Nick Bull admires the view from the 2015 Tour of Oman's toughest stage, even if he didn't know what was happening beneath him
Going to the finish of a professional race these days normally guarantees you a number of things: a good view, loud, booming commentary and live television pictures, among others.
This afternoon, 1,235m above sea level atop Jabal Al Akhdhar – otherwise known as Green Mountain – a modest crowd watching the Tour of Oman had just the former.
But what a view it is. Looking down the climb from the finish line, the grey road that weaves its way between the rusty-looking and jagged cliff faces clearly stands out, even if its toughest sections are somewhat masked by the perspective.
In fact, about half of the final three kilometres can be seen from the makeshift summit (the road actually snakes up even further, but organisers deem that too tough a test for February).
Riders gradually get bigger, as if you were at an airport watching a plane coming in to land, but only in the final 300 metres can you identify for which team they ride.
That’s with one exception: Tinkoff-Saxo. Love it or hate it, riders in its fluorescent kit are recognisable from a long way off. As a result, I’m now a convert of the former opinion.
“Majka, it’s Majka,” those standing around me on behalf of co-organiser ASO point out. Nobody – at least audibly – calls the stage winner, Rafael Valls before he rides past us and his bib and bike number can be seen.
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A mini Planche des Belles Filles
Measuring 5.7 kilometres long, and averaging 10.5 per cent, it’s like a compact version of La Planche des Belles Filles that was used in the 2012 and 2014 Tours de France.
The valley road on its approach would make for a fast sprint finish, or at least a place for teams to practice its lead-out trains on.
But, like La Planche, the opening 200 metres of the climb set the tone for the rest of the ascent: unforgiving.
Once past a police checkpoint on its lower slopes, the finishing straight and inflatable gantry come into view in the distance, but its twisty nature extends the climb’s length somewhat.
I count four escape roads coming down the climb post-stage, there for those drivers who descend it faster than they should. One looks like it could be used for a generic car chase film scene: with several trinkets of water positioned at the end of the ramped run-off, and a sizeable drop the other side, it would make a good, if not predictable, place to kill off an evil character or two.
The final 300 metres are among the climb’s toughest. There’s a hairpin bend to the right that takes the riders onto the finishing straight, but like a British hill-climb the road doesn’t let off even after the finish.
A handful of Orica rider Cameron Meyer’s fans are positioned on the corner, while there are British accents aplenty around the finish line. At least four people – two of them young girls – are in Sky kit. A union flag is drapped over an Armco barrier.
Commissaires and co-organiser Eddy Merckx stood just past the line – another hallmark of British hill-climb events – pushing those other than the top five up the climb a little further and into the hands of their soigneurs.
Some, like Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, get off their bikes as quickly as they can and sit down on the roadside. Others were so on the limit that they obliviously ride past their team carers, who chase them down and offer cans of drink and towels.
Tejay van Garderen rode up and down the 50 metres after the finish line for a couple of minutes, either to warm down, or ease the disappointment of not winning the stage (he placed second here last year, too). Possibly both. When he finally talks, his face is still drenched in sweat.
Two Cofidis riders take a drink and dry their faces off while looking down the climb, presumably with a feeling we’ve all had on a bike at some point – that of ‘we just rode that’. There’s no macho cheering or high-fives to be had, though.
A few metres below them, Bora-Argon’s Sam Bennett approaches the summit. He’s the last rider to finish; the Broomwagon and its flashing light on top makes that fact as clear as the Tinkoff jersey from far off. He crossed the line 23-29 after Valls, and goes for a Fuglsang-style slump immediately after.
I’m sure he would have preferred watching the stage from our perspective. Even without the television pictures or race updates.