Racing the Casbah in Qatar
January 30, 2008 —
One of the great things about being a cycling scribe is that it gets you places.
If there’s a relatively decent stretch of a road, chances are good that someone’s going to run a bicycle race down it. Cycling is truly a global sport that extends to all continents. I’m not sure if penguins can race bikes yet, so Antarctica is the possible exception.
I’ve been lucky enough to chase bikes all across North America, Africa and Europe. Now I can add the Middle East to that list.
This week, about 20 cycling hacks were flown into the oil-rich nation of Qatar, a short stub of a country that juts out into the Persian Gulf like a hitchhiker’s thumb, for the 7th annual Tour of Qatar.
It’s a relatively easy affair for the 130 or so professionals here on teams from Europe, Asia and the United States. Stages are short, there are no mountains, and the weather beats the cold and wind of Belgium in January. Spending the week at the super-luxurious Ritz Carlton-Doha isn’t bad, either.
Home to about 200,000 native-born Qataris and probably quadruple that number in immigrant labor, Qatar isn’t much bigger than Colorado’s Front Range.
Once dominated by the Ottomans and then a forgotten British protectorate that was home to errant Bedouins and a brisk pearl-hunting industry, Qatar shot to prominence after rich oil and natural gas deposits were discovered in the 1940s.
Flush with petro-dollars, Qatar is heavily investing in the future, building world-class amenities and infrastructure at breakneck speed. Glass-smooth highways scour the barren desert landscapes where only a few lone camels dot the otherwise bleak horizon.
Armies of workers flown in from India and Nepal toil like ants over literally hundreds of skyscrapers racing to fill the horizon (paid a miserly $100 a month, a local told me). It’s as if Qatar is trying to build the Manhattan skyline in a decade.
Luxury knows no limits here where every Qatari citizen receives upwards of $10,000 per month thanks to its oil and gas booty.
And almost no one here has a real, full-time job, and why would you with that kind of stipend?
Home of the Al Jazeera TV station and one of the Middle East’s most modern universities, Qatar is trying to move into the modern world without forgetting its traditions and customs.
Unlike some of its more austere neighbors, women can drive in Qatar and aren’t exiled to hide behind the oppressive burkhas. Both men and women proudly wear traditional clothing, however, but there’s a hint of Gucci and Dolce & Gobanna hidden behind the veils.
It’s certainly not without its quirks. Drugs equal immediate execution and liquor can only be purchased in the five-star hotels catering to western business executives, but you get a sense here that Qatar is trying to mix elements of the modern world without turning its back on its roots.
So why a bike race in such an unlikely place?
About a decade ago, the ruling emir was traveling with his entourage to his summer home in southern France when traffic came to a screeching halt. Frustrated, the emir got out of the car and confronted the French gendarme blocking the road.
“I am the ruler of Qatar! I am going to cross the road!” he shouted, or so the story goes. The gendarme wagged his finger and said that’s not possible. Emir or not, the road was closed for the Tour de France.
The emir resigned himself to the wait and readily joined the party that inevitably lines any stage of the Tour as fans pass the hours before watching the passing peloton.
It just so happened that the emir’s official photographer was Belgian, who explained to the curious emir the colorful history of the Tour. He proudly said that Eddy Merckx, cycling’s greatest rider ever, was also Belgian.
The emir said he wanted to meet this Eddy Merckx and hold a race of his own in Qatar.
Merckx flew down to meet Qatari officials, who were already investing billions to develope the world-class Aspire training center, which hosts athletes from all over the world in 11 Olympic sports.
Things moved quickly, and Merckx tapped officials from the Tour de France to help organize the race. It was first held in 2001 almost as a publicity stunt, but what the Qataris do, they do well, with the intention of being among the world’s elite.
The race is now in its seventh edition and attracts top pros like former world champ Tom Boonen, who uses the high-speed spins across the desert to hone his form ahead of the punishing one-day spring classics in April.
There’s even talk of bringing the Tour de France to Qatar for one of its lavish grand départs for a few stages before flying first-class back to Europe.
Nothing’s impossible in Qatar.
When riders complained there were no tough hills in Qatar, the emir replied: “If they want l’Alpe d’Huez, I’ll build a mountain.”
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