The early season races in the Middle East ends with a crescendo this week, with the six-stage Tour of Oman offering the Grand Tour riders a chance to test their form, study their rivals and rub shoulders with the Classics riders, who will use Oman as a final block of racing before their first show down on the cobbles in Belgium at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
2013 winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) will make his season debut in Oman and immediately get to measure the quality of his winter training in South Africa with that of his Grand Tour rivals. It will be fascinating to see how the Kenyan-born Briton has handled the weight of the Tour de France yellow jersey on his shoulders during the off season and if his rivals have found anyway to match Froome stage race consistency and dominance.
Six days of hilly racing
This year's Tour of Oman does not include a time trial and so any time differences will be created thanks to the 10-6-4 second time bonuses at stage finishes, on the hilly stages, and especially the 147km fifth stage to Jabal Al Akhdhar (Green mountain). Last year Froome distanced Contador in the final kilometre of the twisting road to set up his 27-second victory and the mountain finish will surely spark similar time gaps. The race leader will again wear a bright red jersey.
Every stage in this year's route includes some climbing but most days will be digestible for both the Classics riders such as Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and the big-name Grand Tour contenders.
This year's route begins with a 164.km loop inland from As Suwayq to Naseem Garden. It crosses the Tropic of Cancer and includes the mid-stage al Rustaq climb. However the long descent and flat run-in to the finish makes it perfect for the sprinters.
Stage two from Al Bustan to Quriyat is similar but covers smaller roads south of the capital Muscat and a key climb comes later in the stage. A sprint is still highly likely. Stage three should offer a thrilling finale and a chance for a late attack due to the Al Jissah climb. It is a sweeping wide road but kicks up steeply with no point to hide or recover before a diving descent to the line. The riders will know it well after covering it training as they return to their luxurious beach hotel that hosts the whole race caravan during the race.
Stage four is the longest of this year's race at 173km and includes four climbs up to Bousher Alamrat, two from each side before the descent to the finish. It was here that Froome chased after Contador and Purito Rodriguez and then won the sprint to the line.
Green Mountain rears on the horizon on stage five. The 5.5km climb includes two tough sections: early on climbing out of the valley and then up to the finish line, while an easier mid-section allows the strongest riders to distance anyone left behind. Position and protection from teammates is vital before the climb, while the timing of any final attack is equally as important. Riders have to balance their early-season form, their desire to win and that of their rivals. It easy to go too early, go too deep and so be distanced in sight of the line.
Following the showdown on the Green Mountain, the Tour of Oman ends with the tradition circuit stage on the Muscat Corniche. A narrow climb on a back road adds extra spice to the finishing circuits. The sprinters will no doubt prevail but team support will be vital for whoever wants to win the slightly down hill sprint overlooking the sea of Oman and the Sultan's mega yacht.
Froome is number one
Froome is expected to wear dossard number one as 2013 winner and will have a team to back any overall ambitions this year. The Team Sky roster includes Sergio Henao, David Lopez, new recruit Mikel Nieve, Dario Cataldo, Danny Pate and Kanstantsin Siutsou. Ben Swift showed he is back to his sprinting best at the recent Challenge Mallorca and so could provide a stage victory for Team Sky overall battle for success turns serious.
Froome will be challenged by Tour de France rivals Tejay van Garderen
(BMC), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), former teammate turned rival Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), 2011 Tour of Oman winner Robert Gesink (Belkin) and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Van Garderen makes his season debut but has been training quietly in
California and is no doubt inspired after Taylor Phinney's success at the Dubai Tour and Steve Cumming's strong performance at the Tour Méditeranéen. Both could be vital Tour de France team for the American.
Nibali is set to travel to Oman but his wife is also due to give birth to their daughter, so we may see the Sicilian jump on a plane mid-race to be home in time for the birth. Brothers Frank and Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) will also be in Oman, back racing together and no doubt out to prove a point after problems. The warmth and sun of Oman could fool many of the riders and us that the battle for the Tour de France begins in February. In truth we will see just skirmishes but they will give an indication of what the rest of the season will bring.
Each stage will also be an appetizer for the Classics: both on the cobbles and the hills of the Ardennes. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) will clash with Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), Lars Boom (Belkin), Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). While Philippe Gilbert (BMC) faces Moreno Moser (Cannondale), Tony Gallopin (Lotto Belisol), Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani CSF) and perhaps even his own teammate Greg van Avermaet.
Even the pure sprinters will face off, with Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) taking on Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Sam Bennett(NetApp-Endura), Robert Förster (UnitedHealthCare), Leigh Howard(Orica-GreenEdge), Tour of Qatar winner Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Ben Swift (Team Sky).
This is the fifth edition of the Tour of Oman. The testing race route and the quality of the start list, should make it the most entertaining yet.
There will be full coverage of the Tour of Oman, including photo gallery, video highlights and exclusive interviews here on Cyclingnews.