Exhilarating challenges

Haridev Pushparaj
MUSCAT, FEB. 17

The 2017 Tour of Oman will miss the presence of Vincenzo Nibali, the 2016 winner, but the prestigious blue-riband event will have a new champion this time around.
The race provides an early opportunity to tackle some difficult climbs and test the riders’ fitness. The race will also offer two sprinter-friendly stages, while puncheurs — riders who thrive on rolling terrain and short, steep climbs — will have several chances to surprise the peloton. Most importantly for the GC, the Green Mountain summit finish comes on the eve of the final stage in Muscat, where climbers will meet their moment of truth.
It is hard to resist the siren call of the Omani mountains. Offering the first really difficult climbs of the season, the opportunity to conquer them continues to attract an increasingly wide range of riders each year.
The familiar punchy finishes on the Al Jissah climb at Al Bustan and in Qurayat are tailor-made for opportunistic attackers like Van Avermaet and seasoned professionals Alexis Gougeard and Niki Terpstra.
The showdowns on these climbs will serve as the prelude to what will be the main event of the Tour of Oman: The ascent of Jabal Al Akhdhar (Green Mountain). In this penultimate stage, the GC contenders will meet on the slopes of this demanding climb to gauge their form and see if their dreams of overall victory will be fulfilled.
But in the Middle East climbers are not the only kings. The masters of the finishing straight, such as Tom Boonen or Alexander Kristoff, will also have multiple opportunities to lunge for the victory. Naseem Park and Muttrah Sea Road will be the settings for these exciting high-speed finishes. The fast men of the peloton will put their trains to work in these two stages, seeking to polish their positioning and oil the machine in order to claim their first major win of the season.
Notable teams that are absent are Team Sky, Lotto Soudal and LottoNL-Jumbo.
Nibali the former overall winner of the race will be missing in action this time around, so will Chris Froome, but the race will not be any less exciting.
BUNCH FINISH EXPECTED
Organisers ASO have made full use of the nation’s lumpier terrain by adding meddlesome hills to complicate what would otherwise be straightforward sprint stages.
Stage two includes four climbs, none longer than 4 km but all with gradients averaging over eight per cent; an uphill finish on stage three plays into the hands of the puncheurs; and the three-lap circuit that includes the Climb of Bausher Al Amerat should prove too challenging for the pure sprinters.
That doesn’t leave too much for sprinters — which explains why, beyond Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Sacha Modolo (UAE Abu Dhabi), so few big names are lining up — but both the opening and closing stage should culminate in a bunch finish.
GREEN MOUNTAIN ( JABAL AL AKHDHAR )
One of the treats of the Tour of Oman is that it boasts one of the first proper out-and-out climbs of the season — the Jabal Al Akhdhar, otherwise known as the ‘Green Mountain’.
Unlike the climbs tackled in the likes of the Tour Down Under, Jabal Al Akhdhar has a considerable length (5.7 km) to match the bite of its gradient (10.5 per cent), and it provides a chance therefore to witness a full-blooded climbing showdown.
That the GC will be decided on its slopes is virtually a guarantee — since its first inclusion in 2011, no rider has ever managed to win the overall classification without also finishing in the top two of this stage.
ARU TO WATCH OUT FOR
Fabio Aru’s season is structured around the Giro d’Italia, and last year’s winner of that race, his ex-team-mate Vincenzo Nibali, opened his account by sealing the overall at the Tour of Oman.
A similar win for Aru would install plenty of confidence in Astana that he can adequately replace Nibali, but may be unlikely given his usual slow starts to the season.
BARDET HOPES FOR AN ENCORE
Romain Bardet’s plans are more long-term than Aru’s with his main focus, the Tour de France, still another five months away, but he’ll still be hoping to make an impression on his first race of the season.
The Frenchman generally doesn’t take too long to get up to speed as Aru, and tends to go well in Oman, having finished runner-up last year and won the young riders’ classification in 2014, but one thing he has lacked throughout his career is overall victories in stage races.
With no-time trial stage to deter him, the Tour of Oman might become the his first since the 2013 Tour de l’Ain — a win that would be a clear indication that he’s capable of winning the Tour come July.