In just its third year in existence, the Tour of Oman has already become one of the most compelling races of the early season thanks to the sheer diversity of the riders that flock to the six-stage event.
The variety of Oman’s topography, coupled with the amenability of its climate, mean that the race has attracted a high-quality field: world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky), Tour de France contenders Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and classics hunters such as Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) are among those lining up.
Perhaps nowhere else so early in the season can one find such an intersection of pre-eminent classics riders and stage racers, accompanied by a full complement of top-level sprinters. Like at the Tour of Qatar, the exposed roads along the Omani coast offer a fine warm weather training ground for the classics specialists, but crucially, the race’s excursions into Oman’s rugged interior also present an early platform for grand tour riders to gauge their form.
As was the case in 2011, the summit finish at Jabal Al Akhdar, is the centrepiece of the race. Coming on stage 5, and with no time trial on the route this year, the victor atop the “Green Mountain” can expect to seal overall triumph. The remainder of the race is not without its difficulties, however. The peloton must also tackle some rolling terrain on stage four, while the winds blowing in off the Sea of Oman mean that overall contenders will have to be alert throughout.
Newly crowned as 2010 Tour de France champion, Andy Schleck is perhaps the marquee name in the Tour of Oman’s line-up, even if it the Luxembourger has traditionally enjoyed a low-key early season. Stage 5 to Jabal Al Akhdar will give an early indication of whether that philosophy has changed under new management.
Schleck is joined in a strong RadioShack-Nissan line-up by Jakob Fuglsang and 2010 winner Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss rider showed some sustained flashes of his power during the Tour of Qatar, and while all roads lead to the classics for Cancellara, he can be expected to offer some more cameos in Oman.
Two grand tour riders who are likely to be in the mix for the win on the Green Mountain are Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Nibali was quietly impressive at the Tour de San Luis in January, and after a winless 2011 is keen to open his account as soon as possible this time around. Rodriguez only started his campaign in Mallorca last week and is building towards the Ardennes classics, but the explosive Catalan may well look to test himself in Oman.
Tom Boonen enters the race on a high after his fine victory at the Tour of Qatar, and while overall victory will be beyond him here, he will again aim to be in the mix in the sprints. French champion Sylvain Chavanel and Peter Velits have arrived from Europe to bolster the impressive Omega Pharma-Quick Step roster for the Tour of Oman’s hillier challenges.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) was highly visible at the Tour of Qatar, but fell short of stage victory. The uphill finish at Al Wadi Al Kabir on stage four seems ideally suited to his explosive talents, however, and the young Slovak can rely on the redoubtable support of Daniel Oss.
Meanwhile, Mark Cavendish headlines one the most glittering array of sprinting talent of the early-season. As well as the aforementioned Boonen and Sagan, Cavendish will face his old sparring partners Matt Goss (GreenEdge) and André Greipel (Lotto Belisol), along with Andrea Guardini (Farnese Neri-Selle Italia), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda), Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) and Adam Blythe (BMC).