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Riding into the sunset
After wrapping up the six-day Tour of Qatar, the riders and race organisers have moved south along the Persian Gulf for the inaugural Tour of Oman.
The six-day race begins on Sunday with a 61km evening criterium on the Muscat Corniche and ends on Friday with a testing 18.6km time trial in the capital Muscat. In between is a mix of hilly stages and shorter flat coastal stages that will inspire some aggressive racing and further improve rider's early season fitness.
Oman and especially its capital Muscat, is known as a historic point of trade thanks to its position between India and the Mediterranean. Oman is also known for producing some of the best Frankincense in the world.
It is not as rich as its Arabian neighbours but is after the success of the Tour of Qatar, the Muscat Municipality has also teamed up with Eddy Merckx and the Tour de France organizers ASO to create a second week of early season racing.
Big name riders on start list
The 128-rider field will be very similar to the Tour of Qatar, with 16 teams of eight riders. Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Theo Bos (Cervélo TestTeam) and Taylor Phinney (Trek-Livestrong) have headed home but the start list includes most of the big-name sprinters and classics contenders.
Names to watch out for include Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Fabian Cancellara and JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank), Alessandro Ballan and Marcus Bughardt (BMC), Henrich Haussler and Roger Hammond (Cervélo TestTeam), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi (Liquigas-Doimo), Philippe Gilberto (Omega Pharma), Roger Kluge (Milram), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) and the Tour of Qatar winner Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil).
Some teams have changed their line-ups slight to suit the hillier route or due to the crashes in Qatar.
Garmin-Transitions has brought in the experienced Robert Hunter to boost Farrar's lead out train, while Team Sky have added Davide Vigano' and CJ Sutton. The Cervélo TestTeam has added Spain's Xavier Florencio and Britain's Dan Lloyd, while Marco Pinotti comes in as probable team leader for HTC-Columbia.
The Italian is a proven time trialist and the US team is convinced he can limit his losses on the other stages and then gain enough time in the final time trial to win overall.
Possible threats to HTC-Columbia's game plan include Boasson Hagen, Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) and perhaps even some of the lighter-built sprinters who can climb and time trial. Some one like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara could be contenders but it will depend on their early season form and desire to dig deep so early in the season.
Leader wears red
The overall race leader will wear a red jersey, the point's jersey is green and the jersey for best young rider is white. Surprisingly there is no king of the mountains competition or a climber's jersey despite the race including several serious climbs. However there is an unusual white with red and green polka dots for the most aggressive rider in the race.
Time bonuses are up for grabs at intermediate sprints and at the finish of each road race stage. 3-2-1 seconds are awarded in the two intermediate sprints each stage, with 10-6-4 seconds awarded to the top three at the finish.
A mix of hills and sprints
The sprinters are expected to dominate Sunday's evening criterium stage on the Muscat Corniche. The circuit passes up and down the spectacular bay at sunset for 16 laps of high-speed racing. Francesco Chicchi or Tom Boonen could win again or perhaps it is Tyler Farrar's turn for success.
Although Oman is on the Arabian peninsular, the desert, cross winds and flat roads of Qatar have been replaced with much hillier terrain.
Riders get the first taste of the hills of the Jabal Akhdar range on stage two on Monday. The 148.5km stage starts in Nizwa and ends in Samail, although the flat finale may see the sprinters dominate again.
Stage three from Saifat Ash Shiekh to Qurayvat starts with several short and nasty climbs and has the steep climb of Qurayvat and then a rapid descent just 15km from the finish.
The riders face a 300km transfer by plane to start stage four in Ibri. The 187km stage will be a real test for the peloton after racing over shorter distance in Qatar. The route includes two climbs: a long gradual hike up to 916 metres at Shenhesse after 66km, then the shorter but very steep climb at Ar Rustaq after 131km. The finial part of the stage could see the peloton come back together but a breakaway could have already stolen the glory.
Stage five from Wattaayah to the Sultan Qaboos stadium is a flat out an back course along the coast and will give the sprinters a last chance of victory and the overall contenders a chance to freshen up before Friday's final time trial stage.
The 18.6km stage starts from the luxurious Barr Al Tissah Resort, where the riders are staying for the whole race and ends on the Muscat Corniche. An early climb will be decisive before a fast descent down to the finish on the coast overlooking the Gulf of Oman.
The 687.1km of racing over six-days has something for every kind of rider, with a total of 115,642 Euro on offer as prize money. May the best man win.