the treacherous caravan
tour of oman stage five
Last night, it rained.
When we depart the hotel in the morning, we pass brown water collected in curbsides and other impermeable surfaces. There are still clouds disintegrating above, gray and ragged. We pile into a bunch of oversized SUVs, unable to take the press van this time because it doesn’t have four wheel drive. Where we’re going, we’ll need it. The SUVs are surprisingly new. The further one ventures from the cities, the older the cars on the road. It’s not uncommon to see cars from the 1990s or 2000s. Even the rentals doled out to each team and those used by the race officials are at least ten or fifteen years old. However, they are well taken care of, running without a hitch. On the smaller highways, one can find quite a few body shops and parts suppliers, their signs reading Sale of Parts for Used Cars. The sand has absorbed some of the water, and is darkened and saturated. Dampness lingers on unpainted concrete walls, and I understand why there are deep drainage slats running along the highways. Everything around is a bit greener. Seabirds wade in puddles. I’m glad I’ve gotten to see what it’s like after it’s rained here.
Today is the queen stage of the Tour of Oman, ending on Jabal al Akhdar, the Green Mountain. Jabal al Akhdar is the foremost geological and political boundary of Oman. Historically, it separated Muscat and its coast, under the rule of the Sultanate, from Oman proper, the interior of the country governed by a religious institution called the Imamate — that is, until a rebellion in the 1950s over British oil exploration deposed the Imam and consolidated all of Oman under one ruler.1 Still, much that is mystical about Oman lies in this region beyond the Jabal al Akhdar: heroic tales of Bedouin tribesmen, the great Arabian sands, the purity of the Ibadi faith as the central element of all social life.
However, even by the time Wilfred Thesiger made his travelogue Arabian Sands in the 1940s, these ways of life — nomadic, tribal, ascetic — had already disintegrated. The Bedouin tribesmen existed within the political and cultural framework of Oman because the desert was uncrossable without them — they knew how to read everything about it, from the tracks of enemies’ camels to the current comings and goings of raids and the complex, ever-changing alliances; all this in times when information took days to acquire. As Thesiger put it, the Bedouin existence was one which “…produced much that was noble, nothing that was gracious.” For thousands of years, this was the case. For thousands of years, the only way to travel across the Empty Quarter or deep into the mountains was with the Bedouin by camel, well into the twentieth century. And then, within the timespan of a few decades, all temporal, political, and geographical boundaries disintegrated and collapsed. The country shrank beneath the girdle of the automobile. Camels became mere livestock, no longer beloved gifts from God. Bedouin tents became concrete houses. The other side of the Green Mountain, once a sacred barrier, became a resort town Princess Diana was known to frequent.
Once we leave the hotel, we make our way through the crumbly sandstone strata, appearing as though chipped away by some unknown force. Our cars form a caravan along the highway heading toward the mountains in the hazy distance, a modern iteration of a type of journey now all but extinct. Aging settlements in a small oasis pass by the side of the six-lane highway, attended to by an old fort atop a hill. Next to it, a strip mall and an office building being serviced by a small army of air conditioners. (This juxtaposition is a little too on the nose even for me.) Shell, KFC, McDonalds, we speed by all of them at sixty miles an hour. There’s construction everywhere; the sounds of machinery penetrate the senses with the song of the new. For miles parallel to us, the authorities are building a pipeline of some sort, most likely for drainage or irrigation. After the cloverleaf off the highway, we arrive at the starting place, the Al Feyhaa Resthouse which I suppose is the Omani equivalent of a travel plaza, but more hotel-like. We put our belongings in the press car. A long afternoon is promised to us.
At the start, it is tense and I won’t have time to do any long or meaningful interviews. On days like this, decisive and brutal days, the intensity of focus among the cyclists is omnipresent and palpable. The men gather themselves and prepare for their hardship. Even the more relaxed riders are tense in their shoulders and nervous in their eyes. This is something I remember from the Grand Tours: on big days, the flatness of the answers is directly proportional to the steepness of the climbs. This may be a smaller and shorter race with less perilous stakes, but those stakes are higher for our current race leader, Fausto Masnada, who can taste victory and is as parched for it as the desert was for last night’s rain. After collecting couple of curt quotes about the stage and the final climb, we set off.
