Pressed against a wall and under a concrete stairway outside the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat, UAE Team Emirates’ six riders are sitting on flimsy, white plastic chairs getting ready for stage two of the Tour of Oman. Between them, they boast 98 professional victories, including 13 Grand Tour stages.
A metre away, a brown gazebo is providing shade to a composite Oman national team, a collection of six individuals with zero professional wins outside of National Championships. Their bottoms are resting on far sturdier green camping chairs, a lengthy string of national bunting is fluttering in the light breeze to help ventilate the air, and a large red, white and green Oman flag hangs proudly. Number 141, Said Al Rahbi, snaps a quick photo of David Formolo. He’s evidently starstruck.
Incongruously yet at the same time completely explicably (see below), Romain Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale 2018 Factor 02 is in the nearby bike stand. The Frenchman isn’t racing in the heat of the Middle East, but his one-time bike is carrying the hopes and dreams of Faisal Al-Mamari, Oman’s national champion in his home race.
This is the story of the Oman National Team in their home race, powered by the one-time bike of a French darling.
Learning by doing
Racing in the Arab Gulf brings with it its own peculiar challenges, not least the unabating heat. For Omani cyclists, the day starts early with Fajr, the first of the day’s five Islamic prayers, taking place at 05.26. They then head out the door early for a morning ride before the sun is too strong, with the next two prayers, Dhuhr and Asr, scheduled for 12.30 and 15.49. But when they’re racing, they can’t pray at midday, so what do they do? “We can do two prayers at one time,” explains Al-Mamari. “There is an exception allowed for travellers, so at 4pm we pray twice.”
Al-Mamari and his team-mates are somewhat of a rarity in Oman; very few people are cyclists in a country where the temperatures are prohibitive for seven months of the year, cars dominate the transport network, and salvation is near-impossible in the arid, deserted mountains. “It’s just too hot to ride in Oman in the summer,” concedes 23-year-old Al-Mamari. “In my home city of Sur, there are no riders who I can learn from - I have to grow myself, and learn everything from the internet.”
Al-Mamari is learning as much as he can when he races the pros (ASO/Thomas Maheux)
Crucially, however, there is a cycling scene, and a national league consists of road races, time trials and mountain bike events. There’s not the depth to split the categories, though, and many of the competitors are foreign workers. The best domestic riders come from a very small pool, but by working for jobs in the government such as the police force and army, they are granted status as sportspeople, and thus permitted to dedicate their time to cycling. In the summer months, they train in Spain, while they race UCI events in Morocco, neighbouring United Arab Emirates and, of course, in Oman, where this year the lucky six are pedalling alongside Mark Cavendish, he of 161 career wins, 34 of which have come in the Tour de France.
“It’s a great experience to race with the pros, I can learn so much,” Al-Mamari says, bedecked in his specially-designed champion’s white jersey. An hour after expressing these sentiments, though, stage two of the race starts in the worst possible manner. Al-Mamari and three of his team-mates are dropped after just three kilometres of racing, the parcours tackling the nine per cent slopes of the Al Jabal Street climb straight out of the block. It’s desperately cruel; there’s 170km still to go.
On the climb’s third hairpin bend, two draft behind their mechanic’s car, while they each take it in turns to benefit from a sticky bottle. The road traffic behind, already impatient by the rolling closure of the highway that separates the capital Muscat from the rest of the country, is held back longer than it wants to be, and a wife’s tale is regaled in the press bus.
“Last year, the race did three ascents of this climb [on stage four], and when the Omani team were climbing on the second lap, the peloton had already descended. They were allowed to hop over the fence and rejoin the gruppetto to skip out a lap,” goes the tale. The commissaires were said to have surreptitiously turned a blind eye.
As debate rages about the veracity of the story, number 142 Abdullah Al-Gheilani steps off his bike and calls it a day. A long descent saves Al-Mamari and two of his compatriots, the trio rejoining the peloton after an hour. Bardet’s old Factor bike is once again in the main bunch.
“I am a climber and I was looking for a climber’s bike,” Al-Mamari says. “I was reading everything on Google, watching videos on YouTube, and I saw that this Factor was a great climbing bike. Two months before the 2021 Tour of Oman I was online and it randomly appeared that this bike was available for auction. I outbid everyone else and paid a good price for it. Quite a lot of pros have been asking me about it!”
