Following swiftly on from the Tour of Qatar, the Tour of Oman further expands cycling’s geographical and commercial boundaries in the Middle East, provides the peloton with more racing in a temperate climate and furnishes a parcours – and geography – in stark contrast to sandy Qatar. In only its third edition, the Tour of Qatar will again play host to some of the cycling world’s biggest stars such as former winner Fabian Cancellara, and former stage winners Matt Goss and Mark Cavendish.
What kind of race is it?
It’s a category 2.1, six-day stage race on the UCI Asia Tour calendar, organised by ASO. The legendary Eddy Merckx is responsible for determining the parcours.
Once again, the majority of the 16 teams taking part are ProTeams.
ProTeams (11): BMC, FDJ-BigMat, Garmin-Barracuda, GreenEDGE, Katusha, Liquigas-Cannondale, Lotto-Belisol, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Rabobank, RadioShack-Nissan and Sky.
Pro Continental teams (2): Farnese Neri-Selle Italia, Project 1t4i
Continental teams (3): Bridgestone Anchor, Champion System, RTS Racing
While all-rounders and sprinters will be in their element on the coastal roads that run along the Gulf of Oman, puncheurs and climbers will be equally at home on the country’s steep and undulating terrain. Saturday’s stage atop Jabal Al Akhdar (the Green Mountain) with a final climb of 5.8km at an average gradient of 10.3% (reaching up to 13.5% over the last two kilometres), will again be one of the race’s highlights. However, in a change from previous editions of the race, there’s no individual time trial this year.
The inaugural edition of the six-day race was in 2010 and it’s proved very popular with the locals who line large stretches of the route. It started with a 16-lap criterium around the Muscat Corniche and finished with a 18.6km individual time trail, also in Muscat. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank-Sungard) won this event after coming second in the final time trial to Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky), who famously lost the lead in the race after an ill-timed comfort break.
Last year’s winner was Rabobank’s Robert Gesink who won’t be back this year to defend his title.
What happened last year?
Robert Gesink and his Rabobank teammates headed back to Europe after a week’s successful racing in Oman. The team won four stages and the overall classification with Gesink, who movingly remembered his father with victory on Green Mountain. Gesink also won the best young rider classification. Edvald Boassen Hagen picked up the points jersey. Leopard Trek won the team event.
Gesink’s teammate Theo Bos proved he really could hold his own with the best sprinters in the world by winning stages one and three. HTC-Highroad’s Matt Goss took stage two and the leader’s jersey until stage four when Gesink took control and won the uphill finish and the following day’s hilly time trial to take a dominant victory. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) won the final day’s sprint to take his first victory of the 2011 season.
1. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) 20:24:36
2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) +1:13
3. Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) +1:19
4. Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad) +1:52
5. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervelo) +2:04
6. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) +2:11
7. Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) +2:13
8. Maxime Monfort (Leopard Trek) +2:19
9. Patrik Sinkewitz (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) +2:51
10. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) +3:03
This year’s race
As usual, the race comprises six largely short and punchy stages covering a relatively short distance of 875km, with only two days over 150km. There is no individual time trial this year. With the exception of the race’s queen stage which finishes atop Green Mountain, the stages will largely appeal to the sprinters, particularly those who excel at finishing on a slight uphill gradient.
The race begins with a 159km stage from Al Alam Palace in Muscat to Al Hauqain in the wilayat of Rustaq, run largely along the coast. Stage two’s parcours is very similar to that of stage one’s but takes in the southern coastal town of Sur.
Stage three again finishes on a slight rise but only after one great long gradual descent. Day four’s a really lumpy stage – possibly intended to tire out a few legs – before Saturday’s queen stage which ends in Jebel Akhdar. The last day will see the riders race from Al Khoudh to the Al Samak roundabout in Muttrah. The total amount of prize money for the race is around €111,000 with the winner pocketing €10,000.
Who to watch
While we’re going to be seeing the same teams which rode last week’s Tour of Qatar, there will be a number of personnel changes reflecting the change in topography. The provisional start list still includes a number of the world’s best sprinting talent, but also some Classics riders and stage racers who will be using the race to ease themselves into their 2012 campaigns.
With plenty of sprint stages on offer, look for world champion Mark Cavendish to add to his victories in Qatar. Hoping to deny him will be last year’s sprint sensation Marcel Kittel (1t4i), Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini) and former team mates Matt Goss (GreenEDGE) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), among a host of others. Let’s also not forget the overall winner of the Tour of Qatar, Tom Boonen (OPQS) and powerhouse Peter Sagan (Liquigas), who’s just going to love those slight uphill finishes.
Classics boys Johann Vansummeren (Garmin-Barracuda), Stuart O’Grady (GreenEDGE), Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) [down, Kitty – Ed] will also be in the mix.
Stage racers such as about-to-be-crowned 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), pocket rocket Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Peter Velits (OPQS) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Barracuda) will be looking forward to the queen stage. It’s probable that the general classification will be determined by stages four and five. However, it’s just as likely that the most consistent sprinter in the other four stages could win the overall.
From the comfort of the sofa in VeloVoices Tower we’re going to be keeping a close eye on rider number 24, Gang Xu, who rides for the Chinese Continental Champion System Squad. He’s won his national championships four times (2007 through 2010), the Tour of the South China Sea (2o08) and, last year, stage three of the Tour of Korea.
When asked what Champion System Pro Cycling Team means to him, he replied:
Being on the Champion System team is a brand new start of my career and I’m really looking forward to it.
February 14th: Stage 1 – Al Alam Palace to Wadi Al Huwqayn, 159km
February 15th: Stage 2 – Sur to Wadi Dayqah Dam, 140.5km
February 16th: Stage 3 – Al Awabi (Al Alya) to Bank Muscat HQ, 144.5km
February 17th: Stage 4 – Bidbid (Nafa’a) to Al Wadi al Kabir, 142.5km
February 18th: Stage 5 – Royal Opera House to Jabal Al Akhdhar/Green Mountain, 158km
February 19th: Stage 6 – Al Khawd to Matrah Corniche, 130.5km
The Tour of Oman starts on Tuesday 14th February and ends on Sunday 19th. Daily highlights will be shown by Eurosport.