Classics stars play desert poker, size each other up

by Dane Cash


MUSCAT, Oman (CT) — Four thousand miles from Flanders, a handful of cycling’s top classics riders gritted their teeth and dug deep to ascend the gruelling Green Mountain climb on Wednesday. It was never going to be Oliver Naesen or Greg Van Avermaet standing atop the podium at the end of the Tour of Oman’s queen stage, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t eyeing each other.

After all, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is just over a week away. The way the stars of the pavé see it, Oman is the perfect place for a tune-up before the pros converge on classics country. If one wants to win on the hills of Flanders, or on Roubaix’s cobbles, the early season roads are covered in sand.

The lumpy profiles and crosswinds in Oman are major draws with the cobbled races just around the corner, riders told CyclingTips this week. And these warm desert races present “less stress, less crashing, good weather, and less chance to get sick,” as Naesen put it, in comparison to the stage races taking place in Europe this time of year.

The level of competition is an attractive factor as well. It is one that has evolved in recent years. A decade ago, riders pulled up to the start line of an early February race with a hint of the holidays around their waist and lungs unused to effort. Times have changed.

“If you come here, you cannot come as a tourist,” says Dimension Data sports director Hendrik Redant, a classics stalwart during his riding days. “You have to be at, let’s say, 85 percent, minimum. If not, you suffer and you lose.”

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that Van Avermaet, Naesen, and other classics stars, like reigning Flanders champ Niki Terpstra, made the trek to Oman. They took advantage of the chance to put their legs to the test this week—by, and to test the legs of others.

“You saw Greg yesterday was up there [finishing second in stage 4] and he’s been up there a few days now, so he’s for sure where you want to be,” Kristoff noted even before Wednesday’s queen stage. “There was also Naesen in the uphill finish two days ago. He was up there doing a good effort.” Both Naesen and Van Avermaet both finished atop Green Mountain within three minutes of stage winner and race leader Alexey Lutsenko — and looked comfortable crossing the line, too.

It is Van Avermaet and Naesen who have looked the sharpest of all the one-day riders. Neither managed to turn good form into stage wins, but both have held their own on a few tough finishing climbs this week. With the classics on everyone’s minds, their fitness has not gone unnoticed.

Riders sometimes hesitate to admit to sizing up their rivals on the road, often resorting to the tried and true “I’m riding my own race,” but the classics stars in Oman this week aren’t hiding it. This is a great opportunity to scope out the competition.

“Greg and [Niki] Terpstra, yesterday I was always looking around on the climb, wondering how they were,” Naesen said before stage 3. “It’s always interesting to check out how the other guys are. There are always good points of comparison.”

Van Avermaet echoed his compatriot, saying he was checking the results for his fellow classics contenders in the evenings after the race.

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Terpstra is the one marquee name who has generally appeared a bit farther down in the race results this week. He has flown mostly under the radar on both the flat days and the climber-friendly stages. That doesn’t mean anyone is writing him off.

The Dutchman has never had Van Avermaet’s climbing legs or Kristoff’s sprint. His skill set is more specifically tailored to the roads of Northern Europe, and rivals expect him to be there when it counts in the coming weeks.

“Oliver was really strong yesterday and Greg is strong, we know. Terpstra, for the moment he doesn’t show it, but we know his attitude. He’ll be ready for the classics,” CCC sports director Valerio Piva said Wednesday.

Former Milano-Sanremo and Tour of Flanders winner Alexander Kristoff got on the board early, sprinting to a stage victory on the opening day of Oman. Only a handful of fast finishers made the trip this year, with next week’s UAE Tour set to host the lion’s share of cycling’s top sprinting stars, but Kristoff can at least be content that he is in fine finishing form ahead of the classics. That could come in handy as Kristoff aims to add another Sanremo title to his palmares next month.

The same can be said for Bahrain-Merida’s Sonny Colbrelli, who snatched a sprint win of his own in stage 4. The Italian counts three top 10 finishes in Sanremo to his name. He told reporters that his time has come, and a big win is due.

Fans won’t have long to wait to find out just how well the Omani tune-up pays off for Terpstra and the rest of the stars of the pavé. With the notable exception of Kristoff, who is headed to the UAE Tour this weekend, most of the classics stars in Oman are bound for Europe within the next 48 hours.

The Tour of Oman finishes Thursday. “Opening weekend” gets underway in Belgium next Saturday, March 2.

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