Inside cycling: Tour of Oman - Business Diary
Day 6 - Saturday
Yesterday's penultimate stage of the Tour of Oman - 144km from the Al Alam Palace to Muscat's Ministry of Housing in Boshar - started earlier than usual to ensure that everything was wrapped up by 1400 local time.
Day 5 - Friday
Australian 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans celebrated his 36th birthday yesterday on what was undoubtedly the hardest stage of the Tour of Oman.
The slightly shortened 143km route from Al Saltiyah in Samail to Jabal Al Akhdar - Green Mountain - climaxed with a 6km climb, some of it with gradients as steep as 13.5 per cent.
The route for this year's fourth stage is a regular on the Tour of Oman. One member of ASO's staff told me he has never seen the riders look so tired after a stage as they do here - even in the Tour de France. The effort required at such an early stage in the season is intense, and many riders, unable to muster another pedal stroke, need to be pushed along past the finish line.
Chris Froome was one of those riders. The Briton is Team Sky's leader for the race and finished second on the stage, taking the overall lead on the general classification in the process. He was visibly shaking after the effort though, and slumped against a wall briefly before composing himself and getting right back onto a stationary bike to warm down.
Dave Brailsford, Sky's team principal, was delighted. A lot has been made of the inter-team battle at Sky between Bradley Wiggins and Froome, but yesterday's result seemed to confirm that Froome is capable of leading a team that features 2012 Tour de France winner Wiggins himself. Brailsford's relief was palpable as he beamed at the press pack afterwards.
Brailsford had arrived at the stage some two hours earlier with Sky PR director Chris Haynes. The pair of them had scrambled off down the hill to meet a group of Australian spectators who had set up something of a 'Cuddles corner' with national flags and 'Happy Birthday Cadel Evans' signs on the last bend.
Evans himself took an impressive third on the stage and was clearly very pleased with the result. He is second on general classification, ahead of the likes of Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez, and the stage will go some way to reasserting his leadership status within his BMC team.
The US-registered team is packed with high-earning stars and is one of the most interesting teams through which to observe the leadership dynamic at work. Each team has three cars here at the Tour of Oman and even seeing which riders sit in the front seat on the transfer from the hotel to the start can be revealing.
Incidentally, in BMC's case - as far as I have seen - the long-limbed Taylor Phinney, Evans, and Greg Van Avermaet take the front seats, with world champion Philippe Gilbert content to sit in the back.
With such a lot of stars in its ranks, BMC is one of the most in demand teams with the media. It is also one of a handful of teams to have sent a communications officer out to the Middle East. Georges Luechinger, BMC's chief communications officer, is that man.
As cycling becomes more professional, opportunities for the media to speak to the riders become more controlled. I caught up with Luechinger last night to have him explain how he sees his role.
"I'm responsible onsite to organise and coordinate media requests, to provide my colleague in the States the quotes from the stages so he can fill in all the reports and the audio line on the website, and then if there's a hand needed we help, so some guys from the staff help me to run for riders for their media, and then I help them to give bottles so it's teamwork."
Luechinger is part of a three-man communications team at BMC. "We have a year schedule like the riders have, so we have some races where we are onsite, but it's not possible to cover all of them."
After every stage of every race, the BMC communications team puts together race reports in four languages - English, French, German, and Dutch - and uploads them to the website as soon as possible.
At the Tour of Oman, there are 30 journalists staying with the riders at the same hotel complex and Luechinger tries as much as possible to have all interview requests flow through him. "The policy is it has to go through the media officer," he explains. "It's a question of respect and politeness; you wouldn't just grab people on the road and say 'hey, let me talk to you'. This is what we do to make it easy. We know when the guys have a massage; that's very helpful for the journalists otherwise the riders just run away and the journalist gets a 'nyet' and they don't know why.
"Most of the time we have to give a timeframe [for the interview] because from the wake-up call to the time they go to bed the riders really have a tight schedule," he adds. "They start with breakfast and some of them have their own rhythms before the race so no big interviews before the race."
Over the last few days, Luechinger says he has received a host of requests for interviews with Evans and Gilbert, so in order to facilitate these, and to save the riders' time, he has called an informal press conference with the pair this afternoon. "With all respect most of the guys ask the same questions so it's easier to have it once. There isn't really competition because the journalists are from different countries and every journalist has his own style," he explains.
