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Tour of Oman looks ahead after last year’s ‘mistake’

Eddy Merckx is working behind the scenes to renew the Tour of Oman's contract after a rocky 2015 edition of the race.

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MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — Eddy Merckx is pushing for the Tour of Oman to continue beyond the 2016 edition, starting Tuesday, despite last year’s “mistake,” which resulted in a cancelled stage and uneasy relationships in the Middle East state.

The Belgian cycling legend and co-organizer of the race, which follows on the heels of the Tour of Qatar, is negotiating a new three-year contract with the city of Muscat. If successful, they could continue the Middle East’s most diverse stage race, one that already counts Chris Froome and Fabian Cancellara as overall winners.

Unlike its counterparts in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the Tour of Oman covers mountain ranges. Its queen stage on Green Mountain rises to 1,435 meters (4,708 feet), which dwarfs what cyclists find in the Tour of Qatar, the Dubai Tour, or the Abu Dhabi Tour. Cancellara won the first edition in 2010, but that was before Green Mountain was included. Since then, climbers like Robert Gesink and Froome began to win. The 2016 race includes GC stars, such as Giant – Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin, BMC’s Richie Porte, and Astana’s Tour champ, Vincenzo Nibali.

“Everything depends on the municipality,” Merckx said at a press conference Monday in the sultan state. “We have time enough in these six days to decide. It’s possible, but it’s up to the municipality. We are positive because cycling is the only sport that shows off the country. For tourism, it’s important that there is a race in Oman being aired on TV to 190 countries.”

However, the “mistake” organizers made last year does not make the renewal process easier. Strong winds and a sandstorm forced Merckx and co-organizer Dirk De Pauw to move the start of stage 4 down the road 85 kilometers. The heat, however, became a problem. Riders had to brake on a neutralized descent ahead of the new start, and it caused some of their tubular tires to explode. Instated of racing, stars Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick-Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) led a protest in the 104-degree heat and forced the stage’s cancellation.

“It was a mistake of the organization, absolutely,” Merckx said. “Yes, I would never start the race on the foot of the mountain and make the descent neutralized. That’s impossible.”

The anger had built up all week over the long transfers to and from the stages, due to a poorly selected race hotel last year. Merckx told the riders that they were risking the race’s future that day, but one year later, he showed a softer side.

“The older riders were talking about the transfers. They were a little bit too much,” he said. “You have to recognize the problem and move on. It’s not that if something happens one year that it’s over.”

The Times of Oman newspaper reported in January that the 2016 race costs two million in local currency or $5.2 million. Merckx and De Pauw, however, believe that it is money well spent. With their Tour of Qatar stage race the week before, they are able to offer riders an attractive alternative to Europe’s February races and unpredictable weather. The Tour of Oman’s future, said race committee member Salim bin Mubarak Al Hasani, depends on the 2016 edition’s success and what the city decides.