Romain Bardet's old AG2R Factor bike helped Al-Mamari to his National Championship win (Chris Marshall-Bell)
In an era of mechanical gearing and disc brakes, Bardet’s former bike - that he rode to sixth on at the 2018 Tour de France - is a bit of a relic. There are actual cables to shift the gears, rim brakes, and Bardet’s name tag remains obdurately stuck to the top tube. “I’m sure the WorldTour riders are envious!” laughs the team’s Filipino mechanic Samuel. “Mechanical or electronic shifting, it doesn’t matter. It depends on the legs.”
Pumping up the tyres of the team’s six bikes, two of which are blue Scotts issued by the national federation, Samuel places water bottles in the cages. There’s an amalgamation of colours and designs: royal blue Movistar, light blue Astana, yellow and orange Uno-X, and white and red Lotto-Dstny. It looks like a fan’s collection of bidons; instead, these bottles are rehydrating the Omanis. No custom merch for them.
The talented and the disciplined
Said Al Rahbi, in the breakaway the first day, is back in the break on stage three. After 50km, however, on the day’s first climb, he loses touch and drops back, smiling to the camera as he munches down a banana. On the fifth and final stage, Al-Mamari, aboard Bardet's former bike, infiltrates the breakaway. At last. “I was fighting for three days just to be there,” he says. “To finally be there was really amazing, and for a long time I was really comfortable doing the efforts.”
A national champion at 22, Al-Mamari only took up cycling a few years ago. “I was a footballer, a right-back, and in my position I was always running, running, running,” he recounts. “My brother was a cyclist and one day he told me there was a 40km amateur race that I could join without any training or previous results.
Said Al Rahbi (right) was a regular feature in the break at the Tour of Oman (ASO/Thomas Maheux)
“I had no idea at all about cycling, I used my brother’s bike and I finished eighth. Everybody was surprised and was asking, ‘how have you done that? You know nothing about cycling’. My brother introduced me to his friends, I joined an amateur team, improved a lot, and two years later I became the Omani TT and road race champion. I am aiming for a high level, to be a pro cyclist, to travel around the world and race all of the races. Maybe even a Grand Tour - that would be a dream.”
This summer, thanks to the contacts of his Spanish coach, Eneko Elosegi, Al-Mamari - a university graduate in financing and accounting - will join a club team in the Basque Country. He deploys an analogy to illustrate his eagerness to move to Europe. “If you are the most intelligent in a class, you will not improve your knowledge anymore, so you have to go to another class with people who are more intelligent than you,” he says.
He is moving to Spain on May 1, a week after the culmination of Ramadan in which all Muslims in Oman fast for between 14 and 15 hours each day for 30 consecutive days. “Ramadan is when we take our off-season,” Al-Mamari says. “This year, because I am moving to Spain, I will train at night because I need to be in good shape. Ramadan will not affect me, and I will not lose my condition. But other years I treat it how any other rider treats their off-season: not much loaded training, some gym work, a few rides on Zwift, maybe a run. Not much at all.”
While Al-Mamari’s team-mates shyly take photos of fellow competitors and seem perplexed by my interest in them, the Tour of Oman is a place of study for him; a lecture hall with great professors. “This is an opportunity to race with these guys, and everyday I’m speaking with the many pro riders, and they are telling me what they do, and what I can learn from there.” Any specifics? “Stuff like how many carbs per hour I should be having during a race.”
Al-Mamari is making the move to Europe for racing in May (ASO/Pauline Ballet)
Ninety kilometres into stage five, Al-Mamari wins the intermediate sprint uncontested. He drops back to the break of seven, smiles at the TV camera that is broadcasting to a national audience, and Human Powered Health’s Ben Perry gives him a smile and a congratulatory pat on the back. It doesn’t matter that 20km later he is dropped as the fearsome ascent of Green Mountain approaches.
Within an hour, the race is over for another year. Al-Mamari is the lanterne rouge, a trickle over one hour behind winner Matteo Jorgensen of Movistar. “How weird, no? A ginger winning in Oman?” the American says in Spanish to his soigneur. Maybe one year an Omani will be able to contest for the victory too. Samuel the mechanic drops a hint that a professional Omani team might be in the works, but by then Al-Mamari may have made his name in Europe. “There are two types of people in sport: the talented ones, and the disciplined ones,” he summarises. “I am the disciplined one. I started cycling three years ago and have seen a big improvement. I think in two years I can be competitive in this race.”
Cover image by ASO/Pauline Ballet