Tour of Oman 2014: stage six - five observations
Final observations after the third and final race in the desert draws to a conclusion
The final day’s racing in Oman brought to a close pro cycling elite’s excursion to the Middle Eastern deserts.
Though some of the WorldTour’s top riders have chosen Europe to gear their preparations for the spring, many others have snapped up the chance to log the miles and enjoy the hot weather racing offered by Dubai, Qatar and Oman.
BMC Racing, Lotto-Belisol, Team Sky and Omega Pharma-Quickstep have all enjoyed profitable months, with overall success and numerous stage victories between them.
Indeed, the indomitable Lotto-Belisol train was at it again on the final day in Oman, setting Andre Greipel for his third win of the Tour.
But what have we learned? See our final musings on the Tour of Oman over the following pages, and add your own in the RCUK Forum.
[part title="Tejay van Garderen"]
BMC Racing have enjoyed a fine start to the year. Cadel Evans was a stage winner and second overall in the Tour Down Under, Taylor Phinney and Steve Cummings led home a BMC one-two in Dubai before the Wirral ace won the Tour Mediterraneen and Tejay van Garderen continued the profitable early season for the American team with second in Oman. The 2012 Tour de France best young rider showcased the form which saw him ride to second place on the Alpe d’Huez at last year’s Tour by beating the likes of Rigoberto Uran and Joaquim Rodriguez to the summit of Green Mountain.
Only Chris Froome bettered the American and it was another timely reminder of van Garderen’s prowess. The 25-year-old, fourth at Paris-Nice and third at the Criterium International last year, is just one of several potential leaders for BMC Racing come July and the Tour de France. It is too early to be making predictions for the Tour, as we discussed after stage five, but van Garderen – like Cummings, Phinney and Evans before him – will certainly be encouraged by his first taste of competitive action this season.
[part title="Greipel in green"]
Having dominated the sprint finishes in Oman – and for much of the early season in fact – it was fitting to see Andre Greipel wrap up his green jersey with another dominant kick for victory in the final stage. As bunch sprints go, it was as keenly contested as ever but once again the Lotto-Belisol train – who had pulled hard on the bunch all day – got its just reward with another stage win. The sight of the Gorilla in the green jersey is certainly one they will hope will be repeated come the podium in Paris.
But, just as Peter Sagan – a two-time defending champion of the maillot vert - had fired a warning shot with his stage victory the previous day, another warning flare was being sent up from the Algarve. Mark Cavendish belatedly secured his first victory of the season on the final stage and the Manx Missile will be looking to build on that now as he gears towards the summer.
Sagan has proved when the road goes up – at least for a short period – he is not phased and will once again be favourite for the green jersey. But if it comes to racking up the sprint victories, Greipel is in top form, Marcel Kittel proved his own form with a hat-trick of wins in Dubai and now Cav is off the mark too. Sprint finishes are thrilling, high-octane spectacles under normal circumstances. Maintain this form, and they will be unmissable come the summer.
[part title="Bouhanni the bridesmaid"]
Since winning the second stage of the Etoile de Besseges, Nacer Bouhanni’s sprint record this month has been second, fourth, fifth, third, and second. Having ended the last WorldTour season as the best man in Beijing, Bouhanni is in danger of becoming the bridesmaid this season. FDJ.fr have proved themselves to be more than capable lead-outs – see Arnaud Demare’s victory on the final day in Qatar for proof – but Bouhanni’s early season form has been no match for Andre Greipel and co so far.
But write off the Frenchman at your peril. Beijing last year proved the French team are quick learners when it comes to perfecting their sprint – after peaking far too soon on day one, they re-gathered and propelled Bouhanni to consecutive victories over the following two days. Lotto-Belisol’s sprint train prowess has made them almost unstoppable so far, but the one chance the French team was presented with to beat them in Qatar, they seized. Bouhanni, at just 23, has proved already he is far more than just a perennial contender. Last year brought 11 victories, a more than attainable target again this time out.
[part title="Second tier, first rate"]
Former Giro d’Italia boss Michele Acquarone shared his vision for pro cycling’s future with RoadCyclingUK over Christmas, with one of his proposals being a clear divide between top tier and second tier racing – ProTeams ride at WorldTour level, second tier teams ride the second tier races. It is a plausible suggestion – and certainly one means of cutting the fixture congestion we spoke of earlier in the Tour. But such suggestions would rule out the elite riders racing in Oman – a 2.HC-classified race – and on this week’s evidence, it would be a big loss.
Unless it was upgraded to WorldTour status, which given the elite field on show and the varied parcours devised would not leave it out of place, the race would be relegated. As there is currently a complete lack of live television coverage, a place at pro cycling’s top table seems unlikely too with the UCI classing depth and breadth of coverage as a key factor in their decision for classifications. Nevertheless, some enthralling stages and a GC only decided on the penultimate day mean despite its second tier status, Oman delivered a first class race. That the likes of Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali chose the race as an important part of their build-up to the season tells you all need to know.
[part title="Desert kings"]
The WorldTour’s return in March kicks off with the ‘Race to the Sun’, Paris-Nice, but the desert sun has prompted its own fair share of stunning performances this month. From Taylor Phinney following up a superb time trial with a stunning sprint – bettered only by Marcel Kittel – in Dubai, to Chris Froome blasting up Green Mountain, it has been a month of high quality performances from some of the WorldTour’s elite in the deserts.
Tom Boonen’s mastery of the Qatari crosswinds – both in support of Niki Terpstra and then to seal victory for himself – was brilliant to watch, while the at-times unstoppable Lotto-Belisol sprint train deserve all the plaudits heading their way. Kittel, too, provided a sprinting masterclass in Dubai, and Peter Sagan reminded everybody why he is a serious contender this spring with stage four victory in Oman.
Below the top tier, Preben van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) impressed with his willingness to join the break in Oman, while Bardiani-CSF ensured their lime green jerseys received plenty of attention. As debuts go, Skydive Dubai will have enjoyed their first showings too. Over the course of the season, with bigger races to come, such performances are likely to slip from memory, but for the time being they all full deserve their moment in the sun.