
“It’s hot here, yes, but where do you go to train? ” he said.
“I’ve done a lot this season and so I was like I’ll try and prepare in my house in Monaco where there is also good weather, not hot like this, but [still] I go on the bike for five hours and then I can relax in my own environment.
“When I came here for the first day I was sleeping all day because I travelled overnight. Then one day I did three hours and already I was like no, it’s too much. The next day I did just one hour because today was a big day.”
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Sunday 16 October 2016 was a big day. For Sagan, for Doha, and for the world championships. Never before has a host city had to defend its right to host this event to such a degree and surely rarely has the UCI had to so frequently defend its decision in awarding that right. In truth neither defence has been convincing.
Walk the streets of Doha and there is a huge indifference to the event being here. It’s shut away on the Pearl far away from the everyday life of the city.
Who do you ask if you want to know what’s happening in a city? Taxi drivers. I’ve asked every taxi driver I’ve met what they think about the worlds being their city. Only one driver realised I was talking about cycling and not soccer and it quickly became apparent that even he thought it was the Tour of Qatar that was taking place, even though he said he loved the bicycle.
If you want to leave a legacy for the people surely the first thing to do is properly engage them.
At least some crowds showed up on Sunday to watch Sagan power to victory. Few were locals though. As one ex-pat from the United States explained to me, if they wanted to get more locals out for the finale maybe they shouldn’t have held it on a day that, in this part of the world, is a normal working day. “My husband would have loved to have been here,” she said. “But he’s at work.” Cultural differences laid bare.
But Doha delivered on arguably the most important front. We’ve had races that have delivered worthy champions who will be wearing rainbow jerseys for the next 12 months.
Next year we will be back in Europe and the talk can revert to the cycling and not why we are there. Doha will be a memory.
As photographer Graham Watson told me: “It’s still a worlds and it’s still a good worlds. We’ve had good winners so at the end of the day, in the history books, you won’t notice it.”
– By Giles Belbin