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Desert roads: with Bahrain Merida at the Tour of Oman

10 Oct 2018

This article first appeared in Issue 74 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Jeremy Whittle Photography Pete Goding

There are no air-conditioned team buses or heavily branded, high-powered team cars at the Tour of Oman.

It may be organised by ASO, promoter of the Tour de France, but as the race convoy chugs its way into another dusty car park, dotted with Land Cruisers, high-end bicycles and WorldTour stars, you wouldn’t know it.

Over in the car park’s Bahrain Merida ‘corner’ – that’s the only word for it – the team’s bikes, sandwiched between giant slabs of foam, are being lifted from a battered flatbed truck.

A gaggle of goats bleats mournfully from inside another flatbed nearby. Multiple Grand Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali, stony faced behind his shades and seated on a plastic garden chair, takes it all in. Marginal gains it ain’t.

The early-season flurry of desert racing is important for the Bahrain Merida team, both for their 2018 campaign and for their sponsor, which may explain the former Tour de France winner’s presence here in February.

It’s important for Nibali too, who’s short of miles and form. At least it’s hot and sunny, the roads used for racing are new, pothole-free and flawlessly surfaced, and the hotel is five-star.

Sitting in the shade by the hotel pool the previous afternoon, Nibali had pondered his slow start to the season, which includes a first-time tilt at the Tour of Flanders in April.

The Italian is a rarity in modern Grand Tour champions. Not only has he won the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, but he has also conquered one-day races such as his national championships, and autumn Classics such as the Tour of Lombardy.

‘You’re a little bit old school,’ I suggest as he discusses his year’s targets, ‘because you’re riding Flanders, the Tour, then some other Classics…’

The 33-year-old shrugs: ‘I like the look of Flanders. I thought I’d have a go.’ He freely admits he knows nothing of the race beyond what he’s seen on TV.

‘I’ve never done it, but it’s a beautiful race, with a special atmosphere, huge crowds who wait all day to see the race. And I want to show that I can be more than a Grand Tour rider.’

There’s another less whimsical reason, which is that it gives the Italian a chance to test himself on cobbled roads, which might just stand him in good stead for July’s Tour de France, a race he hasn’t ridden since 2015.

‘I’ve missed the Tour,’ he says. ‘I’m looking forward to it. I know the stage on the cobbles will be special. It’s a different peloton to the one in Paris-Roubaix, which is full of specialists.

‘The Tour stage will have all the climbers and team leaders – it’s completely different.’

‘That’s the thing about Vincenzo,’ says team PR officer Geoffrey Pizzorni later that afternoon. ‘He’s open to different ideas, to doing things in a different way.’

Cruise control

The Tour of Oman’s fleet of well-worn Land Cruisers, more suited to off-roading in the desert than weaving through a sea of carbon and Lycra, arrives at the start area for Stage 3 by Muscat’s German University of Technology.

Pizzorni has put Cyclist in the box seat alongside directeur sportif and Slovenian ex-pro Gorazd Stangelj for the stage to the spectacular Wadi Dayqah Dam, out in the middle of nowhere.

As the riders drift back from the sign-on, mop-haired Manuele Boaro goads his boss, sliding a hard-boiled egg under the windscreen wipers.

Stangelj rolls his eyes. It seems he isn’t really in the mood.

It’s been a difficult morning. The coaches bussing the riders back and forth from each stage start and finish didn’t show up, which meant that the already packed Land Cruisers were crammed to the gunnels with bikes and spare wheels, cool boxes and team staff.

Bahrain’s Grand Tour-winning superstar, Nibali, had to squeeze in with all the others.

There’s the usual chaos of team cars edging towards the start line before we’re off, rolling towards the highway and taking our place in the hierarchy.

Boaro, still playful, offers his DS a bottle of ice-cold watermelon juice he’s snaffled from someone, somewhere in the roll-out.

The Bahrain Merida Land Cruiser is car number five in the convoy, thanks to Nibali’s position on general classification.

