circuit of madness
tour of oman stage 4
It’s one of those days where the stage takes over all other things.
For the past few days my process has been thus: I fill up at least five pages in my notebook with extensive notes and scenes, and then type up and edit them when I return to the hotel. Today forced me to stop being a tourist and start being a cycling correspondent. As a result, this entry is shorter than others — and it focuses not on houses or landscapes or other forms of color writing but on the bike race itself, which is, for all intents and purposes, almost won.
However, thankfully for the reputation of this newsletter, there is still some color to write about. On our way to the start, we pass through the smaller city of Al Humriyyah, which is older than the glitzier parts of Muscat we’ve been visiting and returning to via the road by the airport. It’s interesting to see Omani buildings that are so clearly from the seventies and eighties, in fact, they share a lot in common with ones from the West. More modernist in their architecture, some even have brutalist overtones, featuring heavy foreheads and irregular slat-like windows. Functional and severe, they’re painted either white or beige as is required by law for heat abatement purposes. There’s no effort to hide their AC units, because when they were constructed, having AC was still considered a status symbol in this part of the world.
The city’s urbanism is different too, with proper streets and parks and squares, all green from extensive irrigation. Lawn care workers — truly a job that for thousands of years did not exist in the desert — lounge beneath the shade of palms after a morning’s work. The mountains here are greener too, with sage-colored grasses and small pink wildflowers blooming from rock. While this city is more regimented than the newer ones that sprawl in whatever direction, like all development in Oman, it ends as quickly as it begins. Our highway forms a chasm through two types of mountains: one teeming with grasses and the other bald and crumbly. That’s how fast geology changes around here. We begin the day at the Jebel Sifah beach resort. This is the Western-style luxury I expected to see more of on the coastal shores of stage two. The resort feels strangely empty, maybe because it’s still only February. Compared to the quaint little towns we’ve passed through to get here, the tasteful white towers seem somewhat out of place in terms of sheer wealth.
I spend the morning speaking to the young American cyclist Kevin Vermaerke, which is convenient because he ends up being very important later in the stage. After, we gather by the press car and wait for the race to start. Because it’s going to be full gas early on, we gun it to the first KOM sign, thankfully passing through the towns again. They’re not really towns in as much as they’re tiny enclaves, interludes. One coffee shop, one general store, and small aging houses, humble and weathered. One of the towns near Khairan beach, an inland tidal lagoon, truly feels like the “real Oman” bereft of lavish houses and under-construction mid-rises and malls. Locals stand outside their homes and stores and watch us pass. Long-haired goats wander about aimlessly, shepherded by men in turbans and well-loved long shirts. When we come across the lagoon (or is it a bay?) I’m so used to the desert that the water is both a welcome and deeply unnatural sight. It’s blue and transparent and still, as though waiting patiently for the slightest breeze.
At the beginning of the stage, we drive aimlessly waiting for the break to form, however this time we hear nothing because it’s a hard, fast start, and we need to be up on the top of the first climb early on. Hence we go out of range of the race radio. We’re flying blind. When we get out of the car, it’s deathly quiet until the race comes for us, the helicopter whirring in the distance. I don’t have data when I’m out of the hotel in order to save on my phone bill, so I’m entirely dependent on visual observation and the race radio. We wait an eternity for the riders to scale the climb. When they emerge, there are three of them, and herein lies the first iteration of today’s drama.
The three riders in the breakaway are Michael Kukrle, the Czech national champion from Gazprom RusVelo, Euskaltel Euskadi’s Julen Irizar, and Bardiani CSF’s Samuele Zoccorato. Upon seeing them, It immediately becomes clear to me what’s happening here. I didn’t mention it in yesterday’s dispatch, but Zoccorato was in the breakaway in that stage as well. When he comes over the top of the Al Jissa climb (the first of four), he sprints for it with Irizar and wins. Zoccorato is after our erstwhile hero Peio Goikoetxea’s gold combativity jersey1 and Irizar is there to keep Zoccorato away from it on behalf of Goikoetxea himself. This is the first arc of an eventful stage.
We get in the car before the peloton can catch the breakaway, which is so small and so powerless, even though it has a minute’s gap, it’s almost certainly doomed. When we drive back into the city, we can watch something else unfold. The climb has split the peloton into three groups with a handful of seconds between them. Team DSM brings the gap down to ten seconds, and then the break is caught. We’re back in Al Humriyyah, but theres no time for architectural sight-seeing. The race blows up.
I’m still, even after the fact, not exactly sure what happened here. At some point, the second and third groups converge back together. First there are eight riders out front. Then five more. Then there’s only Mauro Schmid. He is burying himself to make things difficult for the enemies of his leader Fausto Masnada. Other than Schmid’s lead, hovering around thirty seconds, it’s complete madness. One group will counterattack, another will catch them. The names include favorites like Rui Costa and Søren Kragh Andersen. The only constant right now is that Schmid is out front, and he’s being chased down. For ages, that’s truly all I know. We park ourselves near the crest of the Al Jabar Street climb, which the riders will pass through three times. We can find out what happens from that vantage point. It’s time for lunch. Even journalists have to eat.
