Peter Velits took his first victory in a stage race, almost by stealth, to continue Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s domination of the Middle East, after Tom Boonen’s win last week in Qatar, not forgetting their win in Argentina at the Tour de San Luis three weeks ago. Germans Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Project 1t4i) won two sprint stages apiece, while Liquigas-Cannondale won the queen stage on Green Mountain with Vincenzo Nibali and another sprint stage with fellow Slovakian, Peter Sagan.
In only its third edition, the Tour of Oman provided viewers with some nail-biting racing, plenty of tempting, scenic shots of coast and countryside, bike-friendly natives who turned out to support the racing and lots of cute kids riding bikes seemingly unable to control their trajectories. It’s an altogether more visual feast than the arid desert wastes of Qatar, and probably well worth a visit.
The field differed slightly from that of last week’s race in Qatar but nonetheless it was of a high quality – chock-full of top-class sprinting talent, Classics riders and stage racers all looking to hone their form ahead of more prestigious races in Europe.
Stage 1: Al Alam Palace to Wadi Al Huwqayn, 159km
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) notched up his fifth win of the season, triumphing on stage one. He went into overdrive crossing the line ahead of Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda), Marcel Kittel (1t4i) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas).
Former teammate Mark Cavendish (Sky) finished further down the field having almost come to grief towards the end of the race into Wadi Al Huwqayn. He tweeted:
Not the best of days today. Ran off the road by Alexander Kristoff with 1200m to go. Shit happens.
A breakaway formed early in today’s largely flat stage. Danilo Wyss (BMC Racing Team), Pengda Jiao (Champion System), Alexandre Lemair (Bridgestone Anchor) and Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) quickly opened up a gap of around five minutes while Garmin-Barracuda led the chase, slowly reeling the last of them (Ignatiev) back in with 7km remaining.
Once they hit the finishing straight Greipel, fully recovered from the illness which saw him miss the Tour of Qatar, powered to the finish. Job done.
Stage 2: Sur to Wadi Dayqah Dam, 140.5km
Peter Sagan confirmed everyone’s expectations when he won this stage. A revitalised Baden Cooke (GreenEDGE) was second and Tom-Jelte Slagter (Rabobank) third. But both were defenceless in the face of Sagan’s dominance on a run-in which was too steep for the pure sprinters.
After their two-hour boat trip to the start in the coastal town of Sur, a break was established early on comprising David Boucher (FDJ-Big Mat), Diego Caccia (Farnese-Vini), Martin Kohler and Klaas Lodewijk (both BMC), but they were never let far off the leash and Andre Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol team worked in earnest to bring them back into the fold.
Team Sky did a significant amount of work on the front in the final stretch but their efforts were dissipated in the general confusion as riders battled for position on the four bends between the red kite and the finish line. Peter Velits tried to get the jump on Sagan but his travails came to naught before the final bend where Cooke slipped past overall leader Andre Greipel only to see a blur of lime green whizz past him on the left. At the finish Cooke said:
I jumped to the front with 300 to go. I was a bit over-geared but there was no way I was going to beat Sagan. He just came straight past me at about 280 to go. He’s freakishly talented, so it’s no disgrace to be beaten by that guy. He’s capable of anything.
Those with their sights on the bigger prize, such as Jakob Fuglsang (RadioShack-Nissan), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Vincenzo Nibali remained in contention.
Stage 3: Al Awabi (Al Alya) to Bank Muscat HQ, 144.5km
Last year’s neo-pro sprint sensation Marcel Kittel claimed a confident win on stage three – his second of the season, well ahead of Andre Greipel, who was consoled with reclaiming the red leader’s jersey. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ-Big Mat) landed another punch in third place, beating off the likes of Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish.
It was Kittel’s team mates – showing their confidence in his abilities – who worked tirelessly, along with Sky, to pull back the day’s breakaway: Alexandre Lemair (Bridgestone-Anchor), Kevin Hulsmans (Farnese Vini), Vladimir Isaichev (Katusha) and Tour Down Under stage winner William Clarke (Champion System). Even so, Kittel had to fend for himself in the frantic final kilometre as the sprint trains disintegrated, and he launched his sprint from some way out into a light headwind.
At the finish Kittel said:
It was a big goal for me this year to ride in the big races against the top sprinters, and of course I’m very, very happy that it worked out already at the Tour of Oman. If you look at the start list, all of the big sprinters are here. Maybe not all in best shape, but it’s the beginning of the season for everyone.
Stage 4: Bidbid (Nafa’a) to Al Wadi al Kabir, 142.5km
Another sprint stage and another win for the in-form Andre Greipel who, despite being dropped on the last lap of the finishing circuit thanks to the efforts of Sagan and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), fought his way back into contention and outmuscled Sagan. He also increased his general classification lead to six seconds.
