10 MINUTES WITH DOHA WORLDS’ ORGANIZERS JOHN LELANGUE AND EDDY MERCKX
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Oct 16, 2015 – Exactly a year from now Peter Sagan will defending his rainbow jersey in Doha, Qatar, at the first UCI world road championships to be held in the Middle East. This past week the daytime temperature in Doha has varied from a low of 93 Fahrenheit to a high of 108 (that’s from 33 to 42 Celsius). And this is the same week when the worlds will be held in the Persian Gulf state.
Words by John Wilcockson/Photos by Kåre Dehlie Thorstad and Yuzuru Sunada
By contrast, when this year’s Tour of Qatar was held in February the temperatures varied from a far more equitable 73 to a comfortable 86 degrees Fahrenheit (from 22 to 30 Celsius). So how will the world’s top cyclists manage to race at their very best in stiflingly hot conditions next October? The pro peloton experienced similar intense desert heat last week in the nearby Abu Dhabi Tour, but that was a low-key end-of-season stage race, not a world championship.
I recently had a chance to talk about this potential heat problem and the other challenges of Doha 2016 with John Lelangue, the 45-year-old Belgian who is in charge of the technical aspects of next year’s worlds, along with Eddy Merckx, who in 2001 first connected the Qatari cycling community with Tour de France organizer ASO—for whom Lelangue worked at the time.
The two Belgians then helped create the Tour of Qatar, and that first pro stage race in an Arab land has been the catalyst for Doha’s winning bid to stage next year’s worlds.
The Lelangue-Merckx relationship dates back to 1968 when Lelangue’s father, Robert (usually called Bob), was one of Merckx’s teammates on the Faema team. That was Bob’s last season as a bike racer, but he remained active in the sport, first driving a media car for the famed Belgian television journalist Théo Mathy before becoming a directeur sportif for Merckx’s Molteni team between 1972 and 1976. After Merckx retired, the two men kept close ties, with Bob Lelangue managing Merckx’s bike manufacturing business for more than two decades, while their respective sons, John and Axel, became close friends.
Bob Lelangue also continued driving official vehicles at the Tour, including for race director Jean-Marie Leblanc between 1988 and 2006. It wasn’t a coincidence that his son John, after working with the Belgian Olympic Committee, joined ASO in the mid-1990s, first as a press officer and then as the personal assistant to race director Leblanc. He went on to become a team manager with Phonak, a TV commentator, and then the founding directeur sportif at BMC Racing before moving to Qatar last year.
(Photo: Yuzuru Sunada)
John Wilcockson: John, you’ve had many different jobs in cycling over the past 20 years: race director, TV journalist, team director and now organizer of the world championships. Have those jobs helped you to do your current work, John?
John Lelangue: Yes. In my first life, as it were, I had 10 years with the Tour de France working with Jean-Marie Leblanc, which was surely good experience for organizing the world championships. And then it was interesting to see the other side of the competition, to be with the riders and with the teams. And, yeah, after 10 years there it was also good to go for a new challenge when Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Thani proposed me this challenge to do what we were doing in 2001—I was helping at the time with ASO—to organize and launch the routes, the circuits, all the technical and sport aspects…and he asked me if I wanted to join [his organizing committee] and come to live in Qatar and be the director for these events.
Wilcockson: Eddy, you’ve played a big part in promoting the sport in the Middle East, in Qatar as well as Oman. Do you think the Doha worlds will be a success?
Eddy Merckx: Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006 and it has been very successful in organizing cycling events, including the Tour of Qatar since 2002—and we added the Ladies Tour of Qatar in 2009. Those two races next year will be test events for the Doha worlds, giving teams the chance to race on the [19.2-kilometer] circuit. Doha’s infrastructure is first class and the hotels are of the highest quality. And for the first time all the athletes are being offered free accommodations—that’s huge.
Wilcockson: John, what do you expect the weather to be in mid-October?
