|Dates not doping|
| By Matthias Krug in Doha |
But Anti-doping inspector James Broadbent could rest assured, the contents were equally legal and traditional.
"I think this is our EPO," joked Tareq Esmaeili, a Qatari rider with the Doha Team, before explaining in earnest, "dates are very famous in Arabian countries, it's all vitamins and iron and a lot of glucose inside. This is a real Arabian tradition."
With the fourth stage starting from the Doha Old Souq on Wednesday, cyclists could be seen pedaling through the slim alleyways of the traditional marketplace looking for a quick bargain or two ahead of the race.
Interest in local traditions, and the local team, was high.
"I think the Doha team is very good," yellow jersey holder Tom Boonen told Al Jazeera.
"There's two guys I saw already a few times on a breakaway in the first group. You have to be strong to be there, so they're developing really well. The first time I came here they were already dropped from the start, and now you have some riders who are really racing with us. It's a big difference from the first year."
When asked if he had tried the local energy food, the Belgian sprint star proved interested.
"Is that the trick? Dates are good. If they give me some I will try it," Boonen said a day after winning his 15th Tour of Qatar stage.
If Boonen does try the local 'date doping' he will face no sanction from the anti-doping department.
"Dates are no problem," UCI inspector Broadbent said with a smile.
Official approval, then, but some riders were more sceptical.
Dominik Roels from Germany was an interested visitor in the souq, but said he would probably pass on the dates.
"This souq area is very different from our cities but I always like to get an impression of the place where we race," the Milram rider said.
"Dates are probably good because they have a lot of sugar, but I haven't tried it. I don’t think it’s my taste."
Not so strange for some
For American rider William Frischkorn on the other hand, the small brown fruits are no strangers.
"We also have dates in our food box at the Garmin-Slipstream team all the time wherever we race. It’s good high energy food."
Nearby there was more cross-cultural dialogue framed in sporting clothes.
Australian cyclist Joseph Lewis could be seen haggling for an Arabian headdress.
"It's always good to see different countries and different civilizations. We're trying to get one of these suits for a dress up party when we go back home," he said with a smile, before adding respectfully, "there's surprisingly good guys on the Doha team."
Esmaeili is at 32 years of age a senior member of the Doha team, but says his best years are yet to come: "Armstrong is 37 and still on the bike."
The Qatari cyclist's vast experience helps him put the team's development into perspective.
"We started in 2003 when we began with army teams, and then they selected us for the national team. We started the tour of Qatar in 2005 with Al Jazeera Channel team. Then in 2007 again with the Doha team with Gulf riders.
"In 2008 we selected the best riders from the Arab countries and this is my fourth Tour of Qatar. Each year we have improved against the best cyclists in the world - you can see the same faces in the Tour de France."
The move to integrate the best cyclists from the Arab world saw the acquisition of young Algerian rider Abdelbaset Hannachi, who was buoyed by the result of the opening team time trial in the 2009 Tour of Qatar.
"Last year we did the prologue and finished 26 seconds behind everyone, and this year we beat two teams and we came close to others, so that is encouraging for us," he said.
"It gives us energy for the rest of the stages. Last year I finished third in the under 25 section and I think we just need more races like this and then we'll be fine to reach the Tour de France."
Esmaeili said the Tour of Qatar has already led to a new generation of local riders developing over the years. “This is a good chance for our youngsters to see the best cyclists and it will give them power to go in the same line and to reach their target,” the likeable rider said, “and one day they too can be in the professional teams.”
That long term thinking is also part of the concept of Qatar Cycling Federation President Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Thani, who explained: "We started this team as a local team and then changed it into a continental team, and this has been a very promising development.
"But in cycling it is a very long process. You cannot bring up a good cyclist in a few years. You need to think long term."
While they steady develop, the Doha Team is endearing itself to the visiting international riders with a healthy dose of local traditions.
Even before the Tour de France makes a possible start in Qatar in 2013, 'date doping' could well find its way onto the cycling mainstream.