Eddy Merckx has predicted that the Tour of Oman will be decided on the steep uphill finish to Jabal al Akhdhar on Friday, with climbers such as Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) likely to gain enough time to defend their lead on the following day's roller coaster 18.5km time trial.
Merckx is the race organiser of this second edition of the Tour of Oman and true to his cannibal character, he seems to have enjoyed toughening up the route. Most of the riders who raced in Qatar will also ride the Tour of Oman but Merckx is convinced this second race on the Arabian peninsula is definitely not for the sprinters.
"I think this race will be totally different to Qatar because the course is a lot harder. Last years all the roads weren't built and the riders asked for more climbing, so I think this year they will have more climbs," Merckx said at the official race presentation in the Omani capital Muscat on Sunday.
Jabal al Akhdhar means Green Mountain in Arabic and it is the highest peak is Eastern Arabia at almost 3000 metres. Fortunately for the riders, they only have to climb the first six kilometres but even that is at an average of 10.3%.
"You can't do all of the Green Mountain in February, because it's 18km long but we'll do the finish after six kilometres and I think that's enough," Merckx said.
"It's at ten percent average and there are parts at 17 or 18%, so it'll be very tough. Also the day after is the time trial. It's nine kilometres of climbing and nine kilometres downhill. It’s up and down."
The steep finish is expected to make a huge selection amongst the 128 riders in the race and Merckx picks three main favourites, while also refusing to rule out the likes of Taylor Phinney and Fabian Cancellara.
"It's very difficult to say (who will win), perhaps riders like (Robert) Gesink, (Joaquim) Rodriguez, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Taylor Phinney, riders who have big condition," he said.
"Maybe even Cancellara now he has the Tour of Qatar in his legs. But I think the Green Mountain will decide the winner."
Ridding the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman gives the riders 12 days of warm weather racing with four days in between to recover. It means they spend a block of 23 days away from home but Merckx believes it is the best way to lay down a solid base of racing for the rapidly approaching classics. He may have bias due his role as race organiser, but the results of Boonen and Cancellara last season seem to back up his opinion.
"It's nice weather and there are good racing conditions, and also the time difference is not too much," Merckx said.
"I think you have to first have a flat stage race which gets you in good condition and then you can have the climbs. I think the combination, one after the other, is the best thing you can have for the classics."
Merckx has no qualms about breaking with a more traditional race programme in Spain, France or Portugal.
"The other races are the tradition but Mallorca has problems, the Tour of the Mediterranean is more dangerous for safety on the small roads in the south of France and Algarve too," he said.
"I think these races are much better preparation for the classics. The fact that we had a lot of requests from 25 teams to ride is proof of that."
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