finale at sea
tour of oman stage 6 - ending
It is rather fitting that the start for today’s stage is at the Almouj Muscat, a luxury development along the coast. It’s viscerally Western, as though dismantled in Willow Creek, California around 2009 and re-erected here, in Oman. As a development it is utterly planned, like living in a mall. There’s a Baskin Robbins, a Cinnabon, a Starbucks. The buildings are named after Spanish towns. Expats with leathery skin unsuited to this climate wander around waving British and Norwegian flags. Whether or not they’re part of the oil managerial class is a sucker’s bet.
Still, this is the modern Middle East, part of a global society. If we started the first day of this Tour of Oman at an ancient fortification meant to keep others out, it makes narrative sense for today to begin, well, today, in the outsiders’ world. This week has seen a rich smattering of culture, and right now that includes consumer culture, too. It’s a reality that can’t be extricated from the country — Oman is not locked up in a permanent state of historic cosplay repurposed for consumption by tourists who come to this part of the world snooping around for the exotic. Real people live here and work in real industries.
As we depart, signs along the road promise more luxury condos. Along the beach, on one side of the road, are mega mansions in the Western style and on the other, one can find the same primitive cabanas we saw on stage two. Make of this what you will. The inevitable break forms. Seven riders. They will all be caught. Today is a day for the sprinters: Groves, Gaviria, Cavendish. Stage six was supposed to be Cavendish’s day in the jersey, but when we show up at the start it’s on Fausto Masnada’s back. It turns out that yesterday, after his crash, Cavendish hung on to the medical car three times in order to get back and was docked nine points in the sprint classification. In order to regain the jersey, he needs to win today, full stop, lest the prize go to Fernando Gaviria. Formally speaking, today’s stage is really a kind of rondeau recapping the rest of the week. We never really leave civilization, and we end up traversing some of the same terrain again — the highways, the limestone foothills, the Al Jissah climb from stage four (of Mauro Schmid descending fame). Hence, owing to this and my considerable exhaustion after publishing over two thousand words every single day this week, today’s entry will be brief.
As we exit the wealthy part of town, pet stores pack several shopping centers and two men working on restoring the dome of a mosque stop their re-tiling to watch the race. In the part of Muscat this road empties out to — in between the coast and the Mall of Oman — everything is being built up with great fervor: mid-rises, large houses, commercial buildings. Some are buildings without streets, constructed in the middle of rubbly nothing. Others are waiting for their inevitable neighbors. All are made from concrete. I’ve never seen whole swaths of land — acres and acres — under construction before. Their concrete stories seem strangely naked, their rebar half poking out as columns wait to be formed so that they may support simple ceilings or floors. Many of these are made not from singly cast concrete but from cinderblock. I can’t help but think that a single earthquake would wipe out everything. But there are no earthquakes here.
All this construction is progress — cultivated, encouraged, beloved. One has no right to become indignant about it, especially on behalf of strangers. In this way, I understand how Thesiger felt regarding the erosion of traditionalism, one we Westerners are inherently complicit in. But these new baubles — the resorts, the giant malls, the office buildings and apartments — are also part of Oman; the aspirational part. They are the bright, highly technological, service-based future. This race is about cultural heritage, but it is also about selling the sport to Oman and Oman to the sports’ audience. Having spent a week here, I think it’s pretty effective at both, especially the latter. I’ve seen landscapes and architecture I would have never seen otherwise, and I’ll walk away from the experience with the distinct sense that I am more learned about the world and more well-traveled than before. While older Americans first learned about the Middle East through Lawrence of Arabia and bedtime stories from Arabian Nights, people of my generation, who were children during a time of unhinged jingoistic Islamophobia, serve to greatly benefit from actually experiencing the Arab world and its hospitality, its warmth, and its richness of culture. Oman, owing to its unique historical stability, is perhaps the region’s best ambassador.
Back in the race, I’m counting the hours of Vitamin D I have left before having to go back to Chicago where it is -5 degrees celsius and grey and snowy. I remember that my hair froze on my way to the train station to go to the airport. I roll down the window to take photos of our breakaway and as I do, the air smells heavily of petroleum. A glance to the side, and there are oil tanks lining the highway next to an oasis. At this precise moment, prayer song rings out even over the chasm of the six-lane road and the attendant incomplete condominiums. Machinery stops to listen. The aural juxtaposition of screaming cars and melismatic chanting is jarring but poetic.
