After Dubai and Qatar now for Oman where the sky is is scraped by jagged mountains instead of tall towers. It’s very different terrain and with it, a very different race and even landscape you’d like to ride through.
As well as the geography this race has got the cosmology with a galaxy of stars. Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali and many more are in action. Here’s a stage-by-stage preview for the week along with a look at the contenders, TV schedule and more.
Stage 1 (Tuesday): an opening stage for the sprinters, the early climb to Al Rustaq is a gradual affair before the race drops back down to the coast for a wide finish in the park of Naseem Garden.
Stage 2 (Wednesday): another chance for the sprinters and even the late hills in the profile above are modest as the race takes a coastal highway complete with modern toll gate before the arrival in the fishing village of Quriyat.
Stage 3 (Thursday): a popular stage for the riders, this starts and finishes near their hotel. The climb of Al Hamriya is a warm up for the very tough climb of Al Jissah, a long straight ramp that goes on for much longer than it looks. The descent off the other side is fast and hampers any chase. Peter Sagan took off for a solo win here last year.
Stage 4 (Friday): the stage is dominated by the four ascents of Bousher Alamrat where the race climbs up one side and descends the other, turns around and climbs back up to descend and then repeats this again. It’s hard and even Froome got caught out last year saying “it was a lot more brutal than it looked on paper“. The stage saw a lively battle last year between Froome, Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez with the Briton showing plenty of aggression to win the stage.
Stage 5 (Saturday): the Queen Stage with the now traditional summit finish on the Jebel Al Akhdar, the “green mountain.” It’s all about the final climb as an early break is likely to be crushed by the chasing teams who speed to the final climb to set up their leaders. The climb is 5km at 10% but has two kilometres at 13% and there’s no where to hide, it’s each man for himself on the slopes.
Stage 6: the final stage is often a procession on the sea front but it still includes the two climbs of Al Jissah and Bousher Alamrat. A sprint finish is likely after three laps of the corniche.
Route summary: there’s three stages for the sprinters, one or two for the puncheurs and the big mountain stage. But don’t look just to Saturday’s Queen Stage, the repeated climbs of Bousher Alamrat on Friday will be crucial to the race.
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.
Contenders: any forecast is clouded by reputation ahead of form. 2013 winner Chris Froome starts his 2014 season and if a repeat Tour de France victory is the ultimate goal, the path might be different. Last year he needed to convince his Sky team mates he was a leader and went all out to beat Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez. Now he doesn’t need to prove himself nor win experience in leading a race so he might ease himself into the season. There’s a strong team with the punchy Sergio Henao supported by Dario Cataldo and new member Mikel Nieve.
Joaquim Rodriguez seems to have evolved over the years, once a very fast finisher he’s lost a bit of the fizz for a diesel durability on longer climbs and this could mean he’s struggling for the time bonuses. But the changes are subtle and “Purito” could well smoke out the others. He’s got loyal sidekick Dani Moreno who is almost as good.
Vincenzo Nibali is racing but there are arguments to say he won’t be a contender. He’s recovering from a rib injury from the Tour de San Luis and wife Rachele is about to give birth so he may well be distracted, if not absent. Max Iglinskiy and Lieuwe Westra offer back-up.
The darkhorse pick is Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) who’s often aggressive and has team leadership this time. Rigoberto Urán is an interesting example because he’s almost riding solo as OPQS bring their classics crew with Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and all the rest. Robert Gesink has won in Oman before and could strike again but his form is unknown.
Tejay van Garderen is another starting out his road to the Tour de France and perhaps team mate Peter Velits could lead, he’s won the race before and talking of BMC we’ll get the first look at Philippe Gilbert who everyone says is leaner and meaner. The Schleck brothers are reunited and may not win but they and their fans alike will look for reassurance in the results this week.
There’s a longer list of potential climbers. Leopold König (NetApp-Endura) is an exciting pick and the Jebel Al Akhdar is perfect for his climbing power. Mathias Frank and Thomas Lövkvist bring options for IAM Cycling. Ag2r La Mondiale bring Domenico Pozzovivo and Romain Bardet and the Italian could be up for the win, he sprints well from a small group. FDJ alone come with Thibaut Pinot, Kenny Elissonde and Arnold Jeannesson. Pinot’s tweeting about a throat infection but he’s got time to sit on the wheels before the big climbs appear.
A quick look the sprinters too. André Greipel is the obvious pick, he comes with his Lotto-Belisol full train and better for him, there’s neither Mark Cavendish nor Marcel Kittel. Instead Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) are the headline names. The Frenchman has had eye surgery during the winter which means he can now see better, astonishing to think was riding in a blur before. Tom Boonen is riding but will he be sprinting? Now he’s got some wins under the belt perhaps he’ll ease up and avoid risks. Other fast finishers are Barry Markus (Belkin), Leigh Howard (Orica-Greenedge) and Rüdiger Selig (Katusha)
There’s a separate category of sprinters who can cope with a climb who might fancy Stage 3. It’s dominated by Sagan but there’s Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff and Greg Van Avermaet is worth watching, Astana’s Borut Božič, Lotto-Belisol’s Tony Gallopin and Sky’s Ben Swift too. NetApp-Endura’s Sam Bennett has caught people’s eye, a decent start to his pro career but he won an uphill finish in last year’s Tour of Britain. If Sagan’s marked perhaps team mate Moreno Moser will jump, he’s shaken off last year’s fatigue. It’s all a bit crowded for one stage.
TV: the good news is that it’s on TV, the bad news is that it’s not live. Eurosport and others will be producing a daily highlights show but it’ll be screened almost a day after the stage. Worth watching to see how the race was won but in the age of the web it’s almost impossible to avoid spoiling the result.
Hotel: A note that all the riders are lodged in the Al Jissah resort, part of the Shangri La chain of luxury resorts. While the peloton spends most of the year staying in three star motels located next to retail parks and autoroute exits this is quite different. The Oman peloton gets treated to fine accommodation and a spread of food so generous that team managers get nervous when the riders approach. Note the media also enjoys this luxury too meaning a greater incentive to cover the race rather than the Volta ao Algarve and the Vuelta Andalucia which also start this week.
History: the likes of Qatar and Dubai have 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 and far into Africa and across the Indian ocean to parts of what is Pakistan today. But the country doesn’t have as much oil wealth so the bike race is part of its tourist promotion efforts.