MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — On Sunday, the teams preparing for the Tour of Oman floated lazily through the bell-clear day, with riders training, mechanics wrenching, and Frisbees sailing in the Arabian Sea. Monday will bring much of the same as the top riders here begin their slow build to July, gauging their progress along the way.
This six-day tour is one of those tests. Coming just after the pan-flat Tour of Qatar, it draws some of the same riders but also pulls in new ones keen to match wits and winter training on the hills of Oman, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
Sky’s Chris Froome, the rider on everyone’s mind, will make his 2014 debut here. As far as the peloton and cycling insiders are concerned, his Tour de France defense will begin the second he clips in. In these days of marginal gains, everything is measured and weighed, literally and figuratively. Challengers will look for any weakness they can find in the slick Sky squad.
Froome, for his part, is trying to downplay the pressure of last season, even though he’ll frequently start with No. 1 on his back.
“I wouldn’t say I have the same kind of pressure that I had last year for Oman,” he told Sky’s media team prior to the Oman race. “I’m a lot more relaxed coming into this season, but at the same time I feel just as eager and just as motivated to get stuck into the racing. I’m really looking forward to getting back into it.”
The Middle Eastern race offers a friendly start for a climber like Froome, for myriad reasons.
“Oman is always a place where you don’t quite have the same kind of pressure as in Europe, in terms of the press and thousands of spectators. But it’s certainly going to be a high level of racing and from the competitors who are lining up there it’s shaping up to be a pretty tough race,” he said.
If Froome is to repeat as champion, it won’t be because no one showed up. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who stood alongside him on the Tour podium last summer, is here, as is the maglia rosa of last year’s Giro d’Italia, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) add to a a very strong field at the hilly six-stage race.
The BMC rider comes to Oman for both training and confidence. He finished fifth at the 2012 Tour de France but managed only a disappointing 45th last year; still, he has been tapped to lead BMC at the Tour this season.
“I have trained well in sunny California and I feel like I am starting the season at a good level. I have had a lot less travel and commitments this winter, which allowed me to focus solely on the bike and time with the family,” Van Garderen said in a team release. “Oman will be a good test … I am coming here to gain fitness and confidence.”
BMC’s lineup also includes past winner and new signing Peter Velits and classics man Philippe Gilbert.
“I am not coming here with any specific ambition,” Velits said. “I just want to do a good race with the team. Dubai showed that the work we did during the winter was good, so I hope this race will confirm it.”
The Tour of Oman begins on Tuesday, with a 164.5km stage from As Suwayq Castle to Naseem Garden. The race features two mostly flat stages, four hilly days and one very steep mountaintop finish on Saturday.
One sneaky day comes Friday, with the 173km stage from Wadi Al Abiyad to the Ministry of Housing. The race sees four successive ascents of the short, steep climb of Bousher Alamrat stacked at the end of the stage.
Saturday’s stage will go a long way toward determining the winner in Oman. It will also provide a baseline for the GC riders here as to whose winter training has gone well and whose has not. The Green Mountain stage, as it’s known, will finish on a 5.7km climb that averages 10.5 percent.
The race is the first of the season to feature what amounts to an honor roll of riders. In addition to the aforementioned GC men, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will use Oman to begin his march toward the cobblestones of Belgium and Roubaix. Andy and Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) will race together for the first time since 2012, due to Fränk’s removal from the Tour that year for a failed drug test. André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) will also contest the early stages.
“We have a balanced team for this race, with some riders who can complement the guys who are coming here from a successful Tour of Qatar,” Omega Pharma-Quick Step sport director Brian Holm said in a team release. “Of course, Tour of Oman is completely another race than Tour of Qatar, so what we are able to do here is a bit different. But it is a strong group for sure from Tour of Qatar.”
Omega enjoyed a fine Tour of Qatar, with Niki Terpstra taking the overall and Boonen netting two stage wins. They come to Oman with Rigoberto Uran Uran, a former Froome general now out on his own.
Stage 1, Tuesday, Feb. 18: Al Suwayq Castle-Naseem Garden, 164.5km
Stage 2, Wednesday, Feb. 19: Al Bustan-Quriyat, 139km
Stage 3, Thursday, Feb. 20: Bank Muscat-Al Bustan, 145km
Stage 4, Friday, Feb. 21: Wadi Al Abiyad-Ministry of Housing, 173km
Stage 5, Saturday, Feb. 22: Bidbid-Jabal Al Akhdar, 147.5km
Stage 6, Sunday, Feb. 23: As Sifah-Matrah Corniche, 146.5km
Bardiani CSF (Italy)
BMC Racing Team (USA)
IAM Cycling (Switzerland)
Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Belgium)
Sky (Great Britain)
Topsport Vlaanderen (Belgium)
Trek Factory Racing (USA)