The 2019 Tour of Oman celebrates its 10th edition this year, and once again there's something for everyone at the anniversary party this week, with a familiar blend of flat and undulating stages, together, of course, with the iconic summit finish on Green Mountain.
Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali have won this race in recent years but this year none of the leading Grand Tour riders will be in attendance. In their absence is a strong field of sprinters and puncheurs lining up for stage wins, with the overall title to be contested on Green Mountain between some of the pure climbers and the more powerful all-rounders.
Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) won the race in 2018, having finished second behind his teammate Miguel Angel Lopez on Green Mountain, and the Kazakh rider returns to defend his crown. Greg Van Avermaet is also a starter, and is apparently in good shape after a win in his opening outing for the new-look CCC Team in Valencia last week.
Van Avermaet is building for the Classics, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the start of March, and Oman is once again seen as ideal preparation by the Olympic champion. The same goes for his spring rivals Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida).
There are seven WorldTour teams on the start line this year, down a couple from previous years. That might have something to do with the expansion of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tours into one big WorldTour-level UAE Tour, starting a week on Monday. Although the races don't overlap, Kristoff is one of only a few riders set to line up in both.
The Tour of Oman has established a familiar format, and there will be no surprises for the 10th anniversary. A mixture of stages for the sprinters and puncheurs are evened out by the summit finish on Green Mountain on the penultimate day, which is where the overall title is traditionally decided.
As in recent years, the race opens with an opportunity for the fast men, although there will be some novelty in the race's first visit to the Suhar Corniche, west of Muscat. The entire stage, starting at Al Sawadi Beach, runs along coastal roads towards the border with the United Arab Emirates, and couldn't be flatter. The sprint trains will have plenty of time to wind up on the wide roads and on the 1.3km-long finishing straight on the Suhar Corniche.
The puncheurs will come to the fore on stages 2 and 3. The former heads for the hills behind Muscat and packs two short-but-steep climbs along with narrow roads into the final 25km. The finale sees the climb of Al Jissah (1.4km at nine per cent) top out five kilometres from home, before a fast descent and a likely small group sprint to the line. Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) won on this parcours 12 months ago.
Stage 3 revives the uphill finish at Qurayyat, where Soren Kragh Andersen won two years ago. There are two other categorised climbs and plenty of undulating terrain as the race heads east of Muscat towards the final climb, which is 2.8km long at 6.5 per cent. The climb won't create big time gaps but will provide an explosive finale.
Stage 4 features three climbs of Al Jabal Street, but that shouldn't be enough to disrupt the peloton and deny the bunch sprinters who will battle it out in front of the Oman Convention & Exhibition Centre.
Stage 5 is the race's showpiece stage, with its summit finish on Jabal Al Akhdar, or Green Mountain. The 152km stage, which starts in Samayil this year, is all about the final ascent, which is 5.7km long and averages 10.5 per cent. Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali have both won here, along with Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) last year.
The final stage is almost certain to end in a big bunch sprint on the Matrah Corniche, with the traditional fast and furious loop along the bay followed by a slightly downhill run to the line.
Lutsenko starts as the de facto pre-race favourite, having triumphed last year. The versatile Kazakh is a strong Classics rider who possesses both the punch to compete on the early stages and also the wider climbing ability to be in the picture on Green Mountain – much like 2017 champion Ben Hermans. Lutsenko knows how to win this race and should be approaching top form given the opening weekend is coming up at the start of March.
Van Avermaet is a rider with a similar profile, who has shown the extent of his climbing ability with gold at the Rio Olympics and stage wins at the Tour de France in recent years. His uphill sprint win in Valencia last week was evidence that he has hit the ground running in the orange of the new-look CCC outfit.
Yet, while the last two titles have gone to all-rounders, it's just as likely a climber will triumph. In the eight editions where Green Mountain has featured, the first rider to the top was crowned the overall winner on five occasions. Among the pure climbers on the start line are Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Mathias Frank (AG2R La Mondiale), Ben O'Connor (Dimension Data), and Darwin Atapuma (Cofidis).
Other dangerous riders include Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), who won the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour with a win on Jebel Hafeet, and Jesus Herrada (Cofidis), who was fourth overall last year.
Away from the battle for the overall title, there are a host of riders queuing up for stage wins. Starting with the sprinters, Andre Greipel is the most high-profile. He grabbed one win at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo last month but has hardly hit the ground running in his first outing with Pro Continental outfit Arkea-Samsic. Oman is a chance to see if he and the team can start firing on a bigger stage. Niccolo Bonifazio (Direct Energie) beat Greipel three times in Gabon and will be full of confidence in Oman.
Alexander Kristoff is among the most prolific riders in Middle Eastern races. He has won eight stages in the past five editions of the Tour of Oman and is one of the few riders combining the race with the upcoming UAE Tour for a long block to get ready for the spring Classics.
After his former lead-out man Christophe Laporte won two stages and the overall at the Etoile des Bessèges, Nacer Bouhanni will be as keen as ever to land a win and send a message to the Cofidis management, while another French sprinter who has struggled in recent years, Bryan Coquard, will be looking to bounce back after a difficult first season with Vital Concept. Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) should be in the mix, and prefers the 'draggier' finishes – two of which he's identified as suiting him – as does Magnus Cort (Astana), while Dimension Data have two cards in Giacomo Nizzolo and Ryan Gibbons.
For the two punchy stages, Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) will be a threat, not least on stage two, where he won 12 months ago and will want to find his stride after a disappointing start to the season in Australia.
Enrico Gasparotto (Dimension Data) is another rider who specialises in the Ardennes Classics and will fancy the uphill finish on stage 3. Van Avermaet, as mentioned, has the requisite punch and finishing speed – not to mention the form – while Terpstra and Naesen are two more pure classics riders who will be rubbing shoulders with the Olympic champion throughout the spring.
2019 Tour of Oman stages:
Stage 1, Saturday, February 16: Al Sawadi Beach – Suhar Corniche (138.5km, flat)
Stage 2, Sunday, February 17: Royal Cavalry Oman – Al Bustan (156.5km, hilly)
Stage 3, Monday, February 18: Shati Al Qurum – Qurayyat (192.5km, hilly)
Stage 4, Tuesday, February 19: Yiti – Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (131km, flat)
Stage 5, Wednesday, February 20: Samayil – Jabal Al Akhdhar/Green Mountain (152km, mountainous)
Stage 6, Thursday, February 21: Al Mouj Muscat – Matrah Corniche (135.5km, flat)
2019 Tour of Oman teams:
AG2R La Mondiale
Astana Pro Team
UAE Team Emirates
Delko Marseille Provence
Vital Concept-B&B Hotels