Women take the lead at Middle East races

The Ladies Tour of Qatar starts Tuesday in the country's capital city of Doha

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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — The Ladies Tour of Qatar kicks off a series of stage races this month in the Middle East that cumulates with the Tour de France stars in Oman.

The men, including reigning Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), race Wednesday in the Dubai Tour. Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and others land in Doha for the Tour of Qatar February 8.

Ladies first, however.

Before the men set foot in the Sheraton Doha Hotel on the capital city’s waterfront, the women will take the spotlight. The last of the teams arrived Sunday ahead of the four-day stage race that starts Tuesday.

The race will begin along the waterfront outside the Museum of Islamic Art. It will travel west over the sandy peninsula to Dukhan Beach. Stage 2 will cover the wide and straight roads in the country’s north, while the final two stages will skirt along the east with Doha as the base.

Tour de France organizer ASO began the men’s Tour of Qatar in 2002. The classics men and sprinters loved the hot and windy racing in February. The women had their chance when ASO began the Ladies Tour of Qatar in 2009.

The men/women pairing is rare in stage racing. The women have the new Tour de San Luis, the Amgen Tour of California, and the Tour of Qatar sitting alongside the more popular men’s versions of those races. They also have one-day races like the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), la Flèche Wallonne Femmes and, starting in 2015, Strade Bianche.

The women, which number 90 across 15 teams in Qatar, like it. The races allow them to share the spotlight with the men and bring their sport some extra attention.

“The pairing works. Absolutely,” Shelley Olds (Bigla) told VeloNews at the 2013 edition of the Tour of Qatar.

“You hear it over and over. We should have all the same races as the men have, like Milano-Sanremo, etc.

“It’s true, when you have the big races, you have the spectators there already. They say, ‘Oh my god. The women can race too.’ Maybe they’ll be more interested in the women, especially now with the state of men’s cycling.”

ASO tacked on a women’s one-day race, Le Course, at the end of the Tour de France in 2014. The Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia are planning similar races.

One of the big events is the UCI Road World World Championships, which takes place in Richmond, Virginia, this year. Last Friday, the UCI said it would continue its support of the women’s side of the sport and in televising their World Cup races.

“I think there has been a recent change in public perception across the world for women’s sport, I think people are more interested in women’s sport of all kind,” UCI President Brian Cookson told VeloNews this winter.

“We at the UCI are doing our part and we want the media to step up and do their own part.”

The ASO, cycling’s strongest and richest race organizer, is doing its part and has received praise from women like Olds.

In the six previous editions of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, The Netherlands’ Kirsten Wild has won four times. Wild’s countrywoman Ellen Van Dijk and German Judith Arndt own the two other victories.

Wild is not racing in Doha this week, but her Hitec Products team will be there. Van Dijk will return with team Boels-Dolmans, which also has World Cup overall and Commonwealth Games winner Lizzie Armitstead.

Two-time world champion Giorgia Bronzini of Italy will lead Wiggle-Honda with Chloe Hosking, third overall in 2014. Olds is on the startlist again, along with four other U.S. cyclists on American team Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies.

The Middle East will continue to buzz with cyclists. Nibali and other elite men will race the Dubai Tour in the neighboring United Arab Eremites, from February 4-7. The men’s Tour of Qatar will start February 8 and run through February 13 on most of the same roads the women use. Before the focus shifts back to Europe for the spring/summer season, the men will race the Tour of Oman, slated for February 17-22.

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