Luechinger doesn't, however, see his role as protecting the riders. "I think this word protecting comes, from my point of view, from journalists that don't respect that we are onsite; they see us enemies and it's complete nonsense. We only need to protect the riders when people are pushing because this is not really what we call respect. We are here to bring both groups together."
Having watched Ali from Muscat Municipality expertly set up the podium for yesterday's stage with another stunning view just so in the background, I spoke to Dutch rider Bobbie Traksel, who has spent most of the race in breakaways with an open road ahead of him. "I came in 2010, the first time it was organised here, and you can see that it's improved a lot already in three years," he said.
Luechinger agrees. From a team perspective, the most important aspect to any race is safety and here the Omani police have improved immeasurably. "I just said before the finish, three hours before the riders are coming police guys are already at the road, and probably half an hour before the riders are coming they stop every car, so this part is excellent," he said. "Then the rest of the race is organised by ASO so it's foolproof - they know what it needs; it's just perfect."
Traksel, who has held onto the dotted jersey awarded to the most combative rider since day one, is clearly enjoying himself in Oman. "It's a good organisation. It's a good field - maybe better than the Tour de France; really good hotel; the transfers are a bit long but it's ok. I think it's one of the best preparations for the season.
"When I look to cycling, we need to improve and I hope we can make a tour of the whole Arabian world, with Qatar, Dubai is coming next year, Oman, then maybe take Saudi Arabia and we can make a really good tour. And that would be good for the ProTour."
Day 4 - Thursday
The Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, part of the Shangri-La group of luxury hotels, has been the headquarters and home away from home for the Tour of Oman since the first edition of the race in 2010.
Carved into the rugged cliffs around a 15-minute drive south from the old city of Muscat, 50 minutes from the airport, it perches magnificently above the Sea of Oman, towards which all of its 640 rooms face.
While the quality of the hotel is appreciated by the riders and the organisation alike, in terms of its role within race, the resort is not an extravagance. Because of its sheer size, it is the only hotel in Oman with the capacity to serve as a central race hub.
It is set across 124 acres of land, providing plenty of space for the various accoutrements that go along with a professional cycling race. The myriad race cars and trucks can all be parked onsite, and that despite one of the resort's car parks being turned over for a huge tented workshop for the teams' mechanics and soigneurs.
There are 18 teams at the Tour of Oman this year, with up to eight riders in each team, plus support staff, organisation, UCI officials, and a handful of media. Over the seven nights of the race, around 1,200 room nights will be used. Muscat Municipality, the organiser of the race, is footing the bill for all of them.
"We give them special rates with the amount of numbers that they've got," the resort's general manager Mark Kirk told me yesterday. "But it's obviously a very good bit of business for the hotel."
Kirk says the resort spends millions of dollars each year advertising itself and Oman as a destination, and the race provides a key window of global promotion during what is the country's peak tourist season.
"Our wholesale business with our European partners - especially UK, Germany and Switzerland - is increasing rapidly," he says. "It did go through a couple of years of decline because of the way the Middle East was portrayed around the world but it's now picking up very, very fast. We can see by each nationality the increase. Markets that we're seeing rapid growth in are France and Italy, Belgium as well, Germany - cycling nations. So it is the right exposure at the right time for us."
The resort is actually spread across three separate hotels, the Al Husn, Al Bandar, and Al Waha. The teams are distributed evenly across the three, but the allocation is not random. The resort blurb describes the Al Waha as the 'perfect family destination', the Al Bandar as 'ideal for leisure and business travellers', and the Al Husn as 'the most exclusive retreat providing the highest level of luxurious and elegant hospitality for the most discerning traveller.'
Sky, BMC, Omega-Pharma-Quick Step, Saxo-Tinkoff and Radioshack are the five teams being lodged in the Al Husn.
Regardless of which hotel they're staying in, the riders all seem happy to sing the resort's praises, lauding everything from the views to the mattresses to the food across social media sites.
"Of course it makes us proud when people say nice things about us," says Kirk. "We also learn very quickly when people say negative things about us and what we could do better. We measure guest satisfaction from all our guests. The important thing for us is actually our staff and our staff service. We're lucky because we are in Oman and we have a good percentage of Omani staff in the hotel so you're going to get a real experience that you've been away somewhere, rather than the rest of the Middle East where you'll predominantly only get interactions with expatriates. That's something unique about Oman."
Accommodation, three meals a day, and laundry are all provided. The resort's ballroom is sectioned off as the race dining room and the buffet spreads each day are first rate. If the riders don't end up putting weight on over the Tour of Oman, the support staff (and the media!) certainly will.
