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Cycling’s tour of the Middle East continues this week with the Tour of Oman set to start Saturday.
The five-day race will see Mark Cavendish make his highly anticipated debut in Astana colors, alongside new teammate and two-time overall winner Alexey Lutsenko.
Meanwhile, defending champion Jan Hirt takes on his second event with his new Soudal Quick-Step squad.
Cavendish had a tumultuous winter break after his expected move to B&B Hotels didn’t work out when proposed new sponsors failed to sign along the dotted line.
A late move to Astana-Qazaqstan, which was made possible by the sacking of Miguel Ángel López for his supposed links to a drug trafficking investigation, has kept the Manxman’s career afloat.
While the Tour of Oman has fewer clear-cut sprint opportunities than its sister race, the Saudi Tour, there will still be plenty of opportunities for Cavendish and the other fast finishers to test if their winter training has gone well in a drag race to the line.
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There’s also the new one-day Muscat Classic, which will precede the stage race Friday. The 173.7km has a few lumps and bumps but it will be a day for the sprinters.
Having been parachuted into the Astana-Qazaqstan team so late in the season, Cavendish has had little time to work with his prospective leadout squad ahead of an expected tilt at the Tour de France later this season.
The Omani roads will provide some vital time together, as the team tries to build a train out of a team that didn’t know it would have a top sprinter until less than two months ago.
With Cees Bol not going to Oman after his start at the Saudi Tour, U23 champion Yevgeniy Fedorov is most likely the best option for the team to help guide Cavendish through the churn of a sprint finish. Martin Laas is another rider that has a fast finish that could be converted into a leadout man, while Manuele Boaro also has the power to help.
However, the team will be splitting its loyalties at the race with Lutsenko targeting a record third overall title, after taking back-to-back wins in 2018 and 2019.
Cavendish has twice won a stage of the Tour of Oman, taking a victory in 2011 and another at last year’s event. It won’t be a walk in the park for the Manxman and there are some fast finishers descending on Oman this week.
Chief among his challengers will be Belgian road race champion Tim Merlier, who replaced him at Soudal Quick-Step over the winter. Merlier will be the big favorite in all of the bunch finishes and comes into the road season after a strong finish to his cyclocross campaign.
Pascal Ackermann will also be in town racing for UAE Team Emirates and looking to improve on his third place on the final stage of the Saudi Tour after struggling with illness early on. Meanwhile, Arkéa-Samsic is taking new signing David Dekker, who was once one of Jumbo-Visma’s next big things until he got squeezed out by Olav Kooij.
Keep an eye on Movistar’s Max Kanter and Bora-Hansgrohe’s Matt Walls, too.
Tips for the title
There are two key stages when it comes to the fight for the overall title in Oman. Stage 2 to Jabal Haat will be the aperitif, while the famous Jabal Al Akdhar — or Green Mountain — is the main course on the last day. The first summit finish will set the scene, and the time gaps, for a showdown on the final stage.
After the recent Volta Comunitat a la Valenciana, the Tour of Oman will be the second major test for the climbers in the peloton.
The winner atop Green Mountain is usually the ultimate winner with Hirt breaking away to success on the 5.7km climb last season. Hirt has since moved teams and will have the backup of a fairly strong Soudal Quick-Step squad with Fausto Masnada, who finished third last year, another GC option.
Lutsenko leads the way for Astana-Qazaqstan, while Bora-Hansgrohe brings a mighty climbing team with Emanuel Buchmann, Lennard Kӓmna, and Tour de l’Avenir champion Cian Uijtdebroeks.
UAE Team Emirates boasts Davide Formolo, who will be keen to improve on his second place at the Saudi Tour.
It’s all to play for in this five-day race.
There will be no live coverage from the Tour of Oman, but VeloNews will have all of the latest from the race.