I swear the air smells different, tastes different, after the rain. One is made aware of just how dry conditions have been for the last few days, perhaps the driest I’ve ever experienced, drier than Spain in the summer, so dry that the barest hint of moisture makes the lungs thankful. The freshness is similar to that experienced when one opens all the windows in the house after a long winter. While it is still hot, the heat comes from the sun, not the surrounding air. We get word over the airwaves that the riders are at kilometer zero. It only takes a few minutes for a break to form, and the Omani riders have missed it again despite their valiant efforts. The break composition is as expected: riders from Bardiani CSF (Luca Rastelli), Bingoal Pauwels Sauces (Laurenz Rex), Burgos BH (Angel Fuentes), Novo Nordisk (Filippo Rudolfo), the always aggressive Euskaltel Euskadi (Antonio Angulo), and finally one of the young heirs to the Vinokurov cycling dynasty, Nikolas Vinokurov (Astana Qazaqstan Development). Neither Zoccorato nor Goikoetxea are in any way interested in hashing out the combativity prize on terrain such as this.
The towering mountains flank us from the right, made blotchy by great shadows from the lingering clouds. The gap is forty-five seconds. While all the trappings of modernity have irrevocably changed this rural part of the country, one thing remains constant: the propriety of religion, which is more conservative here than in the city. Hence Seb Piquet has to remind the DSes over the race radio not to let their riders relieve themselves in towns, villages, or anywhere near spectators. He then changes subject to wish our gold jersey wearer Peio Goikoetxea a happy birthday. I feel bad that Peio Goikoetxea will have to suffer so immensely on his birthday later in the stage.
In these particular mountains, the slopes are barren and lifeless, and there are vast sheets of them that appear to have been cleaved off, as though God took a hammer and chisel and struck in just the right place, separating a massive slab in order to make the world’s largest stone countertop. The crests of the mountains kiss the clouds. The gap goes out to two minutes and thirty seconds, which is enough space for us to follow it. Tracking the six riders up front, we meander back into the foothills. For a moment, I simply watch the men ride, mesmerized by the simple beauty and efficiency of their movement. And then we pass them, but we’ll see them again soon.
The geology here is full of athleticism. Rocks curve and twist. They break like waves pounding some great shore, oozing and spilling in layers. For now, we turn our backs to them and enter the gravelly hillocks on a dusty two lane road. Faster we drive. The gap shrinks from three minutes back down to two and a half as we crest a short climb up to the feed zone where we pull off for photos. No bidon collecting today. Back behind the breakaway, we drive at a cyclist’s pace, which is much more suited to this kind of landscape. Thesiger felt similarly, writing about crossing the lands preluding the great desert on a camel’s back:
I had no desire to travel faster. In this way there was time to notice things — a grasshopper under a bush, a dead swallow on the ground, the tracks of a hare, a bird’s nest, the shape and colour of ripples on the sand, the bloom of tiny seedlings pushing through the soil. There was time to collect a plant or look at a rock. The very slowness of our march diminished its monotony. I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.
At a cyclist’s pace — a great deal quicker than a camel’s but still far slower than a car’s — one notices minutiae as well: the shadows left by clouds, the way the direct sunlight reflects off of rocks, the distinctly different geologies and how they converge, the goats and donkeys hiding under the acacias, the way the road follows the tight curves and bends as though drawing elevation lines on a map. We head through the village of Wadi Mahram, and watch as people stand in the shade of their small houses and wave to us. A woman gardens in her allotment. In nearby As Saih, the date palms grow almost twice as tall as any I’ve seen elsewhere, perhaps owing to some wealth of water. Both of these villages are tiny — mere clusters of houses and one or two stores. But no matter their size, all of their inhabitants come out to greet the race, sometimes as few as six families. They smile and wave and cheer like we’re famous, calling to us in English. One never feels as important as when riding in a press car.
Our driver, Denis Leproux, used to ride for Team Z in the eighties. He is remarkably skilled at driving the press car. He knows how to read a race, how to follow it, how to trail without being too intrusive, how to look in the road book while talking to the driver of a motorbike through the open window. He speaks not a lick of English but thankfully for us, the only words I know in French are cycling words so we’re able to communicate through le échappée, le peloton, numbers and left or right. For a while, it’s quiet, and then, there’s important news.
Team DSM has attacked from the peloton. There’s crosswinds, echelons. They’re trying to split the pack. Indeed, the riders we’re watching are now buried in their drops trying to minimize the resistance of their bodies. The wind makes the desert chilly. The desired splits form: 34 in the first group, with the red jersey, and the rest — most notably Anthon Charmig — are stuck behind. Then even bigger news: Cavendish has crashed, having touched wheels with FDJ’s Ignatas Konovalovas. The drive from those trying to widen the gaps between echelons, initiated by DSM and now taken over by Intermarché, eats up the breakaway and eventually swallows it. Cavendish is back and bridges to the second group. It takes ages for the two groups to join back together, but they eventually do. At what cost for Anthon Charmig and his much reduced Uno-X team remains to be seen. There are more attacks once things come back together, but they’re short-lived. No more funny business. There’s work to be done.
