The battles on Northern Europe’s cobblestone roads are still months away, however the built-up for the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and other one-day races begins in earnest this coming week at the Tour of Oman, February 16-21.

The race represents a crucial block of racing across the windy, flat roads in the desert for the sport’s stars of the cobbled classics. The race’s lineup includes Greg van Avermaet (CCC), Nikki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Silvan Dillier and Olivier Naesen (both Ag2r La Mondiale), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), and Andre Greipel (Arkéa Samsic), among others. Noticeably absent, however, is team Deceuninck-Quick Step.

“It’s a nice way to build up for the season, I like the way many of the stages are prepared for punchy riders,” Van Avermaet said. “So I can get extra training as well as race, there are at least three stages, sometimes four, which have the kind of terrain that suits me.”

This year’s Tour of Oman is again comprised of a blend of flat and hilly stages, with the summit finish to Green Mountain providing a test for climbers on the penultimate stage. Last year, Miguel Angel Lopez took the stage win on the punchy slope after his Astana team shed the entire field at the base of the climb. His teammate Lutsenko went on to win the overall.

Van Avermaet and the other classics contenders are unlikely to challenge for the victory on Green Mountain, with the 2019 lineup also including climbers like Darwin Atapuma (Cofidis) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida). The other stages, however, provide the flatlanders ample opportunity to test their legs on flat and punchy terrain.

The race’s second stage, from Royal Cavalry Oman to Al Bustan, includes three climbs that average nearly nine percent. The third stage to Quarayyat finishes with a 3km climb. And the fourth stage from Yiti to the Oman Convention and Exhibition Center includes three ascents of the Al Jabal Street, a 3.2km climb that has ramps above eight percent.

“A lot of classics riders use it like that. In my case, on a couple of editions I was working for a GC rider there, so I’d get him to the bottom of the climb, then I’d go hard up it for one or two kilometers anyway, and then take a couple of minutes to recover,” Van Avermaet said. “Then I’d pick up the pace, just to do a kind of test inside the race, to see how good you are and how deep you can go.”

The 2019 edition marks the 10th running of the Tour of Oman. Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) has the most stage wins at the race, with eight. Kristoff, a former winner of Flanders and Milano-Sanremo, will attend the 2019 race.

Van Avermaet took his first Oman stage victory last season. He said he hopes to add to his tally this year. Just last week Van Avermaet took an important first victory wearing the orange colors of his CCC pro cycling team at the Volta a Comunitat Valenciana.

“With a new team like CCC it’s even more important to try and get the wins so you can build up the team’s self-confidence,” Van Avermaet said. “And the stage win I got in Valencia was against a strong field and on a very difficult day’s racing. So these kinds of results are very important to get early in the season. But let’s hope we try to get a stage win in every stage race, make a habit of it, and that’s the most important thing for me, to have certain days in races like this where I can be good.”