Tour of Oman preview

The Tour of Oman is no longer a joke

Only a few years after it was considered something of a weird novelty, the Tour of Oman 2014 boasts a start list that any race promoter would be proud of.

Let me reel off some names.

Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rigoberto Uran, Tejay Van Garderen, Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Robert Gesink, Roman Kreuziger, Nicolas Roche and Thibaut Pinot.

That’s just the GC guys.

If you’re keeping a closer eye on the classics, how about Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Moreno Moser, Michael Albasini, Heinrich Haussler, Daniel Moreno and Zdenek Stybar?

Sprinters? Andre Greipel, Nacer Bouhanni, Leigh Howard and Daryl Impey.

FIREPOWER!

That is some serious firepower for a six-stage race in the Middle East in February. How does this race attract such a premium field?

With money, obviously. Oil money.

But it’s also relatively close to Europe, and only a couple of weeks before the prestigious Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico stage races. A bit of warm-weather racing to tune up is just what the doctor ordered for riders coming out of winter.

Of course, unlike the Tours of Qatar and Dubai, Oman boasts a race route with more variety than just “sandy, windy, flat”. To win the GC here will require more than splitting the field in the crosswinds.

Hey, there’s a lot to be said for a perfectly-executed echelon, just ask Tour of Qatar winner Niki Terpstra, but for lightweight climbers they’re about as attractive as a chamois full of sand.

Short stages means full gas racing

The Tour of Oman has relatively short stages to encourage aggressive racing. There are several teams stacked with classics riders and rouleurs ready to rip the legs off anyone who isn’t quite up for it.

Most riders have at least some racing in their legs by now, having raced in Australia, Argentina, Dubai or Qatar. Winter’s heavy legs should be thawing out, and riders will be feeling good form approaching.

Flat stages, with two chances for the climbers

Stages 1 and 2 are pretty flat, and should suit the sprinters unless the likes of OPQS, Lotto-Belisol or Orica-GreenEdge decide to split things in the wind.

Stage 3 has a couple of short, sharp little pinches in the last 25km, with the final one (Al Jissah) with 6.5km remaining. This may be a launching pad for an opportunist, but it’ll be a long drag to the finish.

Stage 4 finishes with a circuit that climbs its way up Bousher Alamrat four times. It’s not a long climb, or a steep one, but it’s definitely enough to hurt some legs if the pace is aggressive.

Chris Froome won here in 2013, defeating Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez, if you needed convincing that this stage could be decisive.

Stage 5 is the race’s queen stage, culminating in the summit finish of Green Mountain. Rodriguez was victorious over Froome last year, beating him by four seconds, with Cadel Evans third.

Stage 6 is another one for the sprinters.

Who will win?

The reigning champ is Froome, but previous winners include Peter Velits, Robert Gesink and Fabian Cancellara.

With so many GC riders having shown so little this season, it’s nearly impossible to predict a winner, but the winner will need to be a strong climber.

For the climbers, in the grand scheme of the season, the winner here matters little. It’s a nice little payday and a chance to size up the opposition, but nobody with Grand Tour ambitions is aiming for the Tour of Oman.

Nevertheless, the renewal of psychological battles between the leaders; the chance to evaluate their teams; and anyone who is obviously underperforming will be fertile fields to scratch in.

Perhaps more important is the tussle between the classics men for stage victories.

As we all know, March and April are thick with minor classics, major classics and monuments.

The season’s first monument, Milan-Sanremo is still a month away, but the minor classics begin at the start of March. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima are looming near.

The attention of European fans will build for the more fancied races towards the end of March, but the form lines undoubtedly begin to show themselves by the end of February.

Already, Tom Boonen looks in great form. In past seasons (think back to 2012) when he has raced well in Qatar he has been near unstoppable a month later on the cobbles. Two stage wins already this season show he has put a disastrous 2013 behind him.

Peter Sagan is yet to take a win in 2014, but was on the podium twice in Dubai.

Cancellara, who prefers to start his season more gradually, has been content to roll around mid-pack in Qatar and Dubai. I would be surprised if he showed much more in Oman.

It’s a similar story for Philippe Gilbert, who looks likely to focus on the Ardennes classics in April.

All in, the Tour of Oman is a cut above the other Middle Eastern petro-races. The depth of the field all but guarantees plenty worth watching.

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