As predicted, the action on Stage 1 didn’t kick off until around 30km from the finish. Aided by a headwind, the morning break was caught on the opening slopes of the Al Hamriyah climb, setting the stage for a flurry of attacks.
The peloton, though, finally splintered entirely on the difficult penultimate climb of Al Jissah. A notable straggler was Alexander Kristoff, who would not be holding on to contest the sprint. But more remarkable was the disappearance of Richie Porte, who was quickly trailing the head of the race by over a minute; from the very first day in Oman, it was certainly not going to be Porte’s tour.
Over the last climb, the race was headed by an elite group of strong climbers, including all of the favourites (save for Porte): Fuglsang, Jungels, Pauwels, Bardet, Boasson Hagen, Dumoulin, Costa, Nibali, Pozzovivo, and others. It was going to come down to power and descending skills, and Bob Jungels had them both. Jungels, who later announced he’d been targeting this stage for some time, made a kick at around 2km to go. His threat wasn’t taken as seriously as others, which allowed him to surprise the G.C. men by opening a gap. By the time the other riders realised he was pulling ahead, it was already too late, and the stage was his for the taking. Bardet and Pauwels both attacked in the final few hundred metres, taking second and third on the podium.
The usual breakaway went early on Stage 2, and not much happened until they were reeled in at around 20km remaining; this would be a stage for the G.C. riders and the classics men, who were targeting the uphill finish.
The bookies and pundits alike were picking Dan Martin for this stage, not least because of its Ardennes-like finish. But Martin, surprisingly, was dropped in the run up to the final climb up to Quriyat, eventually losing 1:41 on the stage winner, and all hopes of winning the general classification. A real shock, and a real shame.
Team CCC drove the pace towards the climb, with Davide Rebellin in mind for the finish. As the group reached the ascent, though, it was controlled by Dimension Data and Astana, who were looking out for Edvald Boasson Hagen and Vincenzo Nibali. Yesterday’s winner and race leader Jungels was quickly distanced as the road went uphill, but Etixx still had hopes in his teammate Brambilla. BMC looked strong, with Daniel Oss and Greg Van Avermaet steadily climbing alongside riders like Dumoulin, Pozzovivo, and Bardet.
In the final hundred metres, Pozzovivo showed signs of form by having a dig for the line, taking with him the elite selection of Nibali, GVA, and Boasson Hagen. As the road plateaued, it was clearly going to come down to the strongest uphill sprint, and that could only be the superstar Edvald Boasson Hagen. Few had predicted he would win before the stage, but as the race whittled down and showed signs of being a bunch sprint, he was clearly the man for the job. He swung past Nibali and Pozzovivo in full sprint mode, and took another stage win for Dimension — and another day in a general classification jersey.
Stage 3, in comparison to 1 and 2, ran a lot more smoothly and much more predictably. A break went away from the gun, thanks to the efforts of an enthusiastic Kenny Dehaes from team Wanty. But dark clouds gathered as the race headed inland, and there was soon a little rain on the riders — which was probably taken as a reprieve, given the harsh desert heat they’ve been riding through for weeks now. Dehaes took the intermediate sprint, and then the peloton upped the pace. As they headed back out to the coast, more thunder and rain greeted them.
The break, doomed from the start on parcours like this, gave up the ghost with around 10km to go. The finish was fast and furious, and the sprint was a mess. However, you can always count on one man to thrive in a cluttered sprint finish, and Alexander Kristoff once more shot out of the chaos and found a clean line up to the finish. He won the race by a bike length, ahead of an impressive performance from Moreno Hofland.
Stage 4 brought with it the ominous form of Green Mountain, the peak that dominates the horizon in the tour, this year and every year since its introduction in 2011. Four years ago, Nibali had won the race atop Green Mountain — could he do the same again in 2016? Spoiler: yes.
Davide Cimolai and Daniel Oss kicked off the action of the day, breaking away after 10km and taking a merry band of 8 more riders with them. They very quickly found a stable four minute gap, and that’s how it was to remain: every rider knew that things were going to come to a head on Green Mountain, and no one worked too hard to make the catch, or, in the break, to stop themselves being caught. When they did finally make it to the foothills of Green Mountain, there was only a minute back to the peloton.
Eduardo Sepúlveda, having recovered after a crash on stage 1 (which left his pride dented more than his body) attacked first, and forged a gap for himself out front. Nibali, Fulsang, Bardet, Dumoulin, Kudus and Boasson Hagen worked hard to reel him in, and, when they did, it was Bardet’s time to pounce, at 3km to go.
Bardet was chased by Nibali, and it was going to come down to either the Italian or the Frenchman for stage glory. They both ‘sprinted’, as much as a human can, up the final few hundred metres of sharp incline, but Nibali had the most left in the tank. Crossing the line 9 seconds ahead of Bardet, and over a minute ahead of the lead jersey wearer Boasson Hagen, Vincenzo Nibali once more proved he’s got what it takes to win an early-season climb.
Stage 5 offered the most exciting and promising profile of the race. It was rolling and lumpy from the word go, and finished with the triple ascent of the Bousher Al Amarat climb. It was also the best breakaway we would see all week, with Van Rensburg, Weening, and Houle working hard to stay away. They managed to keep abreast of the chasers right up until the last two kilometres, and it must have been heart-breaking when they finally realised the stage wouldn’t be theirs to fight over.
