We take a look at some of the key features that could stand out at this year's Tour of Oman

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1. Top talent

Alexander Kristoff is just one of many top talents who heads to Oman

If January is the month of Australian races, then February is when the world’s top talent assembles in the Middle East.

>>> Tour of Oman 2017 start list

Even without the Tour of Qatar – which was cancelled this year – some of the world’s top sprinters clashed in the UAE last week at the Dubai Tour, and now Oman is set to be the host for the eighth edition of the nation’s stage race.

These races take riders to an environment unlike anywhere else thrown up on the calendar, with desert landscapes setting the scene for eerily exposed roads amid stifling heat.

The Tour of Oman is probably the best setting of all these races thanks to its more varied terrain (it is a much bigger country, after all), which features craggy mountain face complementing the flat, sandy roads.

2. Lively racing

Organisers ASO have made full use of the nation’s lumpier terrain by adding meddlesome hills to complicate what would otherwise be straightforward sprint stages.

Stage two includes four climbs, none longer than 4km but all with gradients averaging over eight per cent; an uphill finish on stage three plays into the hands of the puncheurs; and the three-lap circuit that includes the Climb of Bousher Al Amerat should prove too challenging for the pure sprinters.

That doesn’t leave too much for sprinters – which explains why, beyond Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Sacha Modolo (UAE Abu Dhabi), so few big names are lining up – but both the opening and closing stage should culminate in a bunch finish.

3. Green Mountain

Bardet and Nibali go head to head on Green Mountain in 2016. Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

One of the treats of the Tour of Oman is that it boasts one of the first proper out-and-out climbs of the season – the Jabal Al Akhdhar, otherwise known as the ‘Green Mountain’.

Unlike the climbs tackled in the likes of the Tour Down Under, Green Mountain has a considerable length (5.7km) to match the bite of its gradient (10.5 per cent), and is provides a chance therefore to witness a full-blooded climbing showdown.

That the GC will be decided on its slopes is virtually a guarantee – since its first inclusion in 2011, no rider has ever managed to win the overall classification without also finishing in the top two of this stage.

4. Fabio Aru make his season bow…

Fabio Aru showing the effort of an attack. Photo: Graham Watson

Fabio Aru’s season is structured around the Giro d’Italia, and last year’s winner of that race, his ex-teammate Vincenzo Nibali, opened his account by sealing the overall at the Tour of Oman.

A similar win for Aru would install plenty of confidence in Astana that he can adequately replace Nibali, but may be unlikely given his usual slow starts to the season.

5. …as does Romain Bardet

Romain Bardet (AG2R) celebrates after his win on stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France (Sunada)

Romain Bardet’s plans are more long-term than Aru’s with his main focus, the Tour de France, still another five months away, but he’ll still be hoping to make an impression on his first race of the season.

The Frenchman generally doesn’t take to long to get up to speed as Aru, and tends to go well in Oman, having finished runner-up last year and won the young riders’ classification in 2014, but one thing he has lacked throughout his career is overall victories in stage races.

With no-time trial stage to deter him, the Tour of Oman might become the his first since the 2013 Tour de l’Ain – a win that would be a clear indication that he’s capable of winning the Tour come July.

6. Quick-Step Floors’ Classics contingent

Tom Boonen wins stage two of the 2017 Vuelta de San Juan

Usually the Tour of Qatar, with its persistent threat of crosswinds, is used as key preparation for the Spring Classics, but in its absence the Tour of Oman has attracted plenty of one-day specialists.

2015 Tour of Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff is riding, as is Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet, but it’s Quick-Step Floors’ line-up that really impresses.

Tom Boonen rides ahead of his final crack at the Classics, and is supported by Niki Terpstra and young talent Yves Lampaert, while Bob Jungels may have his eye on a high GC placing having ridden so selflessly as a domestique at the Dubai Tour.

Expect to see their blue jerseys at the front of the peloton making it difficult for the rest of the peloton on exposed roads, particularly if the wind picks up.