As a result we’re handily placed to watch the race unfold and to see the comings and goings of everybody from Mark Cavendish and Greg Van Avermaet to Nacer Bouhanni and Alexander Kristoff.

Stangelj is soon on the radio describing what’s coming to his riders. Immediately after kilometre zero, a break of four drifts off and disappears into the desert haze.

Nobody seems bothered enough to chase. The sun is high in the sky and it’s already 28°C.

In his day Stangelj was a durable pro, a national road race champion for Slovenia who plied his trade for Lampre and Astana, among others.

‘I don’t miss racing because I’m still involved,’ he says. ‘I ride sometimes, but there’s a lot of traffic on the roads. It’s getting difficult for the riders when they’re training.

‘I was talking to Giovanni Visconti this morning and he said that in Tuscany now you can’t ride two abreast – you need to ride single file the whole time. And even then you have to be careful.’

As the day continues, the temperature rises into the 30s. For many, the best thing about the series of desert races in Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi, given the uncertain alternatives in Andalucia and the Algarve, is the reliability of the weather.

Van Avermaet flies past after a comfort break, looking so strong that, unlike his peers, he doesn’t bother to jump his way from team car slipstream to team car slipstream. He just sprints alone, back up to the bunch.

Boaro drops back to the car for bidons. He stuffs half a dozen into his jersey, while Stangelj and I talk about Nibali’s decision to race in Flanders.

It soon emerges that the Slovenian may have been more than a little influential in Nibali’s decision. ‘It’s the most beautiful race in the world,’ he says of the famed cobbled Classic.

The radio crackles into life. While the race has been a welcome addition to the WorldTour fold, there is an undercurrent of a culture clash and the convoy needs to be reminded of some ground rules.

Riders are asked, not for the first time, to ‘relieve themselves’ out of sight. Later in the week, female team staff and members of the media showing too much skin in the desert heat are asked to cover up.

But then this is Oman, not France or Spain.

The peloton hits the first obstacle of the day, the steep hairpins of Al Jabal Street. Antonio Nibali, brother of Vincenzo, comes back to the car and takes eight bidons for his teammates.

Near the top of the climb, Borut Bozic slides back to the car from a soft-pedalling peloton for more.

‘He’s not really a climber,’ says Stangelj with a wry smile as Bozic sweats his way back into the bunch.

With the break five minutes down the road, Astana director Dmitri Fofonov pulls alongside and exchanges greetings and some small talk with Stangelj. There’s a pause.

Fofonov smiles and suggests to Gorazd that maybe Bahrain Merida should work to chase down the break. Stangelj’s response is blunt.

‘No,’ he says. ‘We worked yesterday.’ But then he knows too that Astana, like his own riders, have designs on the day’s tough uphill finale. Fofonov shrugs and slips back into the convoy.

Out in the desert, the landscape becomes ever more arid and remote. ‘Where’s this road going?’ asks Stangelj. ‘There’s nothing out here. All we have seen are two donkeys.’

The perfect blacktop continues across the desolate landscape, rolling towards the horizon. ‘Maybe they built it for the race,’ I say.

‘Yes!’ Stangelj says, ‘that’s it – they built it for the race!’

The break motors on between the burnished hills. With 100km ridden and the peloton cruising, Stangelj starts playing music from his phone down the team radio to relieve the tedium.

Boaro loves it – and then starts singing along. After a couple of minutes, the voice of one of his unamused teammates comes down the line. ‘Basta, bastardo!’

The mercury rises still further and Gorka Izagirre asks for ice. There’s some rummaging in the back of the Land Cruiser before crushed ice, crammed into a plastic bag, emerges for the Spaniard.

The irrepressible Boaro is soon back alongside and, clutching the ice bag, sets off yet again, in pursuit of the rear end of the bunch.

‘Easy, easy,’ Stangelj tells him as the curly-haired Italian hammers the pedals. Within minutes, he returns. This time, he takes another eight bottles back to his teammates. 

