Reports of the Tour of Oman's imminent demise turned out to be exaggerated, though after the seemingly more robust Tour of Qatar was abruptly cancelled on the eve of the 2017 season due to a lack of funding, it seems that one of the cornerstones of the UCI's attempts at concocting a year-long narrative – a full month of early-season racing in the Gulf – was laid upon rather shaky foundations.
No matter, the Tour of Oman is still here, and continues to offer a little something for everything across its six days of racing. The uncertainty over its running, not to mention the hasty rewriting of rider schedules that followed the Tour of Qatar's cancellation, has undoubtedly reduced the quota of star names in the Omani peloton this time around, though in truth, the concurrent, and seemingly resurgent, Ruta del Sol and Volta ao Algarve have already been drawing riders and teams away for the past three years.
As usual, the Tour of Oman offers something for everybody across its six days, with straightforward sprint stages interspersed with rather punchier finales, while the general classification is once more likely to be decided by the outcome of the summit finish at Green Mountain. In years past, that mountaintop finish was enough to convince a host of Tour de France contenders to make Oman an early staging post on the road to July, but this time around, only Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) could be classed as a genuine aspirant to the Paris podium.
Bardet, second to Vincenzo Nibali a year ago on Green Mountain and in the general classification, is the logical favourite for overall victory here as he makes his seasonal debut. The Frenchman placed second at the Tour de France last year, and at that rarefied level, the margin for improvement is slim. He has won just one stage race in his career to date – the Tour de l'Ain in 2013 – and Oman might just be the place to acquire the habit.
Fabio Aru (Astana) is also making his first appearance of the season and will undoubtedly look to test himself on the slopes of Green Mountain, but historically, the Sardinian has rarely produced much outside of the Grand Tours, and his stablemate Jakob Fuglsang, third overall in Oman a year ago, might well be a better bet to lead the Kazakhstani team's challenge.
Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) has been a consistent if unspectacular performer at the Tour of Oman over the years, while other riders with the aptitude to shine on Green Mountain include Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data), Julian Arredondo (Nippo-Vini Fantini) and Daniel Diaz (Delko Marseille Provence), even if the two-time Tour de San Luis winner has never come close to replicating those startling performances outside of his native Argentina.
Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) was hugely impressive in landing victory on the opening stage in Oman a year ago, and after his exploits at the Giro d'Italia in the intervening period, it will be fascinating to see if the Luxembourger tests himself against Green Mountain this time.
The Tour of Oman, of course, is not a destination in itself, but more a waypoint on the road to the Classics, and Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) are among those quietly building towards April in the Gulf. An early win in Argentina was an encouraging indication for Boonen as he faces into his Last Crusade, while Van Avermaet showed few effects of off-season injury in Valencia recently.
Kristoff won a brace of stages in Oman a year ago, and will be the man to beat among the slate of sprinters on show here. Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina), Sacha Modolo (UAE Abu Dhabi) and Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue) will be among those aiming to challenge him. On the punchier finales, such as stage 3 to Quriyat, men with Amstel Gold Race in mind, like Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), could well shine.
Now in its eighth year, the route of the Tour of Oman is a familiar one. The downhill run towards the line on stage 1 at Naseem Park looks certain to be a bunch sprint, but the fast men will be ruled out of contention on the following leg to Al Bustan, which features four categorised climbs, including the stiff Al Jissah. Jungels won there a year ago by powering clear on the descent using a 55-tooth chainring.
The uphill finish at Quriyat on stage 3 was claimed by Edvald Boasson Hagen a year ago, and the finale is tough enough for the GC contenders to show themselves. Stage 4 features three successive ascents of Boucher Al Amerat that will inevitably force a selection before the finish at the Ministry of Tourism.
The general classification question will be decided, meanwhile, on the penultimate leg to Green Mountain, which serves as something of a latter-day Mont Faron for GC men seeking a (very) early test of their climbing legs. The final slopes of the climb are particularly brutal, and after inching his way to second place a year ago, Bardet will aim to go one better this time around. The short final day to Matrah Corniche, meanwhile, will offer the sprinters one final opportunity for stage honours.
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