Sunshine, Sand and Magic in Muscat

Oman, not somewhere I’d ever thought I’d visit let alone visit to see a cycle race that Milltag was the official racewear partner. However, after two days in Muscat, I can safely say that we will be back.

So, how has a boutique custom cycle wear company from Notting Hill come to supply the ASO (perhaps better known for the other races they put on like, oh you know, Paris-Roubaix? La Vuelta? The Tour de France?), and see their jersey on the back of the sport’s most famous torsos including Mark Cavendish and Greg van Arvamaet?

It goes back to our first foray into race sponsorship back in 2015-2016 with the Tour de Yorkshire, now a mainstay event for the French company following the incredible success of the Grand Depart in 2014. We designed the winners’ jerseys incorporating subtle graphic patterns to provide the race with its own identity and sold replica jerseys to Yorkshire’s passionate cycling public.

Feedback on our technical garments from the ASO after the event was extremely positive, but sadly, as a certain French brand renewed their contract with the Tour de France in 2017 and took the opportunity to look after the Tour de Yorkshire, we said ‘bon voyage’ to the organisers to concentrate on our core business of looking after amateur clubs, retail and the Matrix Women’s team including Laura Kenny and Elinor Barker.

We stayed in touch over the last two years and although a couple of opportunities came and went, late in 2017 the ASO offered us the chance to supply the winners’ jerseys for Tour of Oman in February. For those of you that don’t know about the ToO, it was actually started by a certain Eddy Merckx in 2009 and has been run by the ASO as a UCI 2.1 race for eight editions. It has always attracted big names due to opportunity to bask in some early season sunshine, race on quality roads and stay in relative luxury compared to the soulless identikit hotels of Europe that teams spend most of their lives in. Previous winners include Fabian Cancelarra, Chris Froome and Vincenso Nibali.

Whilst the race is not currently shown live on TV – meaning that keeping up with the goings on is a somewhat archaic venture of checking Twitter every few minutes reminiscent of the days of Teletex – there is a small highlights package and most importantly for us, with a backdrop of sun baked mountains, sea and beautiful Arabian architecture, the photographs are incredible. What better way to launch our new Pro Jersey and rebrand.

Work on the jersey design started immediately and taking our inspiration from the classic geometric patterns of Arabian architecture the core concept was signed-off. Up to this point the jerseys were red (GC), Green (Points), White (Young) and a polka dot made up of Omani flags (Most Aggressive) but we wanted to create a set that had a more natural flow so suggested that this last jersey became gold, inspired by the landscape and the khanjar dagger inside its sheath that is superimposed upon two crossed swords that appears on the Omani flag. The representative of the Sultanate of Oman and the ASO agreed and we were ready to go.

One of the benefits to us of a so-called ‘desert race’ is that the amount of products that we are required to provide is pretty straightforward compared to that of the Northern European races like the Tour de Yorkshire. Where there was a jersey, gilet, roubaix jacket, winter jacket, podium jersey (zip up the back) and replicas, there is merely our most advanced summer pro jersey and the podium jersey.

Our new 2018 Pro jersey is a product we are very proud of. An aerodynamic and stylish silhouette with four different fabrics for the perfect balance of speed and breathability. We may have done plenty of our own tests but how would it perform on the backs of the professionals at high temperatures? Off-the-record, pretty damned well.

However, there is a down-side to the Tour of Oman, the race does not get widespread coverage. It means for the organisers that getting sponsors on board early is a little more difficult. It means that we have to supply the garments with white boxes at various points for the sponsors logos to be heat-pressed onto the jerseys just prior to the race – in the same way that the winners’ team graphics are applied just before the podium and for the next day’s racing. It’s not ideal for us as it means we aren’t able to create the perfect balance between design and the logos and it’s why of all the jerseys, it’s the best young rider that looks a little more presentable. But such is the nature of the event and we do our utmost to make sure they look good.

So to the racing and four stages of watching it unfold from the comfort of our studio and Twitter, with the official photography available late each day. It couldn’t really have good much better for us. Bryan Coquard took the sprint on Stage One to pull on the leaders red but with Cav second it meant that he would be wearing the green points jersey on Stage Two.

Stage Two saw Katusha’s Nathan Haas take the win and go into red at Al Bustan before Olympic Champion and current world number one Greg Van Avermaet took it on stage three at the stunning Wadi Dayqah Dam and held on to it the following day, while Nathan Haas ‘borrowed’ the green from Greg as the second placer rider in that competition. All the while the gold jersey was looking good on Confidis’ Loic Chetout as he made it into the break day after day and by the end of Stage Four could not be caught.

Finally, one Friday night I was on my way to join the fun. An overnight flight from a cold Heathrow to Muscat and into 20 degree heat at 7am. At the hotel the teams were already setting off to the start at Sama’Il ready for Stage 5, the Queen stage finishing with a 5.8km ascent of Green Mountain. It was going to decide the race and it was going to be hot, with temperatures expected over 30 degrees.

