Tour Down Under 2014

18-23 February 2014

After finishing Dubai Tour and Tour of Qatar, the peloton now continues its Middle Eastern exhibition with Tour of Oman. This is the most demanding one of the three races, regarding uphill kilometers, and usually the race finds its overall winner on the top of Green Mountain.

In 2013, Chris Froome won the race and continued on amazing quest to conquer the Tour de France five months later. Tour of Oman was the first overall stage race win for Chris Froome and he’s now back, hoping to repeat last year’s performance.

There are six stages in Tour of Oman, covering a total distance of 915.5 km. The first two stages are made for the sprinters. Stage 3 and stage 4 both include a climb close to the line, and we might see the GC riders try a late attack to get an early advantage. Stage 5 is the Queen Stage of the race. The final 5.7 km towards the top of Green Mountain have an average gradient of 10.5 % and this is where the final battle will take place. Stage 6 is parade stage for the sprinters, meaning it will be a huge surprise to see the leader’s red jersey change shoulders at the end of the stage.

The sprinters
We have quite a lot of fast riders participating in the race. However, the three expected bunch sprints will most likely come down to a fight between Peter Sagan, Nacer Bouhanni and Andre Greipel. The German Champion has been in great shape since Tour Down Under and it will be a surprise not to see Greipel win at least one of the three sprint stages. Nacer Bouhanni won a stage in Etoile de Bessèges in the beginning of February and he seems to be in good shape as well. Bouhanni is a former boxer and that shows in his way of sprinting. His idol is Mike Tyson and it didn’t take long for his rivals to learn not to box in the fast Frenchman. For Peter Sagan, Tour of Oman brings back good memories. He has taken his first win of the season in Oman the last two years, and he’s now hoping to make it three in a row. On paper, Sagan has five opportunities to shine in this race. Especially stage 3 and 4 suit the Slovakian very well.

Usually, we see a lot of surprises this early in the season. Greipel, Bouhanni and Sagan may be the three favorites for the sprints but should they miss out, there are plenty of sprinters ready to seize the moment. Ben Swift, Alexander Kristoff, Leigh Howard, Francesco Gavazzi, Sam Bennett, Barry Markus, Tony Gallopin, Filippo Fortin and Daniele Bennati are all on the start list. Tom Boonen is here too. Tornado Tom was superb in Tour of Qatar last week and I’m looking forward to seeing how he will perform in the bunch sprints in Oman. We won’t get as much crosswind in this race as in Qatar and it will be interesting to see if Boonen still has what it takes to beat Greipel in a regular bunch sprint.

The GC contenders
Last year, we had an outstanding line up for the overall classification with riders like Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Vincenzo NIbali. The year, the field is not nearly as strong as in 2013 but we still have many great GC riders in Oman. Naturally, Chris Froome is the number one favorite for the overall win. He doesn’t have the same kind of pressure on him this year. Still, he knows it will make his start to season a lot easier if takes an early win. Dario Cataldo, Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve are ready to support Froome on the climbs but despite a strong team - and less of the top GC riders on the start list - it won’t be easy for Chris Froome to repeat last year’s overall victory.  

There are many strong contenders for final podium. Former overall winner Robert Gesink, last year’s winner on Green Mountain Joaquim Rodriguez, Giro d’Italia runner up Rigoberto Uran and Grand Tour stage winners like Leopold König, Thibaut Pinot, Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Dani Moreno and Domenico Pozzovivo. Not to forget Tejay van Garderen, Jurgen van den Broeck and the Schleck brothers.

Froome’s rivals
Belkin has high hopes for Robert Gesink in Tour of Oman. The Dutch climber showed good legs in Tour Down Under when he finished 6th overall after a strong performance on Willunga Hill. Gesink won on Green Mountain in 2011 and it will be interesting to see how he will perform against Froome and the other GC contenders this year. Leopold König is another very interesting outsider for the overall classification. NetApp-Endura got a wild card to the Tour de France this year, and they are eager to show they deserve that invitation. König is aiming at the overall classification in Tour of Oman and I think he will do very well.

Katusha brings an extremely strong team to the race. They actually have riders fit for winning any of the six stages. Alexander Kristoff for the sprints and Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez for the hilly stages. The two Spaniards are good friends and recently just tested the legs in training on one of their favorite climbs, Coll de La Gallina in Andorra. Earlier this year, Rodriguez said he wanted to win at least one stage in Tour of Oman 2014. He knows Green Mountain very well and I think he will be tough to beat on Saturday. On paper, stage 3 and 4 are perfect for Dani Moreno. Unfortunately, Moreno had a nasty crash in December. He’s still suffering a bit and it might be too much to expect him to win races already.

My personal outsider is Domenico Pozzovivo. The pint-sized Italian climber aims big at the Giro d’Italia this year. He started out strong in Tour San Luis with a 10th place overall and he now hopes to improve the good results in Oman. Last year, Pozzovivo worked hard for teammate Rinaldo Nocentini and still managed to make Top10 overall himself. This time, Pozzovivo is Ag2r’s designated leader and anything but a Top5 place overall will be a surprise the way I see it.

Considering the last couple of races, it wouldn’t be fair not mention Omega Pharma Quickstep. The Belgian team has been outstanding in the beginning of the season, bagging six wins already. Most of the winning squad from Qatar are hear, joined by triple cyclocross World Champion Zdenek Stybar and Rigoberto Uran. The Colombian climber made a decent debut on Mallorca finishing 14th and 20th in the last two races. Uran has been training in Colombia during the winter. His first target this season is Tirreno-Adriatico but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does well in this race already.

