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Kåre Dehlie Thorstad is a Norwegian photographer who has worked with Peloton for many years. His attention to detail and creative process is a huge asset to our magazine. As the official photographer for race organizer Amaury Sport Organisation, Kåre covered the Tour of Oman in 2017 and we asked him to describe the atmosphere in Oman and also to help us understand what happened on stage 5 when the riders faced the famous climb of Jabal Al Akhdhar, or Green Mountain.
This story originally ran in issue 64
What is it like making the trip from Norway to Oman and photographing the race?
Oslo, Norway, to Muscat, Oman, is a hefty ride, especially mid-February, as the temperature difference from one to the other amounts to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a long haul, too, timewise, but, above all, it’s a colossal cultural voyage from a modern Western society to a pretty-strict Muslim country. It’s a big jump, in many ways. Also, the Tour of Oman is normally my first race of the year, so there is always nerves involved, always a little doubt buzzing inside, afraid of not being up to the task ahead.
It’s an ancient country and has this modern sport and modern colors zigzagging through it….
Oman doesn’t have any culture for cycling really, although the Tour of Oman has been run since 2010. The race travels through a desert-like countryside, sporadically inhabited. Oman, officially The Sultanate of Oman, has a population of less than five million people, and it shows on the road. However, the ones that line up show great enthusiasm even though they don’t understand what is going on. Undoubtedly, the contrast is pretty huge, throwing a predominantly Western sport into the ancient Eastern way of Omani life.
Green Mountain has an almost mythical feel. Can you describe the climb and that stage for us? What was it like being there?
Green Mountain, or Jabal Al Akhdhar as it is called in Oman, is where the final GC comes to a conclusion. It’s the queen stage of the race and it’s very often a brutal experience for the riders involved. As expected, the big guns battled it out for overall victory and, rather surprisingly, Ben Hermans of BMC held on to the leader’s red jersey and took the stage in convincing style, crossing the finish line ahead of Fabio Aru and Rui Costa.
The stage is all about the mountain, as there are no serious difficulties until the gradients ramp up—but when they do, all hell breaks loose. We have to keep in mind that the new season is just underway and that this is the first real uphill challenge for many of the riders in the peloton. Some riders already have Argentina or Australia in their legs, while quite a few come straight off training camp with no racing at all—just like Romain Bardet of AG2R, the French rising star and protagonist of the race. Obviously, riders are on very different levels, and it shows on Green Mountain. There is absolutely no place to hide when the gradients tower above 10 percent, sometimes exceeding 15 percent. At 5.7 kilometers, Jabal Al Akhdhar averages 10.5 percent with the last 2 kilometers at 13.5 percent—which is steep! Combined with the usual heat, the riders have to be careful not to blow up inside the last kilometer.
This time, the front-five breakaway was caught with 4 kilometers to go, and Lachlan Morton of Dimension Data was the first one to give it a real go. His attempt was futile, however, and the Australian was caught in the last 3 kilometers by a group of 16 riders including eight of the top-10 GC men. It was then Merhawi Kudus’ turn to take off just before the final kilometer, but he too was reeled in. Victory finally went to the red jersey himself, Ben Hermans, who powered off with 750 meters to go, beating Fabio Aru by just three seconds, while former world champion Rui Costa crossed the line in third, 11 seconds adrift. The riders almost stumble across the finish line, gasping for air, and there is no doubt they give it their all. Some are in need of assistance to keep upright, and some need to lie down to catch their breath in the shadow of a team car. It might as well be an uphill finish in France, Spain or Italy, but the mountains and the golden light on the horizon tells us that this is Oman.
Can you tell us about the people and how the riders interacted with them…and you?
People along the racecourse are few and scattered along the dusty countryside, but they are joyous and curious, always with a smile on their face and thumbs high up in the air. Many have never seen a bike race before, and we can only wonder what they make of it. I guess it seems absurd to them to race on a bike in the heat, with no other real purpose than crossing a finish line. Most people struggle to make ends meet and get food on the table each day, actually, so what the UCI means by bringing cycling to the outposts of the world is sometimes a strange affair to me. More could be done to promote cycling itself in Oman, not just the race….
Do you want to go back…as a photographer or a traveler?
The Tour of Oman is a special race to me, as the atmosphere is pretty relaxed, making it possible to work closely with the riders participating. You can’t get that close during the Tour de France. No way! This makes for good photography, and that’s what drives me, really, and that is why you want to go back to Oman. The future of the race is undetermined, though, as the general feel for cycling in Oman is a troublesome subject, especially after the demise of the Tour of Qatar. There was a natural transition between racing in Qatar and Oman, the one following the other, but without Qatar, Oman may turn out less attractive in the future. Cycling in the Middle East doesn’t have the same cultural grandeur as in France, Italy or Belgium, and so races risk being eradicated with a stroke of the pen. Personally, I do hope the Tour of Oman can go on, and—hopefully—I will return next year.