Out the window, we start to see the more opulent, sorbet-colored houses again. There’s a strange vernacular version of stained glass I’ve noticed here, where photographs of scenes like waterfalls and forests are printed on plastic and silkscreened onto the glass, a kind of architectural wishful thinking in the desert. Also, on the roofs of most houses (and every so often as little stations in the countryside) are water collection basins, large crenelated jugs that distill water captured from moisture in the atmosphere, a feat of modern cleverness that makes stable life here possible. Meanwhile, we’re back on the rollers — they’re short and seem very fun to ride especially under the cool shadow of a cloud. We turn a corner and see a massive wall of mountains dominate the view, so huge they touch the sky. Twenty-five kilometers to go. 15 til the Green Mountain, 10 to the capital of the old Imamate, Nizwa. The endgame approaches.
At the foot of the climb, a small town, a kind of pre-tourist destination with astroturf patios springs up as a sign points us in the direction of the Jabal al Akhdar. It’s easy at first, when we pass under the banner. Kind of meandering. But then it’s not easy anymore. The car lurches up the slopes which have become excruciatingly steep. The resistance of gravity is palpable as a sign warns us that — DANGER! — beyond this point four wheel drive is necessary. However, this road is a modern thoroughfare, wide and well-paved, and although it’s brutal to cycle up, I can’t imagine what Thesiger, who returned to Oman in order to scale these mountains with his old Bedouin mates, would think of such unromantic infrastructure. Every hairpin is agony on our little Renault, which moans and grumbles with each turn of the wheel. This is, to put it simply, a horrible, horrible, horrible climb. We finally reach the top in one piece, park, and then scramble up to a scouting point from which to witness the finale unfold.
We stand there like hawks on a precipice, and the whole scene is massive, extending for kilometers, the entire climb on our horizon. The wind billows my dress. Word comes over a nearby radio that a group of GC favorites has already broken loose. In the distance, the caravan can be faintly discerned, the helicopter puny as a dragonfly, the cyclists as diminutive as ticks. While we can see them with the naked eye, this vantage point also gives us some perspective on how long they still have to go. Far off on the lower scopes, we watch the final attack unfold in miniature like a kind of cycling diorama.
Jan Hirt of Intermarché Wanty Gobert drops Arkea Samsic’s Élie Gesbert and his attendant young domestique Kevin Vauquelin. Hirt’s fifteen seconds stretches and stretches — he’s on a proper mission, coming closer and closer to victory in every kick up each serpentine hairpin. Weaving and bobbing, Jan Hirt, who hasn’t won a race in six years, disappears behind a bed of rock. It’s the final, decisive moment, and we rush to the finish line to see him cross it, almost collapsing after doing so, completing th day with barely enough energy to celebrate.
Everyone is so focused on Hirt — his expression, his happiness — that we forget about the others. Only when Masnada and Charmig cross the line do we realize that between their and Hirt’s arrivals, a significant duration of time has passed. A look at our phones tells us a major upset has transpired: Fausto Masnada has, in fact, lost the GC. The race was not, in fact, all but won. Jan Hirt is smiling. His teammate Rein Taaramäe claps him on the back, and Kévin Van Melsen, who Hirt later credits with helping him survive the crosswinds, rolls up and shouts, Fuck. The mood is celebratory and full of relief. Around the victorious team, other riders, less successful in today’s events, collapse on the ground. Rui Costa, Kevin Vermaerke, Kevin Colleoni, they’re all visibly destroyed, having given everything to the Green Mountain, but the Green Mountain has given them nothing in return.
It’s hard to say if this is a bittersweet outcome or not, if one of our “protagonists” (as Peio Goikoetxea would say) is more narratively worthy than the other. Both are sympathetic characters: Fausto Masnada, serious and quiet and surely under immense pressure in the World Tour’s most “winningest” team, with youngsters like Ilan Van Wilder and Remco Evenepoel breathing down his neck; and Jan Hirt, soft-spoken and gentle, riding for a team that’s scrappy as hell, fighting tooth and nail, giving everything they’ve got to stake their claim in the sport. However, bike racing passes no judgement on who is more deserving, on which storyline is the most righteous.
In the eyes of the road — as in the eyes of the unmarked desert — the most deserving protagonist is simply the one that conquers it.
This eventually led to the Sultanate of Oman becoming, for a handful of years, a de facto British colony managed by a conglomerate of oil companies, much to the chagrin of the United Nations.