After three days of fierce sprinting, the battle for overall victory takes centre stage at the Tour of Oman on Friday and Saturday with the uphill finish on the Green Mountain and then the roller coaster 18.5km time trial.
Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) will start the 157.5km fourth stage with a slim lead on Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek) but the sprinters will surely lose ground and other riders will emerge on the 10.3% climb, giving the first real indication of who will win overall on Sunday.
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervelo) and Marco Pinotti (HTC-Highroad) both finished safely in the peloton at the end of stage three to Sur on Thursday and are only 19 seconds behind Goss in the overall classification.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) has a 13-second advantage on his Vande Velde, Pinotti and other overall contenders such as Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard Trek), Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
However that is not enough to indicate the young Norwegian as a likely winner. The race will be won by whoever has the best combined climbing and time trial ability.
Vande Velde ready to give it a go
Despite a low-profile start to the season, Vande Velde rightly refuses to rule out his chances.
He did not ride the Tour of Qatar, making his season debut at the Challenge Mallorca. He spent time training in Hawaii during the winter and looks fit and motivated.
"The Tour of Oman is not a big goal of the year for me but I think I'll be up there. I don't know if I'll be at the top of the top but I'll be amongst it," he told Cyclingnews.
"I'm happy with my form and I'm happy to have got through these three sprinters stages because they were a little bit crazy at times."
"I'm not counting myself as on of the favourites for the finish on the climb but I'll be watching Gesink and other guys who might emerge on the climb.
"I think me and (Garmin-Cervelo teammate) Cameron Meyer could perhaps get a lot of time back on the pure climbers in the time trial but at the same time there's also a lot of climbing in the time trial. There's six or seven hundred metres of it. Who's going to do better there? A pure climber or a time trialist? It could be close."
Vande Velde tweeted about the mental torture of seeing the long rolling climbs every day as the riders travel to the stages by car.
The race manual shows only two climbs on the out and back 18.5km time trial course. In truth it is a like a big dipper with a series of gradients touching 8%, long false flats and absolutely nowhere to hide.
"The time trial is nasty, we see it every day when we go back to the hotel after every stage and so you end up thinking about it all the time," Vande Velde said.
"The climb to finish on stage four is really bad too. We went fast on the little climb the other day but it's also February, so nobody really know how they're going to go. It could be very close after we've done both stages."
Pinotti looks to time trial
Marco Pinotti finished fourth in the time trial at last year's Tour of Oman and is the HTC-Highroad team leader here in Oman. He predicted that he could pull back to a minute on the climbers.
"There are guys who are stronger than me on the climb but I've got the time trial and I think my time trial form is pretty good," he told Cyclingnews.
"I hope to finish within a minute of the pure climbers on Green Mountain so that I've got a good chance in the time trial. The problem is that who ever does well on the climb will also do well in the time trial because it's so tough."
"I think Gesink, Rodriguez and Vino will be aggressive on the climb and I also noticed that Jakob Fuglsang was pedaling well in the peloton. I'll be watching them."
Pinotti picked Boasson Hagen as the rider he most feared for overall success.
"It's a 30-minute time trial and so the time gaps won't be that small," he predicted.
"Last year Boasson Hagen did an amazing ride and beat Cancellara because it was about climbing as much as time trialing. I think he's the guy to beat. But we'll find out on Saturday.
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