At the Oman Across Ages Museum (do visit if you ever find yourself in the area) at the start of the opening stage of the 2024 Tour of Oman, one exhibit explained how the country’s ancient Aflaj irrigation system had used gravity since 2,500 BC to channel water from the few springs in the country to people’s homes and farms, with 3,000 of them still in use today by the 5 million people who live on the eastern coast of the Arabian peninsula.
Today, however, you just needed a bucket, and not even a very big one, as the capital Muscat experienced its annual rainfall in just one afternoon.
Our driver in the media car for the day, Jean-Pierre Heynderickx, winner of the Madrid stage in the 1989 Vuelta a España and sports director for more than a decade, has been at most of these Middle Eastern stage races over the past 10 years, but said he has never once seen it rain. A world first, ladies and gentlemen.
The weather report had already been looking iffy for the next few days, but as the stage got underway the skies over the barren mountains began to darken, and at around 2 pm local time the heavens opened.
Had teams even packed wet weather gear? It wasn’t exactly cold despite the condensation, but post-stage, Soudal-Quick Step’s Gil Gelders told a Belgian journalist that his sports director Wilfried Peeters had warned them that morning the weather could turn later in the stage.
That warning didn’t necessarily make it any easier to ride in a bunch on roads not accustomed to downpours, however. On the opener of the 2020 Tour de France, roads became greedily slippy and caused chaos, and while standing water failed to sink into the arid ground in Oman, the situation remained secure.
This second stage would end with a short, punchy climb up to Qurayyat, just down the coast from Muscat, which was made much more difficult by rocks sliding across the road to act as a further obstacle to the gradient.
For the second time in three days, Finn Fisher-Black (UAE Team Emirates) finished ahead of a chasing pack, and while his solo move at the Muscat Classic was more impressive, this victory saw him out-punch a host of WorldTour talent (including fellow upstart Luke Lamperti, the young American who finished second behind the Kiwi two days ago and who must already be getting tired of looking at a rear-view of Fisher-Black’s arms raised aloft).
The rain persisted as riders continued across the line, some clearly aggrieved at the broken promise of getting racing in their legs underneath a hot sun, while a duo from the Norwegian Uno-X Mobility team looked completely unbothered, another teammate soon joining them with a big grin across his face. Back home today it’s -6°C (21°F).
On the drive home in rush hour traffic (Oman’s working week, like across the Gulf, is Sunday-Thursday) mothers wound down their windows in the front seat holding their infant children on their laps to introduce them to the concept of rain.
Back at the hotel, we sat in the lobby and watched as the riders returned in dribs and drabs, all looking remarkably clean and towelled off despite travelling back in cars instead of their usual team buses.
Caleb Ewan shook his head across the lobby floor as one of the early arrivers, but still managed a grin following his stage 1 win yesterday, although Louis Meintjes seemed less impressed. A Cofidis rider then passed by, puffing his cheeks out and releasing a loud exhale of another day done in the Bizarro World of life as a bike racer.
Soon, ASO’s Deputy Director of Cycling, Pierre-Yves Thoualt, walked in and sat down on the sofas next to us.
They didn’t expect the rain, he said of the reaction within the race organiser’s car. He’s been in the desert 50 times by now across AlUla and Omani Tours, and never seen what he saw today.
There was never the thought of cancelling the stage, however. ASO will now hold a meeting with the race jury tonight and then tomorrow there will be a 6am check of stage 3’s summit finish at Eastern Mountain (our condolences to whoever gets handed that job), which is a bigger climb than today and with more prolonged exposure to the rain, there is an increased danger of loose rocks. The rest of the stage should be fine as there is the Plan-B option of diverting the race onto the motorway.
The race organisers say they were pleased there were no mass pile-ups or major injuries as a result of the unexpected conditions. At the finish we spotted a UAE rider with a ripped jersey after a fall, and a Kern-Pharma guy with a bloodied nose, and Soudal’s Antoine Huby described the situation to L’Équipe as “apocalyptic.”
Today was a spectacle, and certainly more exciting than most would expect from a hot and lazy early-season leg-opener in the desert. It may be one that we never see again. Both L’Équipe and ASO independently described it as Dantesque, so you know it was good.
The evening after stage 2, the decision was taken to alter and shorten stage 3. A statement from the race organiser read:
Due to the exceptional weather conditions and to ensure the safety of the riders, the Royal Oman Police, Oman Cycling Association and all relevant Omani authorities have worked in collaboration with the commissaires panel of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the representatives of the teams and riders (A.I.G.C.P, C.P.A) and the organisation of the event (A.S.O.) have decided to modify stage 3, Bid Bid – Eastern Mountain, and to propose another shorter and safer stage: Naseem Garden – Al Bustan (76 kilometres). The stage will start from Naseem Garden at 10 AM GST and finish in Al Bustan at 12:00 PM GST.
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