It’s a decent wait for the boys to come up the mountain. In fact, there are several of them in the first group: Mauro Schmid, Elie Gesbert, Schmid, Kragh Andersen, Joan Bou of Euskatel, Vermaerke, and Kevin Vauquelin of Arkea Samsic. Then the peloton. One of the odd benefits of eating your lunch in a feed zone is that the riders literally throw bottles at you. I collect no fewer than six bidons standing on the side of the road. One of them just happens to have Fausto written on the top of it. Perhaps it’s an omen. In Oman. Sorry. Meanwhile, most of the sprinters have already given up for today and they come by in small groups of six or so. Then there’s considerable anticipation as we, informationally in the dark, wonder when the riders will come back down the other side of the climb so that they may repeat the circuit. When they do, at first there’s only one of them.
It’s Mauro Schmid.
Twenty seconds later, everyone else follows.
Waiting in the feed zone has swallowed up a tremendous amount of time on a very short stage, and we basically have to go full gas in order to get ahead of the race before the riders make it up the final iteration of the climb. We’re out of range of the race radio and know nothing once again. Finally the speaker crackles as we roll back into Muscat and weave through traffic and a series of embassies to get to the finish. Zoccarato has attacked again. He really wants that jersey. Then silence. Then, Fausto Masnada, Fausto Masnada, Fausto Masnada has eight seconds, ten, fourteen seconds. Wait, what happened to Schmid?
We get out of the car and are plunged back into the sea of ignorance. If we want to know what’s happening we will have wait at the finish line and see for ourselves. A few minutes later, a lone figure emerges from around the corner. It’s Fausto Masnada, who hasn’t won a bike race since his stage in the Giro in 2019. Last I heard he only had fourteen seconds. After he crosses the finish line with an impassioned SI!!!!!! We begin counting. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Thirty. Forty. Fifty. Fifty five seconds until the rest of the pack shows up, and who else wins the sprint for second but a certain Swiss ex-car mechanic who’s put on a hell of a show for all of us. While tomorrow may be the queen stage, it’s today’s chaotic lumpy parcours that’s ended up being the true GC day. And judging by Masnada’s brilliant grin as he and Schmid embrace, it’s been a fun day for Quick-Step AlphaVinyl as well.
If this seems like a very incomplete race report, I hope it’s given you a taste of what it’s like covering a bike race without cell phones and cameras and all the trappings of infrastructure such as that found in the Tour de France. In order to put the story together, it requires a couple of interviews at the end. I’ve decided to end this article by reproducing snippets of them here so you can read for yourself what transpired and compare my earlier observations with the cyclists’ accounts to see how they line up.
Fausto Masnada (QuickStep AlphaVinyl):
I tried with Mauro, my teammate, to make really an amazing race. He was in front for all the time. And he did a perfect job to help me in the final. We arrived at the top of the last climb with seven, eight riders. We kept the distance. I know that was the critical point to try to attack cause I'm quite good on descents. So I just tried one time and it was the correct time to try to attack. And then I pushed until the finish line to try and get all the time possible.
Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM):
After that second climb, it was super cat and mouse on that big highway, with everyone looking at each other. I took a flyer and tried to get up the road a bit and got in a small group that I think had like 30 seconds at the bottom of the climb. That was just enough for me to get a bit of a head start, make it over with the top GC guys. We had Henri [Vandenabeele] up there as well. Then, over that last climb, it was a small group. I was just on my limit and got a little boxed in during the sprint and yeah, Henri tried to do what he could to lead me out there.
It was quite hard. On that bump, after 30 or 35 kilometers, DSM, they wanted to do something and they went full gas over the top and it was quite hard. I was sitting on fifth wheel and tried to not let them go because our goal was to keep in control of the race and not let the big teams go away. So on the decent there we tried to keep the pace high and for one moment I was alone and then I continued. I wasn't going full [gas] because I knew it's still a very long way to the finish. I just held a pace that was quite comfortable, tried to get as aero as possible. And then I basically waited ‘til some guys joined me and when the other guys came, we weren't really riding together so good, but we tried to keep riding. For me it was just a goal to survive, [to] at least [finish] the second climb in front. [After, we] made it really hard second time up the climb because that forced the peloton to chase harder. [Then we] tried to get rid of some guys, to bring Fausto in a good position. I could hang on since they were not riding together at the back. I managed to stay in front until the second or third time on top of the mountain. When Fausto attacked, I had to stay in the wheels and make sure that the others don't chase, that nobody gets away. Then I had still quite good legs and a good sprint for second.
Consider this brief entry a testimony to how hard it must have been to cover bike racing in the 1960s.
Of the jersey, which is pretty much guaranteed to be his, Goikoetxea was in good spirits at the finish. He said afterward, “I've worked all these years for the team and now the protagonist is me. For me, it's amazing."