The heat rises

After a soporific trundle through the desert, the 30km to go marker appears and suddenly the speed lifts and the convoy jolts itself into a state of urgency.

Boaro is on the radio. He has a flat on his front wheel. Because the roof racks on the Land Cruisers – unlike those on the usual team cars – are too small to take complete bikes, easily snatched from the roof and handed over, a minor panic ensues.

Instead, they have to go ‘old school’ and change the wheel, not the bike. Even so, it’s done in 20 seconds flat and, one sticky bottle later, Boaro is safely back on the tail of the peloton.

Stangelj scans the riders as they curve through a descent ahead of us. ‘Where’s Vincenzo?’ he asks. ‘A posto,’ comes a disembodied reply – the former Giro, Tour and Vuelta champion is ‘in position’.

But it’s Astana and BMC who are crushing the pedals as the peloton heads deeper into the run of climbs leading to the Wadi Dayqah Dam.

When the bunch turns onto the initial steep ramps, one of the first to pedal squares is Cavendish, who plods slowly up the sharp gradients alongside Katusha-Alpecin’s Viacheslav Kuznetsov.

Ahead, there’s another explosion of pace. Stangelj drives past the former World Champion and, with riders spread across the road, has soon passed half of the shattered peloton.

Over the top of the climb the dramatic approach to the Wadi Dayqah Dam is revealed. Huge glowering peaks rise up in the distance as the ribbon of tarmac rolls up and down through the barren landscape.

BMC, Astana and Bahrain Merida accelerate in the fight for pole position on the road for the final steep ramp to the finish, but the rollercoaster approach proves too much for some – among them Bryan Coquard, stage winner on the opening day of the race, who is reduced to a red-faced crawl.

In the end, for all his encouragements to his riders, there’s nothing Stangelj or his team can do to stop the powerhouse that is Greg Van Avermaet from stomping uphill to victory. Izagirre crosses the line fourth.

It hasn’t been Bahrain Merida’s day, but with Van Avermaet firing on all cylinders and the Tour of Flanders looming on the horizon, it maybe gives Nibali some perspective.

Besides, there’s still the Tour of Oman’s real summit finish to come, at Green Mountain on Stage 5, a place where Nibali has won before.

Later, sitting in the hotel lobby back in Muscat, we watch the highlights of Van Avermaet’s win. The previous evening Stangelj and his riders had repeatedly watched the same finish from 2013, won by Peter Sagan.

‘It’s all about the final corner,’ Stangelj says. His disappointment is clear as he studies the clip of this year’s finish again.‘We were too far back,’ he says in frustration, watching a trio of BMC riders powering out of that final bend and up the ramp to the line.

Now the gaps have widened on the general classification, and Stangelj knows his team’s chances of taking the initiative on Green Mountain are slim.

But there is a glimmer of light. ‘Gorka came from really far back,’ he says of Izagirre as we watch the finale for the umpteenth time. And what of Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez, touted as race favourite by some?

‘Maybe he’s not so strong,’ he ponders. ‘He was on Rui Costa’s wheel and he dropped back.’

He heads off to the dining room for a team debrief. Sometimes, he admits, it can be tough holding the attention of a bunch of young riders obsessed with their phones.

For a moment, he sounds like most modern parents as he bemoans the constant obsession with screens. It irritates him, he says.

His riders are asked to hide their phones away, at least during dinner and team meetings. Does it work, I ask?

‘Well, we try,’ the Slovenian shrugs. 

The road to San Remo

A few weeks later, Nibali’s underwhelming performance in the Omani desert – and particularly on the steep slopes of the Green Mountain (where he manages only 16th) – is long forgotten as the Italian emerges from the rainstorms to attack on the Poggio and claim a momentous win in Milan-San Remo.

He crosses the line, arms aloft, and is mobbed by hysterical compatriots. Coming two weeks before the Tour of Flanders the timing couldn’t be better, and his performance is hailed as historic by the home nation.

It’s a million miles away from the plastic chairs, bleating goats and arid desert heat of February in Oman.