Cycling: High stakes as Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome jostle for position at Team Sky
Team Sky pair in running for lead rider role have rare duel alongside road-racing royalty in Oman
It's the first tour of the year that has the seal of cycling's road-racing royalty. The winners of four of the last six Tours de France will all be there: Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans. But the issue which is likely to dominate the thoughts of supporters of Team Sky and British riders at the Tour of Oman, which runs from today until Saturday, is the duel between Wiggins and his team-mate Chris Froome.
This is the only stage race in which Wiggins and Froome are programmed to cross paths before the summer's main event, with the debate still live over how their leadership roles will play out in the Tour. It is also the first time the pair have contested a stage race together since the premier event of 2012.
Sky are keen to play down any sense of division, with the team principal, Sir Dave Brailsford – standing chatting to Wiggins before he headed off on a training run – telling The Independent: "You'd have thought [from all the speculation] that they'd never raced together before. To be fair, they've run second and third in the Vuelta [the Tour of Spain, in 2011] and first and second in the Tour so they'd done quite a bit – and very successfully, they might add. The reality is they've raced together a lot and they're in the same team, so that's that." There have been reports that Froome will be team leader in Oman and Wiggins will be supporting him, something Brailsford denies.
"They're the obvious two general classification candidates," he said, "but we'll play that one out."
The question marks over Wiggins' condition after he quit in the last stage of the low-key Tour of Mallorca, his only previous race of 2013, were also dismissed by the Team Sky principal, who said the rider's winter training and race start had left him with "so much in the tank there was no point in continuing".
But what of the pretender to Wiggins' throne?
"I'm not in top shape yet," Froome said. "I haven't really seen the terrain yet, but training's been going really well, so I'm feeling good, and we'll see how it goes."
As for the question of who will lead the Sky squad, Froome – heading out for a three-hour training ride, having arrived in the small hours of the morning – said: "We'll see what happens when we get to the mountains."
He added: "This is a nice place to start the season. Everyone's excited about the event; it's not your typical race and has a more relaxed atmosphere. But everybody's here and it's a high-ranking event all the same."
In addition to the Tour royalty and Froome, there is a long list of exciting riders here. Sky's Vincenzo Nibali, who completed last year's Tour podium, and cycling greats such as Classics stars Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, not to mention the reigning world champion Philippe Gilbert, are all involved.
Brailsford recognises that the presence of so many major riders in one race "is bound to add to the spice, when you get so many big names".
However, he added: "People will have different levels of form," meaning that, when it comes to challenges such as Thursday's crucial assault on the 11km Green Mountain summit, the gaps will open up.
By the end of July, when the Tour de France is completed, Oman's results will be little more than a footnote in the season. But when the curtain rises on the world's greatest bike race in Corsica on 29 June, the Middle Eastern race will be the one reference point of the season where all the major candidates – and fans – could jointly compare and contrast their 2013 stage race form.
"It's like the prologue of the Tour, months early, everybody looking at each other, trying to score a few psychological points off each other," says Tristan Hoffman, Contador's sports director at Saxo-Tinkoff.
Cycling has no deep roots in Oman –or indeed anywhere else in the Middle East – but its rising popularity, the star-studded cast and the opportunity to give the country's rugged mountain beauty a more international audience on TV have combined to give the sport's youngest stage race arguably the highest profile of any multi-day event prior to the Giro in May.
The stars, meanwhile, have quickly caught on to the fact that while Oman may be a long flight away, it offers the chance to train and race in ideal warm weather conditions on challenging roads. These range from flat valleys winding between huge mountain ranges to undulating terrain along the coast.
The perfect place for rivals to lay down a marker for the Tour.
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