A two-man breakaway went clear after a frantic first 10 km. On a hot and humid day, Stijn Vandenbergh (OPQS) and Klaas Lodewijk (BMC) were allowed to gain a lead of eight minutes before being chased down by RadioShack-Nissan on the steep climb up to Al Hamriya. That said, they were still two minutes ahead when they reached the closing circuit. With 26 km remaining RadioShack, assisted by Liquigas, continued to hunt them down.
Sagan, not realising that Greipel had regained the leading group, launched his bid for further glory 200 metres from the line but was unable to respond when passed by the German, who retained the leader’s jersey. French youngsters Tony Gallopin (RadioShack-Nissan) and Nacer Bouhanni were respectively third and fourth.
Stage 5: Royal Opera House to Jabal Al Akhdhar/Green Mountain, 158km
Vincenzo Nibali, the ‘Shark of Messina’, said he was going to win this stage and he did – prescient or what? It was his first win for almost seventeen months and came after he attacked twice at the foot of Green Mountain, rather than on its steep slopes. In so doing, he managed to thwart the attempts of Peter Velits to take the stage but was unable to prevent the Slovak gaining control of the leader’s jersey by just one precious second.
Initially, the peloton had been happy to stay together in the face of a strong headwind on the road out of Muscat. A six-man break had a minor flurry in front while Katusha controlled the peloton to protect Joaquim Rodriguez’s ambitions. But Rodriguez was unable to match Nibali and Velits as they danced away on the lower slopes of the final 5.7km climb with Nibali putting in the decisive dig 4km from the finish.
Nibali’s move proved to be the moment of truth for some of the other GC contenders. Velits, Sandy Casar, Arnold Jeannesson (both FDJ-Big Mat) and Tony Gallopin (RadioShack-Nissan) remained in contention while we said goodbye to the pretensions of Rodriguez and Jakob Fuglsang (RadioShack).
Afterwards Nibali, clearly a fan of the beautiful game, [What Italian isn’t? – Ed] said:
A win is always beautiful and crossing the line first is something you can’t explain. “It’s like in football for a striker who hasn’t scored for a long time; when he does, it’s a bit of liberation.
Stage 6: Al Khawd to Matrah Corniche, 130.5km
Marcel Kittel notched up another gutsy win on the final stage’s sprint finish. But it wasn’t the main story of the day – that belonged to OPQS and Liquigas-Cannondale.
Liquigas spent the first part of the course on the offensive trying, unsuccessfully, to wrest the advantage for Vincenzo Nibali, lying in second place overall by just one second. The team hunted down the day’s early break and tried in vain to use the wind to split the field. But OPQS deployed its troops to successfully defend Peter Velits’ slender advantage and was happy to allow a subsequent three-man break enough rope to collect the outstanding points on offer. However, with so many sprinters breathing down their necks, Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) and the Garmin-Barracuda duo of Johan Vansummeren and Christian Vande Velde were reabsorbed in the closing kilometres.
This was when Kittel’s Project 1t4i team came to the front of the peloton and paved the way for his second victory in Oman. Again he launched his sprint some way out on the slight downhill finish and carried Peter Sagan – who was riding his wheel – to second place.
Early season races are no longer used for training purposes. Teams want to hit the ground running at the start of the season, picking up points from day one. None more so than teams with points to prove – to the press and themselves. In its previous incarnation, Quick Step had a disappointing 2011, bested for once by the other Belgian squad, Omega Pharma-Lotto, who had the world number one rider Philippe Gilbert on its payroll. The teams have come together and lost Fast Phil but they’ve come racing out of the starting blocks: picking up wins and repairing reputations.
Likewise FDJ-BigMat, recently promoted back into cycling’s premier league, have already recorded wins with Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demarre. Here Sandy Casar and Arnold Jeannesson were respectively fourth and fifth overall. The Germans may have bossed the sprints but there were no fewer than four Frenchmen in the top ten finishers, including Tony Gallopin, one of my ones to watch in 2012.
Interestingly, the riders from the Continental teams of Japan (Bridgestone-Anchor) and China (Champion System) more than held their own, including the rider followed by VeloVoices Gang Xu (Champion System), more steady as she blows – finishing 40th overall – than Gung Ho. [You couldn’t resist that, could you? – Ed.]
Ramunas Navardauskas [a bit of a tongue twister for commentators! – Ed] was Mister Consistency: eighth in Oman, as he was in Qatar. Peter Sagan took the points jersey, Gallopin was the best young rider, Klaas Lodewijk won the combativity prize and the best team was RadioShack-Nissan.
After both Tours, I’d say that a number of riders were looking promising for forthcoming stage races such as Paris-Nice, others are simmering nicely with a view to La Primavera and the subsequent Classics, while some – only to be expected – still have a way to go.
1. Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 21:32:02
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:01
3. Tony Gallopin (RadioShack-Nissan) +0:17
4. Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) +0:21
5. Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ-BigMat) +0:30
6. Tom-Jelte Slagter (Rabobank) +0:30
7. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:47
8. Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:47
9. Thomas Lebas (Bridgestone Anchor) +0:50
10. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) +0:52