"One of the things I've talked to the teams about is the quality of food in Oman," reports Kirk. "The Omani cooks prepare the high protein food that the cyclists need. This is our fourth year doing it, so we know exactly what they want and it's seamless for them. We've got the ballroom where we do the meals, and we've even got a pasta station at breakfast."
The resort is very definitely five star. It boasts its own marina, an outdoor amphitheatre, an arcade, tennis courts, a spa, mini golf, 6,000 square metres of swimming pools as well as its own private beach.
The famous Muttrah Souk, one of the country's key tourist destinations, is just 15 minutes away in Old Muscat and the hotel offers a complimentary shuttle service. The riders are unlikely to take advantage of that, however. The cocktail evening for the top riders - Wiggins, Contador, Evans, Cancellara etc - hosted by the head of Muscat Municipality on the beach on Sunday evening is likely to be the extent of the pros' extracurricular activity.
Eddy Merckx, who, through his company Paumer, acts as the link between Muscat Municipality and ASO, is getting right into the swing of things though. Seated in the front row of the audience with the local Omani dignitaries at the podium ceremony for yesterday's third stage, Merckx was happy to tuck into the finger bowls of Omani sweets and local coffee that appeared as if from nowhere as soon as Peter Sagan exited the stage.
The stunning Wadi Dayqah Dam was the scene of yesterday's finish, and despite it being over 100km away from Muscat, the strength of the local support was again evident; the Omani bagpipe players at the end of each stage seem to have more stamina than some of the riders.
I spoke to Divesh Bhal, a writer for Muscat Daily, one of the four daily English language papers in Muscat, yesterday and he confirmed that grassroots interest in the race is building each year.
"The interest has grown a lot over the four years. I don't think it was that popular to begin with, but it has really grown up as a sport," he said.
"It is the biggest sports event in Oman. It is on the front page not every day but when they announce when they will organise it, where they will organise it, and at the end when the winner is announced.
"Mostly it's the expatriates who do a lot of cycling though," he added. "They do a lot of mountain biking too. As far as Omanis go, still the sport is very young and it'll take a few years - at least five or six years."
Day 3 - Wednesday
Yesterday's 146km second stage from Fanja in Bidbid to Al Bustan provided the first real test for the cyclists at the Tour of Oman, with two short, sharp climbs in the last 20km separating the field and allowing Slovakian phenom Peter Sagan, astoundingly, to fly past the pack on a roller coaster downhill section at well north of 90kph.
I spent the day in the television truck with commentator Matt Keenan and the production manager Davide. Although the Tour of Oman is not being broadcast live - something ASO puts down to a lack of willingness on the Omani side, although I have yet to have this confirmed by the Omani organisers - there is a 26-minute highlights package produced every day, along with a five-minute news bulletin, and 52-minute wrap-up show to be made at the Tour's completion.
ASO has sealed distribution agreements with 23 broadcasters, which means that coverage of the race is available in 180 territories around the world. In reality, pan-regional deals with Eurosport (55 countries across Europe), Al Jazeera Sports (24 countries across the Middle East), Supersport (52 countries across Africa), ESPN Star/Fox (28 countries across Asia), and Direct TV (21 countries across South America and the Caribbean) account for most of that. A full list of the broadcasters taking the coverage is available on the Tour of Oman website.
Given the lack of live coverage and the fact that the highlights are made available the day after each stage, news coverage is crucial. Whenever live isn't available, Keenan tells me, the news clips are always the first priority for any production team as they guarantee the broadest and quickest exposure. For the Tour of Oman, the five-minute news bulletins - commentary-free although with a script - are packaged up and made available at around 2130 local time. ASO has deals in place with global sports news networks Reuters, Eurovision, SNTV and Perform.
Keenan and Davide are part of a 19-man production crew at the Tour of Oman, the majority of them contracted from French production company AMP Visual TV, headed up by ASO head of coordination and production Matthieu Perez.
Even just for highlights, a 19-man production crew is a tight unit. A live production would require at least triple that number. There are two cameras on motorbikes, one cinevision camera under-mounted to a helicopter which covers the race from the sky, and a fourth on a crane at the finish. At the Tour de France, there are six cameras on bikes, an OB van, a plane, and a lot more. Here, there is also a fifth cameraman who follows Keenan around as he interviews riders pre- and post-stage and then flits around Oman to shoot short, magazine-style colour pieces, one or two of which will be inserted into the highlights package for the stage.
