For previous generations, the climb through the pine trees of Mont Faron or the snow-banked lower slopes of Mont Ventoux often served a roughly similar purpose, but the centre of gravity of the cycling calendar has since shifted. In the past decade, a lonely outpost in Oman’s Al Hajar mountains has established itself as an early test site for riders with designs on performing in Grand Tours later in the campaign.
Since its introduction in 2011, Jabal Al Akhdar, known to the world as Green Mountain, has become the prime incentive for an exalted caste of the riders that come to the Tour of Oman each year. On Saturday’s penultimate stage of the 2017 edition of the race, Fabio Aru (Astana) and Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) were the loftiest names to tackle the 5.7-kilometre climb for their first such public examination of the new year.
The ascent owes its name to the microclimate that exists above 2,400 metres, but at half that altitude, the title of Green Mountain seems a jarring misnomer. Save for some sparse shrub grass poking out amid the sun-blasted rock face, there is little by way of greenery and nothing by way of shelter. There is little respite, too, from the wickedly steep gradient, which averages above 10 per cent.
A brief descent with three kilometres remaining is only a deception. From there, the road kicks up relentlessly towards the finish line. The savage beauty of Green Mountain is that there is nowhere to hide.
For Fabio Aru, whose season is built around the Giro d’Italia in May, the auguries from the mountain were promising. Although he missed out on stage victory, beaten by three seconds by a buoyant Ben Hermans (BMC), it was an encouraging outing from the Sardinian in his first race of the year. Traditionally, Aru’s performances have been low-key and his results discreet ahead of the Giro, but his display here suggested that he will be a factor at next week’s Abu Dhabi Tour.
Riders don’t so much pedal over the line as collapse across it, and the effort is such that most need several minutes to compose themselves before they can even begin to arrange their thoughts coherently for the scattering of reporters waiting past the finish line. Even before he had caught his breath, Aru’s smile as he slumped over his handlebars highlighted his satisfaction at his Green Mountain work-out.
“The Astana team did impressive work for me, because the guys shut down the break before the climb so I have to pay tribute to them,” Aru said. “I’m just sorry that I wasn’t able to finish it off by taking the win, but it’s my first race and I haven’t made violent efforts like these since Il Lombardia. I’m happy with that. My physical condition is good and I’m very motivated for the races coming up.”
Dimension Data rode aggressively on the climb, sending Lachlan Morton up the road to lay the groundwork for Merhawi Kudus’ later attack. When Hermans caught and passed the Eritrean, only Aru could go with him, though he never quite managed to catch the red jersey’s coattails on the final kick to the line.
“The red jersey is really on form. He’s going very strongly and I wasn’t able to bring him back. I wasn’t aiming to be at the top of my condition here at the start of the year, because the big objectives are the Grand Tours, which are further ahead. But I’ve worked well this winter without stress and with a lot of serenity so I’m happy,” Aru said, before pedalling back down the mountain to the Astana team car.
Across the road, Romain Bardet was glumly preparing for the same short descent after a rather more trying experience on Green Mountain, as he placed 10th, 44 seconds down on Hermans.
The Frenchman’s day was compromised when he was among the dozen or so riders who came down when the peloton rode through a water-crossing midway through the stage, and though he swiftly re-joined the peloton, he was still muddied from the incident as a soigneur helped him into a long-sleeve jersey at the finish.
“There was a crash and I caught got up in it and went down. I took a good blow and though you try not to think about it afterwards, I was sore all over,” Bardet said forlornly. “It’s a day to forget.”
Bardet was part of the ever more select leading group on the lower slopes of Green Mountain, almost all the way to the final kilometre, when he was shaken loose by the accelerations of Hermans, Aru and Kudus. He battled to limit his losses on the final ramps, but looks set to finish the Tour of Oman in 6th place overall on Sunday.
“I fought as best I could on the mountain, but with a kilometre to go I was dropped completely. It wasn’t too bad up to that point, but the heat affected me a bit and it was difficult,” Bardet said. “The crash didn’t help, but I’m not looking for excuses either. My sensations haven’t been terrible all week but there’s still work to do.”
Bardet’s disappointment will pass quickly. Like Aru, he lines up at the Abu Dhabi Tour next week, and the Tour de France, where he placed second a year ago, is still almost five months away. Contrary to appearances, Green Mountain is not a road to nowhere.