Pete and myself hitched a lift in one of the support vehicles – a white twin cab Toyota pick-up, driven by the ASO’s most hirsute and affable member of the team, Victor – the hour and a half to the summit of the mountain. It’s a pretty surreal experience, driving on freeways across rocky desert landscape dotted with sometimes very ornate castle-like houses, the occasional vegetation and shops with Arabic titles always with matter-of-fact explanations in English underneath. The heat and lack sleep added to the sense of two fish out of water but with grins on faces as we quickly sped through the countryside.

As we reached the base of the final climb we passed through a small town where groups of people had begun to gather around what was to be today’s podium. In front of a single storey sand coloured castle was a red carpet on which sat several rows of gold chairs with red velvet cushions facing towards the three podium steps flanked by the inward bending columns dotted with the race sponsors. A far cry from the impressive hospitality structures and stage of the Tour de France and the Tour de Yorkshire.

The climb itself is pretty challenging, not as serious as you would find in the Alps but with a number of ramps over 10% aded to the heat, it was sure to cause the peloton to explode. We were thankful for the packed lunch from the hotel as we took in the glorious sunshine that our skin had not felt for what seems like an eternity in the winter of London and waited for the sound of the helicopter, a sure sign that the peloton was about to hit the lower slopes.

Bang on time, the first police motorbikes and race director’s car began the steady ascent, followed by what appeared to be a group of four or five riders and a hundred or so metres behind the rest of the peloton, already started to get strung out. We had no idea who was who with no live commentary or race radio access at the top. It became a guessing game of who could recognise the riders first. One that not surprisingly was won by eagle eyed expert and race commentator Anthony McCrossan. We had heard reports that the Astana team had taking the stage by the scruff of the neck and sure enough it was the team mates of Alexey Lutchenko and white jersey clad Miguel Lopez working together to destroy the rest of the field. With a handshake in the final yards to the line, we had the Milltag jersey cross the line first and as a result allow Lutchenko to move into the Leader’s red and all but take the race victory after the final ‘flat’ stage.

In fifth place, wearing green came Nathan Haas, collapsing by our pick-up after an effort that took seconds from the deposed red jersey wearer GVA.

The rest of the peloton joined us over the next fifteen minutes, some stopping a while to catch their breath, take on liquids or a wet towel around the shoulders, while others simply turned round and made their way back down the mountain to the podium and the buses that would take them back to the hotel.

At the village there was a hive of activity, several battered looking orange trucks were being loaded with some of the most expensive road bikes in the world in between sheets of fold while a group of drummers and dancers performed for the locals and officials. The podium ceremony followed to the sound of two drones hovering over and some applause before we jumped back into the pick-up for the return journey. The second race of the day was now on: to get the film footage, photography, commentators and journalists back to the hotel to edit, write and voiceover the coverage of the day for upload to the world.

A welcome dip in the pool and a shower before dinner while the teams unloaded equipment and riders were massaged (bedroom doors left open for team staff to come and go meant this was in plain view of other hotel guests), before a couple of beers and it was time to get some sleep.

Sunday, Stage 6 from Al Mouj to the Corniche – around the outskirts of Muscat, along three lane highways, into the surrounding rocky mountains for a couple of brief climbs before dropping back into the city for a three lap circuit finishing on the Corniche – a bay-side road in the shadow of cruise ships and the Muscat skyline.

Today we would be following the race from cars – Pete in one of the Race Direction vehicles and myself with the lead Mavic Neutral Service car. But first, to the start area, a tree-covered street with coffee shops on each side for the teams to relax, enjoy and drink and be entertained by the event magician (yes, you read that right, ASO have it’s own magician to keep the atmosphere très jolie!

Once all the riders have signed in and a few are interviewed, then the peloton gathered at the start-line with the four Milltag jerseys at the front. It doesn’t get old seeing the kit you designed being worn my some of the greatest riders on the planet.

We jumped into our cars and after the 3km neutral zone the flag went down and the race got underway. Five riders immediately got into a breakaway and as not all the teams had two vehicles to be able to look after both the peloton and the breakaway it was the Neutral Service car’s job to look after the hydration needs of three of the riders, or should they require any mechanical assistance.

As with the majority of breakaways, the peloton gradually reeled them back in, although as I was dropped off at the line for the final two laps of the circuit, the final rider, Remi Cavagna still had 30 seconds. Without TV coverage it was only as the peloton reached the final few hundred metres that the spectators could see that his attempt had failed and it was now down to a bunch sprint won by the European Champion Alexander Kristoff.

The Race over, the teams gathered to wait for the results as there was a chance that the green jersey would once again be changing hands. And so it was that Nathan Haas, taking six points to Greg Van Arvamaet’s three took it by a single point.

As the Astana team gathered on a small patio outcrop shaded by trees to celebrate the win for Lutchencho and Lopez (in Red and White respectively), and the team prize, a tradition band broke into song. We watched on, huge smiles on our faces drinking in the scene as our first Tour of Oman due to a close.

All that was left was the final podium ceremony and back to the hotel before a relaxing couple of hours by the pool side by side with some of the teams that were leaving in the morning. A time to congratulate Lioc Chetout and the ASO team before packing our bags ready for the early start in the morning and the awaiting dampness of London.


Photos: Copyright 2018 ASO/Kare Dehlie Thorstad & Milltag Cycling Limited