Yesterday, for instance, the fifth cameraman spent the day filming inside the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, one of Oman's first five-star hotels and the striking venue that Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales chose to stay when they visited the sultanate shortly after their marriage.
Global Cycling Network have sent a cameraman/journalist to the race separately and he covers what he can - interviews pre- and post-stage, coverage of some of the race - usually the breakaway - and the finish - before uploading a short clip later in the evening.
Keenan is officially designated as the English language commentator for the race, but in this instance, no other commentary is provided. A regular commentator on all manner of sports events back at home in Australia, since his first stint at the Tour of Qatar in 2007 Keenan has become ASO's go-to English language commentator. As well as Qatar and Oman, his is the in-house voice that describes the pictures at Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a Espana and the Tour de France - although he hands over to the veteran partnership of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the latter race.
Davide and Keenan begin the day by driving the camera equipment out to the start of the stage. It then gets loaded onto the bikes while Keenan strolls through the assembling bunch of riders picking out interviews. The stage begins and the truck drives ahead a few kilometres in front of the race. Once a two-man breakaway has formed and gained some time on the pack, the truck slots in behind them and the race settles down into a familiar pattern.
Before heading the Middle East for the Tours of Qatar and Oman, Davide and AMP Visual TV were in Russia to film the Bolshoi ballet. He will head back to Moscow in August for the IAAF athletics world championships. He says he prefers producing live music events to sports, largely because you can actually see what's going on.
He has a point. Even in one of the front cars that follows the race, there is not a great deal to see. With no TV monitors, Keenan relies on race radio updates for information on how the race is unfolding - the same race radio updates that the operation's two social media operatives use to send out tweets to the world via the Tour of Oman's official twitter feed. He notes down how far ahead the breakaway is from the peloton at regular intervals and settles down to read his book as the spectacular Omani landscape - like something out of Star Wars - rolls by and Davide plays country and western music from the truck's music system.
From time to time the two TV motorbikes ride alongside to collect a drink or some sweets. Christophe, the producer, directs the production operation from his viewpoint in the helicopter up above, although he hardly needs to: the four men on the TV motorbikes are 'Moto 1' and 'Moto 2' on the Tour de France. They are cycling TV veterans, impossibly bronzed and equally fearless, and know instinctively exactly where they need to be.
As the breakaway is reeled in by the peloton and the race comes back together, the truck speeds off again ahead of the group. As the route enters Muscat the number of people lining the roads is genuinely astounding. Keenan is thrilled. These are genuine spectators - not shipped in from anywhere by the organisers - and he notes that each year the locals warm to the Tour of Oman even more - a stark contrast from Qatar.
As the truck scales the first sharp climb of the day some way ahead of the pack, Keenan begins to get excited. The hill seems to come from nowhere and is a lot more difficult than the roadbook suggests. "This will make for a great highlights package," he says as the truck struggles in first up the slope.
Keenan is a true student of his trade; calling, it would seem, is his calling and his passion for cycling is evident. He also does an uncanny take on Billy Birmingham's irreverent The Twelfth Man impressions.
Having parked up at the finish, Keenan watches Peter Sagan take the win, braces himself for a difficult interview with the Slovakian - who is not renowned for his English - and finds his cameraman.
Keenan needn't have worried; front and centre of a media scrum he expertly coaxes out Sagan's reaction before heading back to the truck. True to previous form, however, Davide has already driven off (he insists he needed to refuel!), and Keenan hitches a lift with his fifth cameraman.
Back at the headquarters hotel, the production team is hard at work editing the footage. The graphics and magazine pieces are pre-prepared and ready to go so it's just the pre-race, post-race and race footage itself that needs to be edited. Keenan consults with the two editors tasked with the job - at least one more would be needed for the highlights to go out the same day - before grabbing a bite to eat and resting until he is required to do his bit.
At around 2300 the team has got the footage down to 26 minutes and Keenan is summoned. He tries to call the race as-live and will only go back and re-record if there is a "monumental cock-up". The fact that he hasn't actually seen the race unfurl helps here.
At anywhere between 0000 and 0100 Keenan's piece is complete, and the 26-minute package, complete with commentary, is ready to be sent off to broadcasters around the world.
