Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) was on flying form at last year's Tour of Oman, finishing third on two of the early stages before finishing second on Green Mountain to claim the overall title. This year, he's going even better, and on Monday he made it back-to-back stage wins to move into the red leader's jersey with a lead of 18 seconds ahead of Green Mountain on Wednesday.
After his stylish solo victory up and over the short Al Jissah climb on stage 2, the Kazakh champion reinforced his status as the strongest rider in this race – and the overwhelming favourite for the title – with a dominant display on the double ascent of the Qurayyat climb on stage 3.
The first time up the 2.8km, 6.5 per cent climb, he led a small group – formed in the earlier crosswinds – with "everyone struggling in the wheel", according to Greg Van Avermaet. Then, on the final ascent, he bided his time before launching an emphatic acceleration 500 metres from the line.
"Like [Julian] Alaphilippe," Lutsenko said with a grin after pulling on the red jersey, referring to the French puncheur who he'll go up against at the Ardennes Classics this spring. "He's a good guy, who I remember from the U23 races.
"Today was a really good day for me. We did the climb two times, but there was a lot of wind, crosswinds, and a lot of stress today.
"After the crosswinds, the peloton was broken, I was in one small group, me and three guys from CCC with Greg Van Avermaet. Then in the last 30km, the groups came back and my team was pulling until the final climb.
"I remember this climb from 2017, and I remember [Søren Kragh] Andersen winning. It's a steep climb, and for me it's perfect. On the climb I stayed behind Van Avermaet, one of favourites for this stage, and in the last 500m I went full gas."
Lutsenko now leads the Tour of Oman by 18 seconds over Jesús Herrada (Cofidis), who finished second on Monday, with Van Avermaet at 20 seconds, Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) at 24 seconds and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) at 27 seconds. With two stages on tap for the sprinters, the race is set, as always, to be decided on the slopes of Green Mountain (5.7km at 10.5 per cent) on the penultimate stage on Wednesday.
Lutsenko surpassed his own expectations by finishing second behind his teammate Miguel Angel Lopez last year, but this time around he's full of confidence that he can claim back-to-back titles.
Asked if he was feeling even stronger than 12 months ago, he said: "Yeah. I did a lot of work before this race, at altitude in Tenerife. That gave me more motivation for this race, and it's all good preparation for the next races like the Classics and Tirreno-Adriatico."
As for the plan for Green Mountain: "Just six kilometres full gas. No breathing – just full, full gas.
"It's a really hard stage, a really hard climb, and it's an important one for me for the GC."