Vincenzo Nibali was tranquillo at a press call for the biggest names in the Tour of Oman, which starts today with a new stage at Bayat Al Naman Castle.
The Tour de France winner looked impressively lean for February as he prepared for his second Middle Eastern race of 2015, having made his season debut at the Dubai Tour.
Nibali was in relaxed mood and played down his chances in a race where he has previously won atop Green Mountain: the Tour of Oman's focal point and the conclusion this year of stage four.
The Italian champion tipped the Spaniards Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, citing Purito’s previous good form on the 10.5 per cent climb and the number of racing miles already accrued by Valverde. The Movistar leader will start his fourth race of the season today, and his third ‘desert race’ in succession.
The absence of Chris Froome, winner of the last two editions, will not dent the quality of the field assembled in Oman. Race organisers ASO have played upon the connections with last year’s Tour de France, with some justification. All of the jersey winners in Paris will roll out today: Nibali, the maillot jaune, green jersey winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), FDJ’s Thiabut Pinot, winner of the maillot blanc, and king of the mountains, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo). Even Alessandro DeMarchi (BMC Racing), overall winner of the combativity award, is present in Oman.
For Tejay van Garderen, Green Mountain represents an early opportunity to inflict a psychological blow on his Grand Tour rivals. “You can get a psychological edge on some of your competitors,” he said. “If you have a good ride, you can say you put in the work in the winter. It’s always good to be on the front foot, rather than trying to catch up. That’s the way I like to see it.”
For the American, now undisputed leader of BMC Racing for the Grand Tours, following Cadel Evans’ retirement, the Tour of Oman represents a perfect way to begin 2015, and an attractive alternative to the traditional season opener.
“It’s a good way to transition into the season,” he continued. “You have good weather, big roads, and it’s better than slogging it out like those guys did in l'Étoile Bessèges in freezing temperatures.”
The Tour of Oman is already into its sixth edition and the start list includes an impressive roster of former stage winners. Sagan leads the way with four victories, with Edvald Boasson Hagen, returning to Oman with MTN Qhubeka, on two. Katusha's Alexander Kristoff, a winner of three stages at last week’s Tour of Qatar, will be strongly tipped to add to his tally of just one stage in Oman, but will face competition from fellow sprinters and previous single stage winners Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Matt Goss (MTN-Qhubeka).
Three stages are expected to end in a bunch kick and here too the Tour of Oman field boasts real talent, with Kristoff perhaps heading the list of those most likely, and Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon18) eager to prove that his emphatic victory on the final stage of the Tour of Qatar was no fluke. Adam Blythe was consistent in Qatar, producing four top ten finishes from six stages and will seek a win to convince Orica-GreenEDGE that his second chance in the WorldTour is justified.
The two new stages are flat, including today’s aforementioned opener, a 161km run from Bayt Al Naman Castle to Al Wutayyah. Stage three, a 158.5km loop starting and finishing at Al Mussanah Sports City, will represent further opportunity for the sprinters.
Stage five might offer a surprise. Saturday’s 151.5km run from Al Sawadi Beach ends with five ascents of the 355m climb of Bousher Al Amarat, the descent from the last of which will tee up a fast finish which last year saw Sagan overcome Nibali’s bid for victory.