Grand Tour contenders face off at the Tour of Oman

Van Garderen, Valverde, Nibali in action with Sagan, Boonen and Kristoff

The peloton’s early-season spell the Middle East concludes with the six-day Tour of Oman, which begins on Tuesday, February 17. The stage race is the first opportunity for many of the Grand Tour general classification contenders to deal the first psychological blow early in the season, and see how they match up against their rivals after a winter of training.

Two-time champion Chris Froome has decided to cut down his traveling at the start of the year and begin his racing season at the Ruta del Sol in southenr Spain. However other former overall winners Peter Velits and Fabian Cancellara will be on the start line but we are likely to see a new champion in 2015.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) leads the list of contenders ready to assume Froome’s title in Oman. The Italian has had a mixed relationship with the race with two top 10 placings, including second overall in his first appearance. However he was a little lacklustre in 2014, finishing nearly two minutes behind Froome in the general classification. Nibali is here for victory this time and the Green Mountain finale where he won in 2012 will surely be in his sights again.

Hoping to beat Nibali and win the leader’s red jersey are Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and last year’s podium finishers Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep). The likes of Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Leopold Konig (Team Sky), Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) and Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) are potential wild cards in this already strong start list.

Valverde is the in-form rider going into Oman with a victory notched up at the Mallorca Challenge and a strong performance at the Dubai Tour. It is the Spaniard’s first appearance in Oman, as he forgoes the Ruta del Sol for the first time since he returned from a two-year ban in 2012.

Of the sprinters that have chosen to stay on after the Tour of Qatar, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) leads the way. Sagan has taken a stage victory on each of his previous appearances at the race and he will surely be looking to turn the series of top five finishes in Qatar to a trip to the top step of the podium. Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) is also a serious contender in the sprints and the Belgian will be buoyed by the team’s success last week. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) is also in fine form coming from Qatar, after his two stage wins.

There are plenty of sprinters ready to upset Sagan and Boonen, including Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), who scored a breakthrough victory at the Tour of Qatar. MTN-Qhubeka have lost Theo Bos -he required stitches in his knee following his crash in Qatar, but the African team will provide a challenge in the sprints with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Matt Goss and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Andrea Guardini (Astana), Matteo Pelucchi (IAM Cycling), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) and Leigh Howard (Orica-GreenEdge) will all be strong competition in a bunch finish.

The route

The six-day Tour of Oman follows a similar recipe to the routes of recent seasons. It gets underway just in from the coast at the Bayt al Naman Castle with an early opportunity for the sprinters to get a win on the board. There is little to trouble the peloton during the stage but the small rise in the final three hundred metres could bite anyone who begins their run to the line too early.

The 195km second stage is a tougher prospect with two classified climbs in the final 30 kilometres. The peak of the Al Jissah climb comes just five kilometres from the finish in Al Bustan and could filter out some of the pure sprinters.

Stage three sees the peloton move up the coast to the Al Mussanah Sports City, near the race’s base at the Millennium Resort Hotel. The near-pan flat 158-kilometre route is the last chance for the sprinters before the race hits the decisive mountains.

The general classification riders will get their chance to stretch their legs on stage four with the now traditional finish on Jabal Al Akhdhar (Green Mountain). The 5.7-km climb averages over 10 per cent in gradient and kicks up to over 13 per cent in the final kilometre. A fast finisher such as Valverde or Rodríguez could do some damage on this mountain-top finish and put them self in control of the leader’s jersey.

The penultimate stage from Al Sawadi Beach to the Ministry of Housing is a final chance for the GC riders to make some time on their rivals. The run of four climbs in quick succession is the same as last year’s stage four where Sagan held on with the climbers to take his first victory of the 2014 season. Closing out the race is a lumpy 133-kilometre run from Oman air to Matrah Corniche, where a final sprint is expected as the overall winner pulls on the final red jersey.

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