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When the Tour of Oman first ran in 2010 it was as much a press junket designed to promote the nation as a tourist destination as it was a race.
In the early editions, a local guide would take journalists on cultural excursions, visiting places of significance like the Grand Mosque, which inside features high ceilings decorated in mosaics so intricate they could be mistaken for paintings. There was a trip to a souk where bartering is part of the attraction for ex-pats, and journalists stayed in opulent hotels.
In addition, the goal was to promote cycling in Oman, and at the 11th edition, in which Jan Hirt (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) won on Tuesday, this goal was realized, with an Omani national team competing for the first time.
To say the seven-man team was inexperienced compared to the rest of the field that included seven WorldTour squads and a smattering of Tour de France stage winners, would be an understatement.
“They don’t have a lot of experience. They participated before this tour in two tours only … Before that, they don’t participate,” sports director Mohamed Walid Zemini said.
Added to that was the young average age of the seven riders who started their home race.
“We have four riders under-23 in this team,” Zemini continued.
The squad commenced the tour with a full contingent, aiming to feature in breakaways and achieved that, losing only one man along the way.
Mohammed Al-Wahibi was part of the three-man escape that animated stage one, which Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) claimed. He failed to get across on stage two but was one of seven riders that attacked from the gun on stage six, and led for a time before the race ultimately was decided by a bunch sprint. His teammate Abdulrahman Al Yaqoobi had a concerted crack at making the early break on the queen stage to Green Mountain but couldn’t quite get there, not through a lack of trying.
“It’s very important for the young rider to finish the tour and we make a plan to show our team jersey,” said Zemini.
On Tuesday, the team was among the last to finish the stage, riding together as they had throughout the whole event.
They struggled to keep up with the pace of the race sometimes, and in the climbing stages were often off the back. But they rode together with diligent perseverance, two here, four there, and a team car or race vehicle followed behind.
Even though they knew they were not at the same level as the other competitors they tried to animate the race, and, more than that, they finished it.
On Green Mountain, one rider pulled up past the finish line, his power meter was drenched in either water he’d poured over himself, or sweat, coughing sporadically from the effort.
But it was worth it.
On Tuesday the team, set up at the start under shade, the smell of Deep Heat or a similar sports balm carrying through the air and were all smiles as they posed for photos with their national flag.
“They are very surprised by the level. After [the] surprise they enjoyed being there,” Zemini said. “[They’re] a little bit tired!”
This season the team is set to compete at the Asia Championships before traveling to race in Tajikistan in March, with talk of a visit to one of cycling’s homelands, France, also on the agenda.
They didn’t take home trophies, but the Omani team earned a regular, “Allez, allez, allez,” from the sidelines, and a collective chapeau.