Can anyone beat Alexey Lutsenko? That's the big question at the Tour of Oman ahead of the decisive summit finish on Green Mountain on Wednesday and, while some are trying to cling onto some sense of optimism, the general consensus is that something extraordinary will have to happen for the Kazakh rider to be toppled.
Lutsenko came into the race as the de facto favourite, given he won the title 12 months ago, and that billing has only strengthened as he helped himself to back-to-back stage wins. Last year he finished second on Green Mountain to effectively seal victory but he looks even stronger this time around.
"At the moment, the best rider in the bunch is Lutsenko," Alberto Volpi, directeur sportif of Domenico Pozzovivo's Bahrain-Merida team, told Cyclingnews.
It was a sentiment echoed by pretty much every other directeur sportif.
"He has given an emphatic demonstration that he is truly the strongest guy here," said Simone Pedrazzini of Rui Costa's UAE Team Emirates.
Cofidis' Roberto Damiani, who has Jesús Herrada third overall, went further in his praise. "Chapeau to him, he has really ridden well. He reminds me a little of the old Moreno Argentin."
Green Mountain is 5.7 kilometres long, winding up a smooth, wide road at a punishing average gradient of 10.5 per cent. There is nothing of notable difficulty before it, and it’s relatively short, opening the door for the all-rounders. However, the gradients – which hit 13.5 per cent in the final 1.5km – will favour the lighter, pure climbers.
Lutsenko, who will target the Ardennes Classics this year, finished second atop Green Mountain last year, behind his teammate Miguel Angel Lopez. This year he heads in with a lead of 14 seconds over Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team), with Herrada third at 18 seconds, Rui Costa fourth at 24 seconds, and Pozzovivo fifth at 27 seconds.
"I think it's between the first five riders – maybe except for Greg, because he's not a pure climber. With the condition Lutsenko has shown, it will be very difficult to beat him, but not impossible," Pozzovivo told Cyclingnews.
"20 minutes of climbing is different from the seven minutes of Monday and six of Sunday, and also it's steeper. So maybe it's more for me because normally this type of climb is for the lightweights. A gap of 20 seconds [potentially enough with bonus seconds for stage victory -ed] is not easy to take but when you see the differences on a steep climb, 20 seconds I think is possible."
Pedrazzini was not so optimistic.
"In my opinion, from what we've seen in the last days, it's really very difficult to see Lutsenko being beaten. Normally, I'd say it's impossible," he said.
"Rui Costa feels good. With how he went on Wednesday, he can do top five, but if he's really strong he could also get on the podium. The podium is the objective for us, but it's not going to be easy, because you saw some of the guys he arrived with on Wednesday, like Pozzovivo. He was fourth, but looks really good."
Herrada’s camp aren't quite as content to settle for the podium.
"If you go out there trying for second place you might as well stay at home," said Damiani.
"On Wednesday we saw a great Jesus Herrada, and now we have the confidence to go for a good result. A climb like Green Mountain is different to Wednesday, and the race will only end on the white line. Lutsenko has shown he’s in great shape, but we are too."
Damiani noted that Green Mountain is totally different in nature to the shorter, punchier climbs we've seen so far, but Volpi doesn't see the length of the climb as being a factor.
"When one guy has a big condition like Lutsenko, it doesn't make much of a difference whether it’s two kilometres or five kilometres. The condition makes the difference between the other guys," he said.
"Between the victory and the podium places will not be a lot of seconds. It will depend on tactics in the last two or three kilometres, if it's headwind or tailwind, and it will depend on whether Lutsenko has the condition of the last two days."
Pozzovivo predicted a cagey affair before an aggressive final kilometre or two. "Attacking early I think is not easy," he said. "I don't think anyone will be interested in attacking early because the gaps between us are not so big."
As for how the Astana camp are feeling about all this, they were relieved to get through what they saw as a potential pitfall of a stage on Tuesday, and are feeling confident of wrapping up the overall victory.
"Alexey is in good shape," said their DS, Lars Michaelsen. "If everything is all right, if he has still good legs and hasn't any crashes or anything that could handicap him, then it should be good."