There are a handful of times throughout each year where cycling fans are treated to two great races a day. This season we’ll see Scheldeprijs clash with Pais Vasco, the Tour of Britain boldly take on the Vuelta Espana and, of course, a World Tour battle between Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. These are usually enjoyable occasions with deliberately spaced out start times allowing for maximum enjoyment and the potential for double viewing. I turn to March 10th 2016 for an example; Zdenek Stybar bounced up a finale in Pomarance and a short while after Nacer Bouhanni took out a stage of Paris-Nice. I had picked out both riders hours before and landed by far the luckiest bet of my life off a meagre £0.75 stake (see bottom of this post).
Steering this preview back on track, next week we’ll be refreshing live feeds for not one, nor two, but three races peppered with top World Tour talent. Both the Vuelta Andalucia and Volta ao Algarve kick off on Wednesday, one day after Arabian racing continues with the Tour of Oman. Here’s my picks for the race.
The Tour of Oman GC will be heavily moulded by one big mountain named Jabal Al Akhdhar (or, to give its unsophisticated English name, Green Mountain). It’s a fine spectacle for early season stage racing and its rudimentary nature encourages an old fashioned free-for-all. Oman promises other exciting days so long as conditions behave and we don’t have a repeat of the rider refuge of 2015. There are plenty of punchy climbs on Stages 2, 3 and 4 and the race will undoubtedly be won by a climber. I’m a big Fabio Aru fan but even I doubt the slow-starting Astana leader will contest next week. Instead, these are my guys:
The Winner – Romain Bardet 6/5
Last year Romain Bardet finished nine seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali on Green Mountain jumping up to second in the GC where he stayed for the rest of the race. He’ll start this year as favourite and with good reason. The Oman startlist looks weaker than in previous seasons; there’s no Froome, Nibali, Contador, Porte or Van Garderen. Bardet and Aru are the only two riders worthy of the title of ‘elite level GC rider’ and of the two all signs point to Bardet. The Frenchman has experience in Oman and is expected to do big things this year. He’s a far more accomplished all-rounder than when starting out as a neo-pro and the lack of an ITT puts things very much in his favour.
The Contender – Rui Costa 11/2
I’ve bet on Rui Costa so many times in my life and he’s hardly ever won. That’s the problem with being good-enough-to-come-fifth in nearly every race you enter. However, the dwindled Oman startlist gives the UAE Abu Dhabi leader a real chance. His big advantage over Bardet is the seven days in the saddle he had in Argentina last month. He impressed when winning on the mammoth Alto Colorado and may fancy his chances of reversing the 30-second deficit he suffered on last year’s Green Mountain stage. I also expect he’ll be active on the middle stages and has the explosiveness to chase time bonuses. Costa hasn’t won a GC since 2014. Could he be about to change that?
The Outsider – Merhawi Kudus 9/1
I am a huge fan Merhawi Kudus. I’ve long since thought he was the most exciting African prospect from the MTN-Qhubeka pipeline. Over the last two years he’s been out-performed by teammate Louis Meintjes but he’s collected some impressive results on seriously hard mountain stages. He was brilliant in Andalucia in 2015 and completed a solid Giro/Vuelta double last season. The Tour of Oman – Green Mountain in particular – strikes me as a good match for the young Eritrean. If he can improve on last year’s ride he could find himself defending a podium place. The shorter climbs pose more of a test and I’m hoping he’ll be looked after when things get messy.
Look Out For – Colbrelli, Jungels and Enger.
Sonny Colbrelli had a nightmare in Dubai. He was a pre-race contender for various honours but crashed late on day 1, punctured on day 2 and saw a sandstorm take away the stage he was most looking forward to. Nevertheless, in spite of all this he claimed a third place finish when sprinting home behind John Degenkolb on a brutal day’s racing. Things can only improve for him in Oman and he could be a serious contender on Stage 2.
Bob Jungels won the opening stage of Oman last year setting up a wonderful breakthrough season. The Luxembourger started this season in Dubai and looked magnificent when single-handedly towing along the peloton whilst working for Marcel Kittel. He should be set free next week and I’ll be surpised if we don’t see him animate the race.
Lastly I’d like to give another shoutout to AG2R’s Sondre Holst Enger. Four stages went to Norway last year and Enger could add to that tally if he brings his best form to the opening stages. The sprints in Oman are the sort he should be targeting.
Stage Previews in Seven Words
Stage 1 – A long descent to a certain sprint
Stage 2 – A sharp climb close to home; breakaway?
Stage 3 – Flat with an uphill finish; time gaps?
Stage 4 – Repeat of 2016; Ministry of Tourism loop
Stage 5 – Time for Green Mountain. Big summit finish
Stage 6 – Back to the coast. Another bunch sprint
Last year’s lucky double…