DUBAI – For weeks, Friday’s gruelling 42km time trial on the Tour of Qatar has meant little to many of its approximately 60,000 fans. But in recent days, as Marcel Kittel lined up in the first of the day’s four, most have begun their own race, hoping to knock him off the overall yellow jersey.
“With the way he is riding at the moment, I’m thinking that he’s going to win it all,” said real estate agent Catena Vila who was spending the day leading a group of around 30 yellow-clad passengers on a near five-hour train journey from his home to downtown Doha, one of the areas that hosted the Tour during the first week.
Vila, 28, waited out the rain of his train carriage, flag and sign flapping, with other cyclists, from Germany, Austria, Spain and Poland, as the cheers of the regular commuter commuters mixed with enthusiasm of the hardcore riders.
However, in the 18th stage of the three-week race that is known for its dramatic end, the day before the grand prix in Doha, Vila is hoping the momentum of his pack will be sufficient to bring it down.
“If he starts getting a bit tired, then I think we can beat him. If not, then we can be very close. I know we can finish in front.”
There are a few reasons why Kittel’s yellow jersey could be vulnerable: he has not completed a flat stage; he is third in GC (second in the race) but only 25 seconds behind Juan Jose Cobo; and he holds a seven-second overall lead over the remaining sprinter, Fernando Gaviria.
But in the last three stages – starting with today’s time trial and ending with a final stage plus finale between Doha and Al Khor – not only will Kittel run out of time to accumulate bonus points that, factoring in the amount of points a sprinter loses while completing a flat stage, might see him only lose a handful on his rivals; he will also have a day free of competition, meaning he can concentrate all his concentration on pure attack tactics.
With four short ones, including an atypical long, in a very high gradient course around Doha, Kittel is unlikely to have any trouble in picking away at his rivals, said a rider who has been targeted by competitors looking to surprise the leader: “To win this week, you need to have real good tactics. We have tried it in the last couple of days and I’m not sure if we are on form enough to win on a stage in which they are going to attack, so it will be difficult for Marcel.”
If rivals do pick away at him on Friday, while the yellow jersey was at home in bed after a tough day’s racing, then it will be to little avail: Kittel is scheduled to start the racing on Thursday in the 30km time trial on the King Abdullah Port circuit before the team time trial two days later.
“We have been very lucky to get a start time because in places like Khalidiya and Asej al Saud with a flat time trial, Marcel would have had a lot of time behind him [from the others]. This time it won’t be the case. There is a lot of time behind him because he has had a long, hard race.”