By hook or by crook, the Tour of Oman returns for its ninth edition this month. Rumours of its potential demise have flitted about for several years now, but the race still manages to cling on despite the demise of its sister race, the Tour of Qatar, last year.
It now sits neatly between the extended Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour on the calendar. Competing with the Ruta del Sol and the Volta ao Algarve in the same week, also means that the general classification line-up has taken something of a hit. While it might not be the sprint fest of Dubai, there are plenty of fast men in action.
Indeed, Vincenzo Nibali is the only former champion to grace the start list. The 2016 winner got his season underway slightly later than planned at the Dubai Tour after illness stopped him from even making the start line of the Vuelta a San Juan. Dubai is certainly not his race and, having not seen him race in San Juan, it is hard to say how he will perform here. Nibali is targeting his first peak of the season for the Ardennes Classics in April, and aside from that one overall victory, Nibali’s past performances in Oman have been rather middling. Gorka Izagirre gives them a secondary option in the GC.
BMC Racing won last year’s edition with Ben Hermans and while the Belgian has moved to Israel Cycling Academy over the winter, they have Nicolas Roche as their GC hopeful. It’s his first appearance at the race since 2014 when he was working for Roman Kreuziger at Tinkoff-Saxo so it will be interesting to see how he goes. They also have Jempy Drucker and Greg Van Avermaet as potential stage winners.
For Astana, Miguel Angel Lopez has been growing in stature as a general classification rider. A former winner of the Tour de Suisse, the Colombian has endured an injury-marred few seasons. After a challenging start to 2017, he came out swinging in the latter part of the year with stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana and the Vuelta a Burgos. He is targeting the Giro d'Italia this year and an early-season result would set him up nicely.
Other riders to keep a watch for in the battle for the overall standings are last year's runner-up Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data), Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo).
Cavendish headlines the sprint line-up
The sprinting pack has some big names with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) set to return to the race, among others. Cavendish got the ball rolling in Dubai with a canny victory on stage 3 and there will be opportunities for him to add to that over the course of the week. Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) will continue his February 'Grand Tour' in a place that has served him well in the past. The slightly lumpier terrain of Oman suits the Norwegian better than the flat roads of Dubai.
Nacer Bouhanni has been persuaded by his new boss at Cofidis to do a full Middle Eastern programme and he'll also be in action in Oman. Fellow Frenchman Bryan Coquard will be looking to finally get a win on the board in 2018 after quite a few close calls so far. Now with Vital Concept Club, Coquard’s strike rate has been disappointing so far.
BMC Racing have brought Jempy Drucker and Greg Van Avermaet with them to Oman, Odd Christian Eiking is an outsider for Wanty-Groupe Gobert, while Adam Blythe and Andy Fenn are options for Aqua Blue Sport.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it
The route will look distinctly familiar to anybody who has watched the race over the years, with plenty of rolling sprint stages punctuated by the climb of Green Mountain on the penultimate day.
Stage 1 will involve a long trek out into the desert and begins not far from Jabal Al Akhdhar (Green Mountain) in Nizwa. The route skirts past the Jebel Shams, taking in some early climbs along the way. After the 64km mark, the road tilts downwards and it remains that way until the line at the Sultan Qaboos University where a sprint is almost certain.
The next day, the riders will return to the University for the start of stage 2 in a day that will help to set up the general classification fight later in the week. Four classified climbs litter the route before the finish in Al Bustan, where Hermans took the first of two stage wins last year. A lengthy descent from the final climb will allow some to get back to what will likely be a small bunch at this stage. Depending on how fast the stage is ridden, some Classics riders could find themselves in with a shot at the victory.
Stage 3 could be another opportunity for the Classics riders as the Wadi Dayqah Dam returns to the race for the first time since 2012. Peter Sagan beat Baden Cook and Slagter to take victory when the race last went there and it should provide another thrilling finale.
The sprinters will get another chance stage four with a 117km stage from Yiti to the Ministry of Tourism, before the general classification battle picks up on stage 5. The penultimate day of racing will bring the riders from Samail to Green Mountain, a climb now synonymous with the race. The winner here is likely to take home the overall title.
The final 135.5km day brings the riders from Al Mouj Muscat to the Matrah Corniche. There are a couple of climbs to contend with but it should still be a sprint finale.