The anticipated attack from Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) duly arrived near the summit of the day’s final climb up Bousher Al Amarat, but Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has proved unflappable at this Tour of Oman, and the Frenchman’s insurgence was quickly snuffed out.
Nibali, winner on the relentless grind up Green Mountain the previous afternoon, could afford to ride on the defensive here, as he held a 15-second buffer over Bardet coming into Saturday’s penultimate stage, an undulating run from the pretty coastal spot of Yiti to the tough finish circuit around the Ministry of Tourism.
“Today was hard stage because we had to do that climb three times in the finale, and it was made tougher by the fact that we had the effects of yesterday’s efforts in our legs,” Nibali said after dismounting the podium. “My team controlled it well and I had [Michele] Scarponi and [Jakob] Fuglsang with me in the finale, so it was perfect.
“It was a nervous stage, very difficult. In years past, this has been a very difficult stage to manage, but my condition was very good, and together with Fuglsang, we looked to control things on the last time up the climb.”
Fuglsang, who lies third overall, 24 seconds down, had served as Nibali’s guard dog on Green Mountain on Friday, and he performed a similar task here. The Dane helped to peg back Bardet’s move over the top of the final climb after Ag2r-La Mondiale had attempted to rid Nibali of his Astana guard on the previous two ascents.
“Bardet attacked right at the top of the climb but then right at the start of the descent, there was another section where the road went up again, and Pozzovivo tried there. But we always closed down the moves, we were very attentive,” Nibali said.
The pyrotechnics were only beginning, however, and by that point, Fuglsang was the only teammate Nibali had left, though between them, the Astana pair managed to track every move.
“There were a lot of attacks. Tom Dumoulin tried to break clear, [George] Bennett too, and Rui Costa made a very strong attack, but Fuglsang was controlling everything,” Nibali said.
“We wanted to keep the race under control and we also knew Scarponi was just behind, so at the bottom of the descent we were able to wait for him to get back on. It was calmer after that, and we got to the finish in that group for the sprint.”
Nibali rolled safely across the line in 12th place in the leading group behind stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) and, sparing any mechanical mishaps on the flat final stage, he should be confirmed as overall winner on Matrah Corniche on Sunday afternoon.
Nibali has looked comfortable throughout the week in Oman, and while the primary object of the excursion to the Gulf was to refine his condition for the battles yet to come, one senses that the Italian champion will be particularly pleased to come away with something more tangible, too, after troubled starts to the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
When Nibali won on Green Mountain in 2012 and finished second overall in Oman, just one second behind Peter Velits, it prefigured perhaps his finest spring campaign to that point, as he went on to take overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and claim podium finishes at both Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Nibali was coy when asked what overall victory this time around would mean for the weeks ahead.
“We’ll see how tomorrow goes first, there’s still another day still to come,” Nibali said. “But I’m in a good moment right now, we’ve had a good week and I’m looking ahead to the next objectives.”