We get word over the radio that there’s been a crash, but we don’t hear who’s involved over the sirens from the police escort. Finally, we pull off a ramp and pass through the old town of Al Hamriyah. At the turn of every corner, spectators flood the streets, linger in their shop windows, peer out of aged buildings, watch as this circus makes a whirlwind of their lives for just a moment. The climb after is surprisingly steep, but thankfully it’s not too long. When we reach the top, we see the expanse of the old town nestled in the valley, boxes of white and beige with the road snaking through them, quiet for now. Until the race comes.
Up the climb, Team DSM’s Kevin Vermaerke takes a big kick, trying to split the race apart for his team and maybe collect some time on the general classification. It’s a last ditch effort and for a while he’s away. But the sprinters have none of it. Their teams pull him back, just as they pull back the initial breakaway not long after, just as they will pull back whatever escapees try their luck before the final circuitous loop through the Matrah Corniche. When we get to the finish, we see the sea up close for the first time. It’s translucent blue, lapping the concrete berm in small waves. Now we wait.
When the men pass under the finish line the first time, out front, there’s still Gazprom RusVelo’s Dmitri Strakhov on a late-stage flier. By the time everyone comes around the second time, Strakhov’s been caught, and half of the men are split into a second group. They’re chatting amiably, simply punching their time card on a day like this. The Oman National Team, all of whom have had a brave showing all week (including two breakaway runs by Mohammed Al Wahibi), finish together in a pack behind the rest. I learned yesterday that these men had only raced together as a team three times prior and that their earlier races were only eighty or so kilometers long. That they were able to stay with the best in the world day after grueling day shows immense promise for the future of Arabian cycling. When they finally get lapped, they’re smiling and waving to the fans, who shout Oman! Oman!
The bell tolls. It’s the final lap. We wait. Cavendish, Groves, or Gaviria. It’ll be one of the three. It’s absolutely insane how fast a sprint finish happens. I’ve said this several times already but it’s something I never get used to. They’re riding down a straightaway at speeding-ticket pace. It’s only after Gaviria raises his arms do I realize he’s won. I blinked again.
Gaviria’s UAE Team Emirates’ teammate Ryan Gibbons walks me through the sprint at the finish line with the kind of photographic memory all lead-out men have:
It was quite chaotic, quite twisty, also a block headwind and lot of cat's eyes and speed bumps and that sort of thing. So that's always a bit gnarly. Bike Exchange took it on. There was a lone DSM rider, which we caught about 500 meters to go. Then with about 500 meters to go Richeze just guided Fernando and Fernando pulled it off nicely. We couldn't be happier.
Cavendish shakes his head as he pulls up to the soigneur. It turns out, he got boxed in by Maximiliano Richeze, something for which Richeze will be later disqualified. Gaviria later points out that the same thing happened to him on stage two. “That’s bike racing,” he says. He’s right. It is. And now it’s over.
It’s been a highly competitive six days, and in the heat, most of the men are happy they’re over. Mark Cavendish avoids the finish like the plague and heads straight toward the team car. Bike Exchange’s Kaden Groves, who finishes second, answers questions for television off in the distance. The young Dane from Uno-X, Anthon Charmig, who perhaps thought he’d held enough time to keep the wolves at bay after his stage three victory, looks even younger in his white jersey. The wolf in question, Fausto Masnada, waits patiently to accept his second place prize, chatting with Rui Costa, who took third. Euskaltel Euskadi’s Peio Goikoetxea, our combativity winner, sits on a bench and dons a kuma cap, grinning for the camera, more than pleased with his birthday present and his newfound and well-earned notoriety. He hopes this showing will enable him to later compete in his “beautiful” home race, Itzulia Basque Country, which he calls “a dream.” Finally, there’s Jan Hirt, and he’s smiling, beaming from ear to ear, his shoulders relaxed, the sea breeze ruffling his blonde hair. There’s a new confidence to him after he’s taken not only a stage win but the GC as well, a good omen for Intermarché Wanty Gobert, a team that seems to have thrived after their arrival to the World Tour.
The men chat amongst themselves, mixing languages. They talk to reporters. They wait to go home, and finally they get the signal. Our winners, one by one, climb back on their bikes, take a corner, and pedal leisurely toward their rented team busses for a final time. In the words of the ceremony announcer, proclaimed deliberately and dutifully every afternoon as each contestant took his place on the podium: Well done. Well done.
derailleur would like to thank the Amaury Sport Organization and the Omani Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth for the opportunity to apply our unusual approach to cycling journalism to the 2022 Tour of Oman. We also want to acknowledge our press car driver Denis Leproux, without whom this newsletter would be a lot more boring.