Monday, February 24, 2014

Desert Racing

When you think of desert races, it’s not usually those of the road cycling variety that come to mind. The Paris-Dakar Rally is one of the most famous events that, up until 2008, traversed an off-road route from Paris to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. While this race is contested by cars, trucks and motorcycles, interestingly, it is also run by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), who are the organisers behind road cycling events including the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Paris-Nice, among others.

Security concerns in Mauritania, led to the event being moved to South America in 2009, and while “Paris” has been dropped from the title, (the now) Dakar Rally unfortunately doesn’t come within about 7000km of Dakar these days – and much of that gap would need to be traversed by sea, which is probably beyond the capabilities of even the hardiest rally vehicle.

After the Dakar Rally finishes up in January, ASO heads off to the Middle East for some desert racing of a different kind at the Tours of Qatar and Oman. More on those later.
Desert Racing - UCI style.

In the USA, the Mint 400 desert race, once again for motor vehicles, was popularised in Hunter S. Thompson’s famous book (later made in to a film) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. This (somewhat fictional) story revolves loosely around a reporter (and his attorney) whose trip to Las Vegas to cover the annual desert race quickly descends in to drug-fuelled delirium.

“The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug-collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can."
And while cultural, religious and legal attitudes towards recreational drugs in the Middle East mean that this scene is unlikely to ever be re-created at the Tour of Qatar or Oman, getting caught with a car full of illegal drugs is something that is, unfortunately, not that uncommon in professional cycling.
The Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman are the highest ranked desert races on the UCI Asia Continental Tour which sits below the UCI World Tour in terms of importance, UCI points and general snootiness.

With Europe and North America buried in the depths of winter at this time of year, the pro cycling calendar year gets underway firstly in Australia with the Tour Down Under and Herald-Sun Tour in January. In February come the desert races which are held in a climate that is, although technically still winter, much more conducive to cycling than Europe at this time of year.

For example, in Qatar, daytime maximum temperatures in February average a very comfortable 23 degrees. At the peak of summer this rises to an incendiary 41 degrees – which would likely cause some protest from the peloton.
Professional cyclists love a protest when racing conditions are not to their liking. In this famous photo from the 1998 Tour de France, riders hold a sit-in protest against treatment by Police who were vigorously targeting teams suspected of doping.

The desert races also offer a change from all those boring high alpine mountain passes in France, Spain and Italy or the cold, wet and narrow roads of Belgium or the Netherlands. In the tours of Qatar and Oman, professional cyclists are faced with a different type of riding – flat, hot and windy.

In a recent interview with VeloNews, president of the Qatar Cycling Federation, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al Thani (or as he is more commonly known – Sheik Kebabalot) is quoted as saying:
“And since we started the Tour of Qatar, it was always about, “it’s too flat, we don’t have many mountains,” etc. But this is sport. You have to tackle all the different things, yeah? Different countries have different contours. The thing that we have here is strong winds, and it’s open. The desert.”
And professional cyclists will need to get used to this type of riding because in 2016, Qatar will be hosting the UCI Road World Championships, although organisers have promised some hills to make thing a bit more interesting.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously wrote in Le Petit Prince, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” Come 2016, this well might be the coveted rainbow jersey of road world champion, and perhaps an opportunity for an unheralded rider to wear it.

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