Adventures In Qatar with Team USA
By Felice Beitzel
Hi Stylish Cycling fans! My name is Felice, I am the soigneur (“swan-yer”) for the Giant Bicycles Mountain Bike Team. As a “swanny”, my job is to take care of the athletes – massages, nutrition, first aid, and anything else that they may require throughout training and racing. Last week I had the unique opportunity to work with the USA women’s road cycling team for the Ladies Tour of Qatar! If you aren’t sure where Qatar is, check the map – it is south of Iraq off the east side of Saudi Arabia… a long way from my hometown, Bend, in Oregon – 29 hours in transit! It was my first visit to the Middle East, and I was nervous – but it turned out to be a fun adventure.
The teams for the Ladies Tour of Qatar were invited guests of the King of Qatar. Upon arrival in Doha, we were immediately whisked across the city of remarkable lit-up skyscrapers and wild traffic to the swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The hotel had a glossy interior with multiple oversized chandeliers, was surrounded by a garden with ridiculous shaped trimmed trees, and my favourite feature was an exceptional spa and fitness center! Thankfully, the hotel did all the cooking and cleaning and there was even a man whose job was to deliver cookies to each room in the evenings. Delicious!My first challenge upon arrival was to stock up on team food and drink supplies from the store. When I was handed a set of keys to a team car, I was shocked to realise that I was going to have to drive – the trip from the airport in the mini-bus had been terrifying! My counterpart from the Australian team, Liane, and I teamed up to find the supermarket. With a map from the concierge, the 2 western ladies hit the road alone in Doha – Eeek! I tackled the roads with the aggression required to survive as we navigated through the multi-lane roundabouts in the wild traffic that is made up primarily of Arab men driving large shiny white SUVs – FAST! Liane aptly renamed the other vehicles that were entering and exiting the mega roundabouts “scud-missiles”! Our mission was a success and I was prepared for driving anywhere after that!
Although Qatar may seem like an unusual location for a bike race, sporting events are very popular. In the past month, the country has hosted the Asian Games Soccer Tournament, the Qatar Masters Golf event and both the Ladies and Mens “Tour of Qatar” cycling races!
The 3 day ladies race featured very flat terrain – the highest point in the country is only 338ft – so although there were no hills to climb, the wind presented a huge challenge. The tactics of the teams were based primarily on changes in wind direction and sprints. One highlight for USA was in stage 2, when Alison Starnes in her first race since a serious injury in July 2010, launched a strong attack into the killer headwind to break away solo from the peleton to finish 7th behind the lead bunch of 6 that had broken away earlier. It was a great effort, and it paid off – helping her on the way to a top individual general classification result of 19th!The Team USA girls overcame bad luck and fought hard for the entire race. Riding in the precarious peleton in the wind, there were multiple crashes resulting in numerous stitches, road rash and bruises. But each time, they got back on their bikes and were eager to continue the race! Their tenacity was impressive! The team finished 14th overall.
Throughout my world-wide travels as a soigneur, I love exploring new countries and learning about new cultures. My first visit to the Middle East was fascinating. I learned that nearly three quarters of the residents in Qatar are expatriates from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other Westerners who are employed in the wealthy country. As a result, the western influence on clothing and lifestyle is evident, with outfits ranging from perfect white robes and full burqas to sleek business suits and other western style attire. Although the freedom of clothing choice was apparent, the dress code remains conservative. Thus, it was unique for Qatar as an Islamic country, to host a cycling race featuring girls wearing nothing but lycra kits! It was interesting to observe that while the country was eager to host the event and support women’s sport, the athletes were encouraged to “cover up” immediately after the races and mid-ride “nature breaks” were definitely discouraged! Similarly, the western influence was obvious in shopping mall, which could have been a mall found anywhere in the world – the same shops selling the same things – even Starbucks! However, with a car and jacket blatantly labelled “Team USA”, and Aussie Liane’s blond hair we were obviously “not from here” and were met with inquisitive but harmless stares from both men and women.
Similar to the contrasts in culture, the contrasts in scenery in Qatar were astonishing! It was most notable in Stage 2, which commenced at the Islamic Museum and travelled along the “Doha Corniche”. This picturesque water-side drive was lined with luscious green grass, flowers and palm trees – and views of the amazing architecture of Doha across the bay.I wondered where they sourced the water from to sustain the plant-life, and arrived at the conclusion that with the wealth of Qatar, they can create surroundings any way they desire! The stage finished at a motor raceway about 50km away from Doha where the views were an amazing stark contrast to the man-induced green-ness of Doha… There was nothing but wind, lots of wind.
Needless to say, my experience was amazing! Not only was it was fantastic to work with the dedicated, courageous athletes on Team USA, but witnessing the introduction of women’s cycling into a population with no established bike culture was fascinating. In Qatar, car travel is cheap and carbon dioxide emissions are the highest in the world, along with obesity rates! It is encouraging that the King of Qatar welcomed women cyclists to the Islamic conservative country, and hopefully our presence there inspires more women to participate in cycling for both the environmental and health benefits – not only in Qatar, but around the world.