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Merckx pushes to renew Tour of Oman contract despite rider protest

Stage 5 of the race through the desert was canceled after a rider protest because of weather conditions

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MILAN (VN) — Eddy Merckx wants to see the Tour of Oman renewed through 2021, which could be harder after a rider protest during the race on Saturday.

“I don’t know what decision the city will take,” Merckx told VeloNews. “Will the race continue? I don’t know. We have to wait and see what happens. The protest could cause problems. They are very angry with a few riders and some teams may not be invited back.”

High winds and temperatures caused headaches on Saturday for Merckx, who co-owns and organizes the Tour of Oman along with the Tour of Qatar.

Merckx had to move the stage 5 start from the Al Sawadi Beach to a new point closer to the finish at Muscat’s Ministry of Housing because of high winds kicking up sand. In the capital city of Muscat, though, triple-digit temperatures caused some tires to explode while the cyclists descended on the first neutralized circuit.

The riders — led by Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) — stopped and protested. Boonen said, “It’s life threatening when you’re going 90 kilometers an hour and the tire explodes. We are all fathers and sons, we are not here to fight a war.”

Local organizer Salim bin Mubarak Al Hassani pushed for the riders to continue and put Merckx in the middle. Merckx insisted that they race, but had to give in to the protests and canceled the stage.

“It’s stupid. The problem was that they put the start on the wrong part. It was a bad thing to have the climb and descent on the neutralized section. Yes, I told the city that canceled stages happen, but we can’t have it like that,” Merckx continued.

“Last year, we did the same stage, it was 35 degrees Celcius, and [Saturday] it was 38 degrees Celsius [100.4 degrees Fahrenheit] and nothing happened. The riders spoke about their lives being in danger, and things like that, but that’s stupid because when they race the descents in the Tour de France and it’s raining, that’s dangerous, too. Had they not started the neutralized section at that point, nothing would’ve happened.”

Merckx and race co-owner Dirk De Pauw spoke to Al Hassani and the local organizers again the next day. Their contract runs through 2016, but next year they may not invite some teams or riders to return.

Merckx is also working on the race’s long-term future. Earlier in the week, he explained he was trying to have the contracts renewed through 2021.

“We will probably agree to organize the Tour of Oman for another five years,” Merckx said.

“The Omani want it because they saw the publicity that Qatar had for their tourism. Cycling’s the only sport that shows off the country, in other sports, you only see the stadium or the court, it’s not the same. Cycling shows the country. Oman and Qatar are for tourism.”

Since Cancellara won the first edition in 2010, the Tour of Oman has established itself as a stop for many classics and grand tour riders preparing for their season.