Lelangue: It will likely be in the mid-30s [Celsius, mid-90s Fahrenheit], but no really big heat. In October, it’s already going down, and of course the maximum we can have in some peak moments of the day, but not every day, could be around 40 Celsius [104 Fahrenheit], but usually something that is reasonable.
Wilcockson: What sort of races do you expect Eddy? For the pro race, I see you have an 80-kilometer loop in the desert north of town before the laps around a flat 19.2-kilometer circuit that’s mostly alongside the sea on Pearl island.
Merckx: A lot depends upon the wind. The sprinters have an advantage, that’s for sure. But if there’s a strong wind why not a finisher, such as Cancellara, Van Avermaet or Gilbert, who can make the difference at the end of a race. The wind can make as much difference as a climb, but we don’t know whether we’ll have a lot or a little wind. But in principle the biggest favorites will be Degenkolb, Greipel and Kristoff.
Wilcockson: Our readers like to know something about the culture of a place, the restaurants and such things. What can they expect in Doha?
Lelangue: You find a lot of different things because Qatar is a multicultural country. Of course it’s an Arabic country in the middle of the desert [on] a peninsular, so it’s part of the Middle East cultural tradition of hospitality; but also you know it’s a place where you have a lot of ex-pats living and working [making up about three quarters of the population], so you have an international and ethnic tradition of food all over Doha. It’s an interesting place to visit because there are a lot of nice museums like the Islamic Museum of Art, which is great…and then there is falconry, camel races, the type of things that we don’t know in the U.S. or Europe.
Wilcockson: What about the alcohol situation?
Lelangue: We have to respect the customs and rules of the Arabic world. There is no alcohol except in certain places, like the five-star hotels, where the European people can go and have a beer or wine.
Wilcockson: What sort of places do you live and work in Doha?
Lelangue: I live in an apartment, on the fifth floor of a skyscraper that has 60 stories. It’s in the city center and there’s a 20-minute drive to my office. I don’t ride my bike much, but when it’s not in the summer, I will be going outside much more and walking.
Wilcockson: You’re well known to many American racers from the years when you were starting the BMC team as a domestic squad in the U.S.
Lelangue: For me, they were good years with [BMC sports director] Gavin Chilcott and to be on all those races—there was the Cascade Classic, Redlands, Sea Otter, Tour of Missouri, Tour de Georgia…. We had a lot of fun. So I know the U.S. riders and Swiss riders who were there, and some of them are still in the pro peloton riding the Tour and the Giro. It’s always nice to see them, though being in Doha I don’t have much opportunity of seeing them except at the Tour of Qatar—it was fun to talk to guys like Manuel Quinziato and Daniel Oss after the time trial stage this year.
Wilcockson: But for most of the athletes at worlds it will be their first time in Qatar, so what is life like in Doha?
Lelangue: It’s nice. For me, there’s a lot of work to do. It’s a different life, of course. Different culture, Arabic culture, but the main challenge for the worlds was to do something different, to make the race different. If it would have been a world championship in Italy or Belgium or France, that’s pretty normal, but being the first one to try to organize it in the Middle East, in an Arabic country, makes it totally different.
Wilcockson: What do you plan on doing when the worlds are over next October?
Lelangue: We will see. If there’s a new challenge coming, maybe in Qatar, in the U.S., or in Europe or Belgium, we will see.
The schedule for the 2106 worlds opens with the trade team time trials for men and women, both over 40 kilometers, on Sunday, October 9. This course starts with a loop of the Pearl island loop before an out-and-back section north into the desert. (The elite men’s and under-23 men’s individual time trials will be held on the same 40-kilometer course.)
There will be no “blank” days through the week, which will see the junior women’s and U23 men’s TTs on Monday, junior men’s and elite women’s TTs on Tuesday and the men’s elite TT on Wednesday. The road races will held over four days, starting Thursday with the men’s U23 race, followed by the junior men’s and women’s races Friday, the elite women’s race on Saturday (following a mass participation event on the worlds course) and the elite men on Sunday, October 16.