Riders, organizers clash over sandblasted stage 5 at 2015 Tour of Oman

Severe heat, a sandstorm and a riders' protest persuade organizers to first shorten, then cancel stage 5 of the Tour of Oman

MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — Wind and heat across the Arabian Peninsula forced organizers to first shorten, then cancel stage 5 of the Tour of Oman on Saturday.

Organizer Eddy Merckx, who co-owns the race and runs it with the help of Tour de France organizer ASO, moved the start and shortened the race, but a riders’ protest due to heat forced the cycling great to cancel the stage entirely.

“We are all fathers and sons, we are not here to fight a war. No one wants to put their lives at stake,” said Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick Step).

Merckx countered that other races had their hazards as well.

“Riders’ security? Well what about Paris-Roubaix when it rains? That’s dangerous as well,” he said. “Or when it rains in the Pyrenees at the Tour de France?”

The international cycling peloton, including Spaniard Rafael Valls (Lampre-Merida) in the red leader’s jersey and American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) in second, arrived at Al Sawadi Beach to start the stage. Around 20 minutes later, winds kicked up and caused a sandstorm.

Merckx announced that the start would be shifted to the Muscat, “where the riders will start with a neutralized climb and race as normal.”

The 138 riders finished signing in under the start arch, which deflated and maintained its spot only thanks to supporting wires. The peloton then climbed back into the buses and traveled 85km down the road for the start in Muscat, where it was not the wind, but the heat — 104 degrees Fahrenheit — that caused problems.

The cyclists faced three circuits of 29.5km and the final stretch to the Ministry of Housing, where Peter Sagan won last year, but the race never got going. After a neutralized section that included the Al Bousher climb — and more importantly, the descent — the cyclists took shelter under a bridge and discussed their concerns.

“The steepness of the downhill and the temperatures were too much, the tires and wheels couldn’t release the heat enough,” said Boonen.

“It’s life-threatening when you’re going 90 kilometers an hour and the tire explodes. You don’t wish that on anyone. We stopped under the bridge and we talked about it. Guys were scared in the neutralized section when we weren’t riding hard. If you race, the speed is even higher, the braking’s harder, and the heat’s worse.”

Merckx retorted that had the peloton been racing, the heat would not have been a concern.

“It was only 38 [100°F], that’s not so hot,” he said. “The problem was that the riders came down in a bunch and everyone was braking. If they would’ve been racing, coming down one by one, the problem wouldn’t have occurred.”

He added that the race’s future was at stake.

“The City of Muscat is angry,” Merckx said. “The roads were blocked for so long, the city wanted to cancel tomorrow’s stage, but as the situation is now, it’ll continue. If they would’ve been there for five minutes longer, the city would’ve canceled the [final] stage.”

Rider safety is the bigger issue hovering over the Persian Peninsula and, indeed, over the entire cycling world. After the Milano-Sanremo two years ago in 2013, which the organizer stopped and re-started due to snow, and a cold spring that saw other races modified, the UCI is writing an extreme-weather protocol that race organizers can follow in these situations.

“It’s high time that such a protocol comes into place,” added Boonen. “Cycling is one of the few sports that doesn’t have it, and that’s for a sport that’s totally dependent on weather conditions, a sport where there’s no protection. Zero protection. It’s high time a protocol comes into place.”

The race is scheduled to conclude on Sunday with a 133.5km run from Oman Air to Muttrah Promenade.