When Chris Froome won atop Jabal Al Akhdhar, better known to the English-speaking world as Green Mountain, in 2014, he reportedly told the Tour of Oman organisers afterwards that it was a shame the race hadn’t followed the road all the way to the very summit of the climb.
Two years on, Froome’s wish has been made reality. The Tour of Oman’s set-piece climb is indeed some 1.8 kilometres longer, but Froome and his Sky team are just one of several WorldTour squads who have opted out of the race this time around. And therein lies the great problem for the Tour of Oman, now in its seventh year of existence but with its future yet to be confirmed.
The parcours remains as varied as ever, mixing punchy finales, opportunities for sprinters and, of course, that Green Mountain summit meeting, but there is a distinct sense that the depth of the field has dropped slightly in the years since Froome’s successive wins in 2013 and 2014, when it was billed as the first rendezvous of the season for Tour de France contenders.
The neighbouring Tour of Qatar, also organised in conjunction with ASO, has responded to the same phenomenon, caused in part by the renewed competition from European races on the February calendar, by applying for WorldTour status for 2017. For now at least, there is no such vote of confidence for the Tour of Oman’s future.
Yet if the race’s pulling power is not quite what is was three years ago, there will still be a very decent sprinkling of stardust in the peloton that sets out from the Oman Exhibition Center on stage 1 on Tuesday, with a number of Grand Tour and Ardennes Classics contenders leading the line.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) kicked off his season at last month’s Tour de San Luis and after a block of training on Mount Teide in Tenerife, he ought to be more competitive here as he builds towards the Giro d’Italia.
Winner atop Green Mountain in 2012, Nibali be eager for an early-season result after his relatively low-key Spring campaigns of the past two seasons, and he arrives in Oman as part of a solid Astana line-up that also includes Jakob Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi.
Richie Porte (BMC) was already impressive at the Tour Down Under, where he claimed a third successive win atop Willunga Hill, and, with that form as a guide, the Tasmanian is perhaps the favourite for overall victory here. The Tour de France is his target this season, and he will undoubtedly be keen to reaffirm his leadership credentials at his new team.
The AG2R-La Mondiale squad features an interesting double act in the form of Romain Bardet, who can shine on both the punchy finales through the week as well as the summit finish at Green Mountain, and Domenico Pozzovivo.
Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), meanwhile, is looking for success in short stage races in the early part of a campaign that will see him target the Giro d’Italia and the time trial at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Up to last Autumn, one might have considered Dumoulin as a contender only in such races that featured a time trial, but after his exploits at the Vuelta a España, it seems just about anything is possible for the Dutchman.
Dan Martin has begun life at Etixx-QuickStep on the front foot with a fine stage win at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and the Irishman should enjoy the punchy fare on offer in Oman, where he will link up with fellow new arrival Bob Jungels. Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) was up there on Green Mountain a year ago, and ought to figure in the shake-up once again, while Eduardo Sepulveda (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) showcased his early-season form with a mountaintop stage win at the Tour de San Luis.
The beauty of the Tour of Oman is that is has a little something for everyone, hence sprinters Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Andrea Guardini (Astana), Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) and, of course, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) will all be hopeful of picking up a win.
The finales are often less straightforward in Oman, however, such as the triple ascent of Bousher Al Amerat on the penultimate day, and punchy riders such as Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) and 44-year-old Davide Rebellin (CCC-Polsat Sprandi) might find amenable terrain over the six days.
The Tour of Oman concludes the February triptych of races in the Middle East, but it is a race very different in feel to the Dubai Tour or Tour of Qatar, which are aimed squarely as test sites for sprinters and cobbled Classics stars alike. In the South-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the wind is not as big a factor as in Qatar, the terrain is more rolling and the temperatures usually that bit higher.
Stage 4’s summit finish at Green Mountain – 7.5 kilometres at an average gradient of 10.7 – provides a high-octane, warm weather blow-out for Nibali, Porte et al of the kind simply not available in Europe at this early point in the year, while there are enough punchy climbs sprinkled through the week to provide a very useful work-out for those with designs on the Ardennes Classics.
The race gets underway on Tuesday with a short opening leg than includes the short, sharp climb of Al Jissah in the finale, which may well force a selection, while stage 2 sees an uphill finish at Quriyat that might suit a finisseur such as Dan Martin.
Stage 3 to Naseem Park descends steadily from the midway point to the finish and appears a certain bunch sprint ahead of what ought to be the primary general classification sort-out atop Green Mountain the following day.
The short penultimate stage to the Ministry of Tourism includes three ascent of Bousher Al Amerat, a climb that has inspired its share of pyrotechnics at the Tour of Oman over the years – including last year, of course, when the extreme weather conditions there prompted the cancellation of the stage – while the final leg to Matrah Corniche should provide the sprinters with another chance to shine.