Things heated up in the pack on the second ascent of Bousher Al Amarat. Van Rensburg dropped Houle, leaving him trailing between the leaders and the peloton in a physically and mentally exhausting no-man’s land. Ag2r, meanwhile, kept the chasing pace high, and the peloton was shelling riders all the way up the climb. This dynamic continued down through the valley, and all the way up the final ascent.
Towards the top of the last climb, Bardet once more made a go of it, but Fuglsang quickly caught his back wheel and pulled him back to the pack. After that, attacks came thick and fast. A heroic last, late attack from Dumoulin, Bennett, and Costa looked good at first, but as they reached the flat they were swamped by a group of thirty or so riders, and, as the last two breakaway men were caught, the stage was set for another hectic bunch sprint.
None of the all-out sprinters, like Kristoff, had made it over the climbs at the head of affairs, so things were looking just about right for our triple-acronym duo of GVA and EBH. Edvald Boasson Hagen was set up brilliantly by teammate Nathan Haas, and even Greg Van Avermaet’s full-speed sprint couldn’t stop the Norwegian from taking his second win of the tour. Even with the time bonus on offer, it wouldn’t be enough to overthrow Nibali’s G.C. leadership. But Dimension Data have plenty to smile about coming out of the Arabian tours this year. Marco Canola took third, some way behind Van Avermaet.
Stage 6 was more of an after event or epilogue than a final stage. There would be little or no shift on the general classification, and it was set to be a traditional sprint on the line. And, giving what we’ve seen so far this year, there was only one man in the peloton who could take it.
The — somewhat cursory — breakaway riders were reeled in as the peloton reached the finishing circuit on Matrah Corniche, with team Katusha quite understandably taking the most active part in the pursuit. The red train formed at the front on the final lap, and it began to look more like a Katusha training drill than the final stage of a tour: Kristoff duly shot off the front, emphatically out-sprinting all other competitors, and took his fifth stage win of the year. Not bad, for mid-to-late February.
Vincenzo Nibali last won an early season G.C. at the 2010 Tour de San Luis. That was also the year of his first Grand Tour win, in La Vuelta. A good omen for the Shark of Messina? He looked comfortable throughout the Tour of Oman, and only Bardet was forcing him to respond to attacks on the climb. Training this year for the Giro, Nibali looks in a good way now, but will have to keep this form throughout Trentino and the Tirreno-Adriatico tour.
Romain Bardet himself rode excitingly, and was a return to the rider that wowed the world at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné and at Le Tour. He’ll have to work hard, though, to try to string these sorts of performances together for three weeks if he wants to tackle a grand tour any time soon.
Tom Dumoulin showed that his Vuelta was no fluke. He may not have been in the form of his life this week, but he was never far from the head of the race either, and managed an impressive early-year fourth place — and on a tour without a single kilometre of time trial, either. He’s already said that the Olympic time trial is his goal for the year, so it’ll be interesting to see how he treats the Giro, for which he’ll be rider as Giant-Alpecin team leader.
Edvald Boasson Hagen: what can you say? We don’t want to tempt fate, but this could really be his year. He might make all the difference for Mark Cavendish if Milan-Sanremo ends in a sprint this year. And when we hit the cobbled races, you’d be foolish to overlook Boasson Hagen. He suits the Ronde van Vlaanderen, with its bergs, a little better than the power-fest that is Paris-Roubaix, but he must surely rank amongst the favourites for both. Don’t be surprised to see him hit at least one podium, if not better.
Meanwhile, Greg Van Avermaet has been consistent in every way, including, unfortunately, in being consistently overshadowed by EBH. Both riders have come into some extraordinary form at the same time, and both display a similar range of skills: hard uphill kicks to the line, never far from the best in even flat sprints, and able to work their way up some of the tougher mountains, too. Along with Boasson Hagen, GVA will be around to light up the classics season this year.
The two riders most tipped for G.C. success in Oman, other than Vincenzo Nibali, both blew it by stage 2. Richie Porte and Dan Martin were sadly disappointing this week, and neither got up to any action after they respectively blew up on stages 1 and 2. Perhaps they really were both out to get the kilometres in the legs ahead of their bigger targets this year, but if not, if they had come here with designs on making the podium, then it will be a worry to both their teams. For now, let’s be generous and forget about their time spent in Oman this year, and look forward to their next appearances.
And finally, Alexander Kristoff. Kristoff found himself unchallenged in the two flat sprints this week. He was only around for those two stage finals, and he took both with ease. What can we expect from him this year? Well, an excellent classics campaign. He has shown in the past that he can cope, with relative ease, with the longer days in the saddle, as well as the rougher weather and cobblier roads. His first test will be Milan-Sanremo, now tantalisingly close. If the race ends up being won by attackers over the Poggio then Kristoff might be out of contention. But if he holds on, and a small bunch makes it over for the sprint, then we are surely looking at a serious contender in Kristoff, especially as the similarly-built John Degenkolb will be absent. Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan watch out.