This year, the French hope for the overall classification is Thibaut Pinot. His teammate Kenny Elissonde was the big surprise of last year's edition, finishing in 6th place on Green Mountain and 8th overall. However, this time Elissonde finds himself as super domestique for Pinot on the climbs. Still, stage 1 of Tour of Oman will be Pinot’s only second race day of the season and it’s difficult to say how well the Frenchman will perform when the peloton hits the climbs. If Pinot is not ready, I'm sure Elissonde will be.

UPDATE: Thibaut Pinot never started Tour of Oman. He woke up with fever Tuesday morning. This means, Kenny Elissonde most likely will be the team leader again this year. Look out for the French climber on Saturday's stage to Green Mountain.

What about Nibali?
You might wonder why I haven’t named Vincenzo Nibali among the GC contenders in Tour of Oman. It’s simply. While it’s true that the Italian will in fact start the race, it’s highly unlikely that he will finish it as well. Nibali’s wife Rachele Perinelli is due to give birth to the couple’s first child on February 20, and Nibali won’t miss it for the world. Therefore, we can expect Astana’s team leader to leave the race after just a couple of stages - depending on the situation at home.

Look out for…
There are many interesting young riders in Tour of Oman this year. However, if I were to pick out only one, it would be Sam Bennett. He made Top10 on three stages in Tour of Qatar last week and he will get plenty of chances in Oman as well. Not only is Bennett fast on the line, he’s also good on the small climbs. Stage 3 and 4 looks very well suited for the Irishman and he could easily be one of the revelations of the race.

To finish off this preview, let’s have a quick look at the six stages.

Stage 1

Tour of Oman - Stage 1
This is a stage for the sprinters. The majority of the final 90 km are downhill, and anything but a bunch sprint will be a surprise. There is tricky right turn in a roundabout with about 2.5 km to go but except for that, this stage shouldn’t trouble the riders. The final intermediate sprint is located with 16.5 km to go and if the peloton is together at this point, we might see some of the GC riders try to steal a few bonus seconds. There are 3, 2 and 1 seconds up for grabs in the intermediate sprints and 10, 6 and 4 seconds on the finishing line.

Favorites: Andre Greipel / Nacer Bouhanni

Stage 2

Tour of Oman - Stage 2
Another stage for the sprinters. The final 5 kilometers seem pretty harmless. Again, there is a right turn in a roundabout with about 2.5 km to go but it’s nothing that should affect the final outcome of the stage. A speed bump with less than two kilometers to the line could shake up the peloton if some riders are not paying but hopefully everybody stays upright.

Favorites: Andre Greipel / Nacer Bouhanni

Stage 3

Tour of Oman - Stage 3
This is the first time we’ll see the GC contenders in the front. The climb of Al Jissah has an average gradient of 9 % with its top just 6.5 km from the finishing line. Last year, we saw the some of the overall favorites try to get away over the top of Al Jissah. However, in the end nobody could do anything against Peter Sagan. The Slovakian wonder boy blasted past everybody else on the fast descent and ended up taking an impressive solo win in Al Bustan. The 10 bonus seconds on the line mean the GC riders can’t afford to have a bad day. We should be in for a great fight all the way to the line.

Favorite: Peter Sagan

Stage 4

Tour of Oman - Stage 4
Last year, Chris Froome took a surprising win on this stage. On the final time up the climb of Bousher Alamrat, Joaquim Rodriguez and Chris Froome caught and joined Alberto Contador in front. The trio managed to keep the chasing group at bay and in the final sprint, Froome turned out to be the fastest of the three climbers. In 2013, this stage came after the Queen Stage to Green Mountain and Froome pretty much had the race bagged already. However, this time the race is still wide open at this point and with an extra time up the climb of Bousher Alamrat, it will be very interesting to watch the GC riders attack each other.

Favorite: Peter Sagan

Stage 5

Tour of Oman - Stage 5
Stage 5 is the Queen Stage of the race. This is where we will find the overall winner of Tour of Oman. The final 5.7 km towards the top of Green Mountain have an average gradient of 10.5 %. Last year, Alberto Contador put in series of strong attacks but had to see his compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez win the stage. Chris Froome waited a little too long to chase down Rodriguez but when he finally did so, nobody could follow him. In my opinion, Froome’s way of dropping Contador and Nibali on Green Mountain was only seen more powerful that year when he attacked on Mont Ventoux in the Tour five months later. If you don’t remember Chris Froome’s acceleration on Green Mountain, click here to watch it again. It’s simply outstanding.

Favorites: Chris Froome / Joaquim Rodriguez

Stage 6

Tour of Oman - Stage 6
The final stage of Tour of Oman is another one for the sprinters. It ends with three laps on a circuit of 7.5 km. There is a few tricky twist and turns on the way toward the finishing line but the final 2 km shouldn’t trouble the riders. Last year, Nacer Bouhanni won this stage and he will be eager to repeat that performance. His teammate Arnaud Démare won the final stage of Tour of Qatar last week, and we might as well see Bouhanni finish off this race in the same celebratory style.

Favorites: Andre Greipel / Nacer Bouhanni

For coverage of the race, go to steephill.tv.