DOHA // Competitors in the first women's professional cycling race to be held in the Middle East feel the event marked a milestone in the sport. The men's tour has been a fixture in Qatar since 2002, inspired by the country's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, seeing the Tour de France go by from a summer residence near Cannes. No Qataris featured among the 15 teams taking part in the three-day inaugural women's race but the country aims to bring girls into the sport through its ultra-modern academy for sporting excellence, ASPIRE.
Girls from five to 16 are learning cycling at the academy and a group came to watch the first stage and meet the racers. "I was surprised when I heard this race was going to happen but it's always a step forward for women's cycling," the Australian rider Rochelle Gilmore said as she waited for the start on Sunday. "It's very exciting and we feel very privileged to be racing here." "We are very proud of this event, a women's race for the first time in the Middle East," said the Belgian former champion Eddy Merckx, an adviser to the women's race which followed last week's men's Tour of Qatar.
"I think it's a good thing because this was also to show the women (here) can do sport. I hope it will be good for women in general." The Qatar Cycling Federation president Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al-Thani, one of the Emir's sons, said: "We believe in sport for everybody, for women, men, elderly and children, to have programmes across the board. "We run weekend events too for families that allow everybody from six years old to elderly to participate.
"Everybody needs to have a chance to do a sport of his liking. We will have to see how much effect it has. We make the effort and we'll pave the way but as the saying goes you can take a horse to water but you can't make them drink. "It always takes time to establish things from zero, we have to be patient." Qatar's presence in world sport has grown in recent years with the country organising events on the global tennis, golf and MotoGP circuits as well as a successful 2006 Asian Games.
Doha made a bid to stage the 2016 Olympic Games but failed to get on the shortlist last year. Qatar has launched a bid to host the football World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Only some two dozen spectators mixed with the media outside Doha's imposing Museum of Islamic Art for the midday start of the women's tour on Sunday but the race, which featured seven of the world's top eight teams, attracted plenty of media coverage, both on television and in local newspapers.
"It's very important because it's the first time in the Middle East," the former double world champion Susanne Ljungskog of Sweden said. "It's good for women's cycling to have more races and I was really happy that it's going to take place." The race across a desert route ended on Tuesday with victory for Dutchwoman Kirsten Wild of the Cervelo Test team. The riders themselves were happy, saying they were receiving VIP treatment and five-star hotel accommodation.
"The worst I've ever had to put up with was in a French race where we were sleeping seven to a room in a school," Ljungskog said. "This is pretty different." *Reuters