Is Oman the most interesting, scenic and just plain wonderful place I’ve ever been to on earth? Iʼm not sure yet. What I am sure of is that itʼs not exactly the land of lush, verdant forests, cascading waterfalls or humming, vibrant valleys of emerald green. However, it isnʼt Qatar, which is probably the reason this place looks so lovely.
Not to get too down on Qatar. Itʼs a fantastic place of you like realizing just how many shades of beige there are in the world, and if you like all that beige to be pancake flat with wind thatʼll whip your hairline back ten years in a single minute. After racing there all last week we (I speak for the peloton, I’ve polled them…) are thankful for a very well-run, well-raced event, but are also pretty happy to change locale.
And so to Oman we were whisked, to epic cliffs, towering red mountains, beautiful ocean and a very classy resort situated just a few km outside the capital, Muscat. If you look around a little Muscat is a pretty cool place. In the cavernous souk you can buy a ceremonial dagger and a local outfit for about $50. Both make very nifty souvenirs. Set.
All in all, being out here in Oman and Qatar is pretty darned awesome. To be riding bikes around the desert with some of the finest proponents of the sport, in Arabia — ARABIA! — is incredible. One of the greatest experiences of my life, to be honest.
On to the racing… Day 1 was stressful, or rather, the build-up to it was, as somehow the vast majority of our team wear had been left behind like a dirty afterthought at the Ritz-Carlton in Doha, leading me to beg a pair of shorts from the one guy on the team who had a spare pair. Anyone whoʼs ridden a stage race — well, any race, come to that — will testify that added stress is not really necessary before the event starts. However, in my limited experience as a racer on a variety of teams, it seems The Management generally strive to keep you on your toes by throwing a wrench in the works along the way.
Lining up amidst picturesque municipal buildings in Muscat, it hit me that within the space of about ten days I had become accustomed to standing on the line with the likes of Cancellara, Boonen, Cavendish, Schleck and Chavanel near me, and with Eddy Merckx starting us off. Just last week I was slack-jawed at the buffet in Doha when Spartacus walked past me with a bowl of Rice Krispies. Now it all seems so… well, nah, it isnʼt normal is it?! Itʼs out of this world.
Iʼm meandering again, so, let’s get to the action. I wanted to attack on Stage 1 from the gun as I reckoned the pack would be content to let one go. We have Jai Crawford here for the GC but the parcours for the first stage presented no danger and I had a green light to try. The bike would have none of it, though, and a jammed chain 500m before the neutralized zone ended out paid to my hopes of short-lived and grubby fame.
Stuck in the pack and with all content to let the break dangle at 5 minutes, riders started chatting and joking around. A peloton is a great place to meet people, actually, when youʼre just dawdling along, and though I donʼt like to name-drop (well, not much), I had a nice chat with Tyler Farrar about various stuff.
You know whatʼs funny? The vast majority of the ʻstarsʼ are really down to earth and will chat with you happily about all sorts. I donʼt know if itʼs because they are stars that they have sort of done the ego thing and can relax, or if it is because they were down to earth in the first place that helped them in some way tap their potential on the bike. Either way, the only real snooty attitudes you come across (remember, we are a Continental team in a Big Team race) tend to come from guys you’ve never heard of.
35km to go (of the 160), we had a left turn around a roundabout ahead. After being given several very stern lessons in positioning in Qatar, I was determined to fight for a place here, and I did, moving up into the top thirty on the right into the corner, only to come to an abrupt halt due to a pretty bad crash.
Head down and chasing like mad I just managed to get back on to the pack. Once there, I rode behind Joost Posthuma and Andy Schleck (the junior Schleck sits on the pedals in such a way that he seems to be weightless — itʼs something to behold). The finish was a little weird with no team really taking control, and I finished in something like 75th position, just 3 seconds behind a small group containing the winner Greipel.
No worries! Either I was getting better or it was an easy day, I wasn’t sure.
Day 2 clarified any uncertainty. Day 1 was, indeed, an easy day…
Up at 7am, we headed to Muscat Port to board a pretty plush speed boat that whisked us two hours down the coast to the start. I sat behind Fabian Cancellara and Eddy Merckx (what did I say about name-dropping?) which was, well, you can guess. I look at Mr Merckx and I just canʼt quite believe that I am in the presence of The Greatest. I try not to stare but… heck man, there He is!
Quite why we were taken 2 hours down the coast is unknown, for not too many folks came to see us off. The pace from the start was exciting enough. We absolutely barreled it for about 20km or so at close to an average of 60km/hr, until a quartet went clear.
The parcours for the day looked not too challenging — how wrong that presumption was. After sitting quite happily near the front for the first 90km or so and protecting Jai as best we could, we hit a hill that had me going backwards fast, my legs feeling like jelly. This was not good. Scrambling back on to the increasingly speedy peloton, we then turned off the main road and onto the last 30km.
Again, on paper it looked not that challenging, just a few small hills, but the reality was far different. When we reached a climb that went up at about 9% average for 2km and had a nasty switchback, well, I knew I was in for a beating. There are days when the head gives in, no matter how decent the legs, and then there are days when the legs go first. Today was the latter. The heart was willing but the legs said ʻthank you, but NO!ʼ and buckled, ironically enough, at the very top of the climb.
The gap appeared. One meter. Two. Twenty. Thirty, and on and on. 80 or 90 riders ahead. I pedaled in with a Farnese dude who decided it would be fun to try to drop me. He didn’t, but he definitely learned some new English curse words, that is for sure. Man they go fast up those hills, these WorldTour fellas. Sagan won in impressive fashion.
Five km to go for us grovelers and up ahead appears the Rainbow Jersey. Riding in with the World Champion.
Did I say this all had become normal? Ignore that…
17 years after stopping racing as a junior in England and traveling and working around the world, Lee Rodgers started cycling again 4 years ago “to lose a bit of weight” and now rides for UCI Continental team, RTS Racing Team, based in Taiwan. He works full-time as a journalist and part-time as a cyclist.