You can never step in the same river twice, but Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) had a fair idea of the temperature of the water on stage 1 of the Tour of Oman. The Norwegian won on the same finale in Naseem Park a year ago, and he duly repeated the feat in the bunch sprint this time around, seeing off the challenges of Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) to claim a commanding victory.
Kristoff's sprint – a 150-metre long effort that saw him bludgeon through a block headwind – was an exercise in raw power, but there was considerable finesse, too, about the way he and his team set about laying the foundations for his victory on the approach to the finish. All day long, Katusha and Quick-Step Floors had shared responsibility for pegging back the escapees, but in the closing kilometres, Kristoff ordered his team to recede from view until the last possible moment.
"We did a similar sprint last year with similar wind, so we knew we had to come to the front quite late," Kristoff said. "We knew it would be open on the left side of the road so we were just waiting for that, and then we moved to the front as late as possible. Marco [Haller] did a good job in the final kilometre to bring me and [Michael] Morkov to the front and from there for me it was just about finishing it off in the last 150 metres. That felt quite long with this headwind. It was a tough wind and a tough sprint, but I'm happy I've managed to win this stage two years in a row: it's nice to have a tradition."
The grand absentee from the final sprint was Tom Boonen, who was brought down by a crash inside the final kilometre. The Quick-Step man crossed the line with a shredded jersey and a furrowed brow, though the fact that he chose to travel the 35 kilometres to the race hotel by bike rather than by bus suggested that his injuries will not prevent him from continuing in the Tour of Oman - a fact later confirmed by his team.
"At the end, I think Quick-Step was on the right side of the road and they took the front much earlier than us," Kristoff said. "We were waiting, staying in the bunch, and they were unlucky because on the right side it was really tight and I think Boonen went down just with around a kilometre to go. That was a big pity, because I think for sure he would have made tough competition in the end. There was big chaos in the end, but luckily I managed to come through without crashing.
"I made sure I was on the left side where it was a bit more open and we had a clear path. But I saw on the right side there was a crash and I heard afterwards it was Boonen. It's a pity for him that he crashed, because his team did a good job all day with us. But for sure he will try again another day, if he is not too badly injured."
Kristoff's victory was his second of the new campaign following a stage win at Étoile des Bessèges earlier this month, though a scan of the roadbook suggests that his opportunities are limited for the remainder of this Tour of Oman, with only the final leg to Matrah Corniche leaping off the page as a nailed-on chance for the sprinters. As he took possession of the leader's red jersey on Tuesday afternoon, serenaded by the song and drums of local Al Barah dancers, Kristoff admitted that he didn't expect to make a return to trip to the dais after the tough finale at Al Bustan on stage 2.
"I didn't feel super during the day. I felt a bit tired in the morning, maybe because I'm used to European time. When I woke this morning, it would have been 4 o'clock at home, and I only came here the day before," Kristoff said. "Hopefully I'll feel better in the days ahead but tomorrow is quite hard. I already feel this red jersey will maybe not be on my shoulders after tomorrow."