The Tour of Oman starts tomorrow. You might have seen images from Qatar but just because pro cycling continues in the Gulf region, don’t think this race is the same. Instead the Tour of Oman is very different, whether it is the landscapes, the country, the people or the vicious summit finish on Stage 5.
There are of course similarities between the races in Qatar and Oman. They are both co-organised by local committees with help from ASO, organisers of the Tour de France and more. They both feature a single base hotel where teams and media alike are based for the week. Both take place in countries without any local cycling culture. Both offer warm sunshine and racing miles away from icy European roads.
But Oman is a very different country. Qatar has gone from desert-dwelling nomads to tall skyscrapers in a century but Oman has far more history, at one point its Sultan ruled lands stretching down the coast well into Africa and across the Indian ocean into Pakistan. There are old castles and ruins and as well as sandy deserts, mountains, oases and fishing villages. It’s a far more scenic place to hold a bike race. It’s also got a large population and a large share of Omanis are under-25, so expect to see pictures of riders alongside many local kids in their white dishdasha gowns.
The country is ruled by Sultan and if there are no elections, they say Sultan Qaboos is an enlightened leader who has done much to transform the country by opening schools and hospitals, providing water and more. The country’s challenge is to grow, it has oil and gas but not in the big quantities enjoyed by neighbours. It’s here that the bike race fits in, it is part of the Festival of Muscat, a series of cultural events designed to bring in tourists and their spending power. Whilst few will visit to see the bike race, perhaps the scenery and TV images might tempt. Oman has also bid for the World Championships, look for the finishing circuit on Stage 4 as a clue to the potential circuit.
If Qatar saw stages average close to 50km/h and riders spinning out in top gear, Oman will see riders needing some very low gears but there are stages for sprinters and climbers alike. Stage 1 has a very gradual uphill finish, Stage 2 has some short and sharp hills towards the end. Half of Stage 3 is downhill as it starts from high inland. Stage 4 has two climbs and then a finishing circuit that passes the race HQ hotel but features a lung-busting climb three times. Stage 5 will settle the race with the climb up the Jebel Al Akhdar, the Green Mountain, a 5km ascension that averages 10% but finishes with two kilometres at 13%. Stage 6 has a finishing circuit in the capital of Muscat, a flat finish for the sprinters.
Time bonuses apply with three, two and one seconds at intermediate sprints and ten, six and four seconds for the first three at the finish line. Oman isn’t as wealthy as Qatar but they’ve put up more money for the race with a total of €111,480 to be won, with €10,000 for the overall winner.
Lap of luxury
Riders stay in the Shangri La resort which includes a six star hotel and a buffet that will test the self-restraint of many a rider. The downside of staying in one place is the transfer to the start of each stage, this can take three hours. Stage 2 starts with a difference as riders take a two hour speedboat journey to the start in the coastal town of Sur.
Even the stages marked for the sprinters are not flat, we will see more varied results. Last year saw Matt Goss emerge with a stage win, an early hint of Milan-San Remo. Goss is back and look to others like Peter Sagan to feature. For the overall, Christian Vande Velde, Jacob Fuglsang, Joaquin Rodriguez, Peter Velits, Vincenzo Nibali, Martin Tjallingi are there to watch. The same goes for Andy Schleck who is there without his brother Frank, the Radioshack-Nissan team are trying to make the brothers less dependent on each other.
A thought for last year’s winner Robert Gesink. He won solo on the Green Mountain and dedicated the win to his father who had died over the winter. In late 2011 he crashed in training and broke his leg and he resumes racing but this time not in Oman but the Ruta del Sol in Spain later this week.
For all the scenery and mountain finishes there’s no live TV coverage. Eurosport are doing a daily highlights package and look out for video clips on Youtube.
Like Qatar, the Tour of Oman is HC-rated, meaning it has a higher status – in pure ranking terms – than other races like the 2.2 Giro di Reggio Calabria that is currently on in the “toe” of Italy or the 2.1 Ruta del Sol. For more on these classifications, see the 2012 Calendar page.
A very different country which promises a very different result. Instead of crosswinds and time bonuses, the Tour of Oman should be settled by the giant climb of the Green Mountain and its double-digit gradients. But before that we’ll get a variety of stages for sprinters and all-rounders.
Finally if anyone wants an example of how to use cycle sport for tourist promotion, see the promotional clip below.