Day 2 - Tuesday
Yesterday's first stage of the Tour of Oman started in Al Musannah, a little way down the Gulf of Oman coast from one of the country's largest bull-butting arenas at Barka. Bull-butting is a bloodless sport in which bull is pitched against bull, normally resulting in one running away. The beasts are restrained with ropes if things turn nasty.
No such restraint will be necessary between the two big beasts on Team Sky during the Tour of Oman as Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins rolled in behind the rest of the peloton yesterday having been held up by a crash. Wiggins sits last in the general classification standings and has confirmed that teammate and Tour de France runner-up Chris Froome is very much the man.
Wiggins and Froome join the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Joaquim Rodriquez - all grand tour winners or contenders - along with Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel and world champion Philippe Gilbert on what is undoubtedly the strongest line-up the race has had in its now four-year history.
It is probably the only time this season that the Tour de France's main contenders will compete against each other before July and it is a line-up that lends the race a great deal of credibility.
That is certainly the attitude of most of the assembled media here in Oman.
ASO, which runs the nitty gritty of the race on behalf of organisers Muscat Municipality, has invited 30 members of the media from as representative a spread around the world as possible; journalists from cycling publications and newspapers in the US, Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, the UK, Japan and Taiwan are here, along with a veteran bunch of cycling photographers and videographers.
Many of them have come straight from the ASO-run Tour of Qatar, which took place last week, and to which ASO also invited 30 members of the media. For those that are covering both races, Oman is a breath of fresh air. The strength of the field, the variety of the course (there are actual hills!) and the fact that Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish, who dominated in Qatar, is not here means that the stories they send home will at least be different everyday. And I've yet to meet anyone who says they prefer the emirate over the sultanate.
For the media, the day starts at the assembly point in the middle of the hotel complex where a couple of cars and a bus wait to ferry them to the stage start, and then directly to the stage finish. Or at least that's the plan. Yesterday, the media bus was requisitioned by a group of team mechanics who needed to set off earlier so a replacement, complete with suitably rule-bending driver, was hastily drafted in by Thomas Cariou, the man heading up ASO's communications operation for the race.
The Tour of Oman is not broadcast live, which means there are no monitors with live pictures in the cars, or at the stage finish. This is something of a return to 'the good old days' for the the press pack, whose only chance of describing the race rests on squeezing the story of how the day unfurled from a rider at the finish line.
Though that might not be ideal, it seems to be compensated for by the fact that it is much easier - although getting less so - to get one-on-one interview opportunities with big name riders in Oman, the relaxed atmosphere and limited press numbers bringing the professionals out of their shells a little.
German sprinter Marcel Kittel (above) won the stage yesterday, which meant that a rider whose team is sponsored by a growing European oil company - Argos Oil - took the majority of the media exposure on day one of a race which exists largely so Oman can diversify away from the reliance on its own oil industry.
Interviews complete and race pieced together, it's back on the bus and into the cars for the journey back to the hotel. For all the Tour of Oman's plus points, the diffuse nature of the course means there are some fairly long transfer times - a grumble of the journalists and the riders alike.
Today's stage should go down well though, as the convoy faces a minimal one hour drive to the stage start and then a 146km trip to the finish at Al Bustan, which is very close to the headquarters hotel.
Day 1 - Monday
The fourth edition of the Tour or Oman road cycling race begins today and I am in the sultanate to cover the business behind the race.
The six-stage race features 18 teams this year - two more than last time - and all of them will be holed up at the race's luxurious base camp hotel just outside of Oman's capital, Muscat.
Most of the teams arrived at the hotel on Saturday, many of the riders having just competed in the Tour of Qatar - a very different Middle Eastern race, though one organised, like the Tour of Oman, by Tour de France owners ASO.
A couple of the Team NetApp-Endura riders, however, were on my Oman Air flight from London yesterday. Not only were the unfortunate pair tasked with getting through Omani immigration - not a quick process - with just me for company, but they also had to retrieve the majority of the team's luggage that had failed to arrive on time from Qatar.
It wasn't just the NetApp-Endura bags that had been delayed. The baggage hall at Muscat International was scattered with top-end cycling equipment yesterday. As far as I know, nothing has been reported missing, and a collegiate atmosphere between the teams prevailed, with the BMC and Saxo-Tinkoff teams doing the rounds at the airport to pick up their rivals' bags as well as their own.
After a charmingly shambolic press conference last night, at which most of the local press cameras were pointed on the audience rather than on race organiser Eddy Merckx on stage, everyone is ready for the race to begin today.
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