The Tour of Oman is widely used by Classics riders to prepare for the spring campaign, with the 'opening weekend' of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne just over a week away. Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra, Alexey Lutsenko, Alexander Kristoff, and Oliver Naesen are among the one-day specialists in Oman, and they got their money's worth on stage 3 as crosswinds ignited the race for the best part of 60 kilometres.
"That was probably one of the best trainings I could do," said third-placed Van Avermaet, who explained he'd been on the limit for more than 30 minutes before the final climb in Qurayyat had even begun.
The riders tackled the 2.8km climb twice, the second time being the summit finish, but the race had exploded even before the first ascent. Crosswinds seemed to catch everyone off guard, and soon there were echelons, with the race coming over the top of the first climb in pieces. There was a regrouping but then the wind split the race again, leaving 35 out front to take on the final climb, where Lutsenko sprang clear to take stage honours and the overall lead.
"I totally did not expect it," Naesen, who finished seventh, told Cyclingnews. "At that moment I was just telling everyone that for sure the break goes to the finish because the gap was like 6:30 and we weren't coming any closer, but all of a sudden it exploded and didn't stop."
The early-season Middle Eastern races have a habit of throwing up relaxed flat stages, with Kristoff commenting that the Tours of Dubai and Abu Dhabi last year were so easy they actually hampered his form. The Tour of Oman throws up punchier terrain in general, but crosswinds and echelons – a staple of the old Tour of Qatar – always serve up a true taste of the chaos and intensity of the Classics.
As Terpstra, 17th, said at the finish: "It's nice to race – to really race – instead of waiting for the last climb."
The echelons were also perfect practice for teams as a whole to hone their cohesion and decision making in stressful situations, especially for riders in new teams, like Terpstra.
The Dutchman, who won the Tour of Flanders and E3 Harelbeke last year, has dropped down to Pro Continental level with Direct Energie, causing doubts about the strength of his new teammates compared to QuickStep, doubts that he feels are being answered.
"Of course, this is the perfect preparation to get the reflexes and get us advanced for the important races," Terpstra said. "I'm really happy with the guys, they were really strong, we work well together and it's getting better and better. You will see those guys at the front in Flanders for sure."
Van Avermaet is not in a new team but is surrounded by new teammates after most of the old BMC team left before CCC came in to save the outfit. He had no fewer than three teammates with him in a small group over the top of the first climb, including new signing Lukasz Wizniowski.
"It's the perfect preparation for the Classics, especially since we are here with the group so it's good to get to know each other and organise for the Classics," Wizniowski told Cyclingnews. "We came here mainly for training. We would like results but the main goal is to come home stronger and healthy. We're also trying to make it harder on the flat because we don't have a proper climber. We try our best and we try everything. We showed today we were strong, we could handle the small climbs and the wind, so I think we are ready for the Classics."
With the opening weekend so close at hand, no one made any secrets about looking around and picking up clues about the shape of their rivals.
"It's good for the confidence," said Naesen. "I've been here once, in 2017 when I did a good Classics campaign and it's nice to compare where I am on this climb, where I exploded, so I can compare myself to last year and also compare myself to the other guys, like Greg and Tersptra. That's good for me."
Van Avermaet added: "I look [at the results] after the race. During the race, I'm trying to win, trying to beat Lutsenko and the others, but tonight I'm for sure looking to those Classics guys also. I think everyone is working on their shape. You cannot compare this parcours to Flanders, but it always gives a little bit of an indication."