Friday, February 13, 2015

Muscat, Oman

Just moments after I had stopped to take refuge from the piercing noon sun at a bus stop shelter, even before I had had a chance to get off my feet, a car stopped and a young man from the driver's seat asked, "Are you okay?  Do you need any help?"

"No, I'm just taking a break from the sun," I said.

"I'm a cyclist too," he said.  "I live just two kilometers from here. Would you like to come to my house for a shower?"

He truly was a cyclist to make such an offer.  His shaved legs and Orica-Green water bottle in a cup holder between the front seats further confirmed it.  Though I'd doused myself earlier in the day in a stream, it wasn't a very thorough cleaning.  It'd been six days since I'd had a shower, so I couldn't say no.

It turned out my benefactor was Polish.  Szczepan (Stephen) had been in Oman eighteen months with his wife and young daughter.  His wife taught English at a nearby university.  He was a ski instructor and personal trainer back home.  There was no skiing here, but he did help some locals with their physical fitness and also served as a cycling coach for a handful of cyclists, though none were as serious about the sport as he was.

He could well qualify as the premier cycling enthusiast in the country, other than me. Just inside the entry to his house was a Polish flag that had been autographed by four cyclists from last year's Tour of Oman, including the Swiss star Fabian Cancellera, who holds the record for the most days in the Yellow Jersey at The Tour de France for riders who have not actually won The Race.  Another autograph was of the lone Polish rider in last year's Tour of Oman along with a pair of his numbers that he wore during the race. 

In his daughter's bedroom was an Omani course maker, Tour de France style, mounted on the wall, complete with the pair of puncture wounds in the middle that the wire had been wound through to hold it in place on a pole.

He was excited that there would be three Polish riders in this year's race, including Rafal Majka, the Tinkoff-Saxo rider who won the climber's competition at last year's Tour de France along with two stages.  He planned on being at every stage again this year.  For five of them it would be an hour-and-a-half drive into Muscat.  For the stage four climb up Green Mountain, the most dramatic and decisive of the race, he could ride to, as the start of the climb was just a kilometer from where we had met.   He said there had been only one foreign fan that he was aware of at last year's race, an English guy.  He had all the scavenging largely to himself.  He gathered over a hundred water bottles and bags full of energy bars from the teams at the end of the race, not wanting to have to fly them back to Europe.  The race was still five days away.  We planned on seeing a lot of each other during the race.  And he volunteered to drive me back to his house for the Green Mountain stage, as it would be a one hundred mile ride from the coast.

While I showered, he cooked up a nice little feast of eggs, potatoes and bacon.  If I had been there a week earlier his mother would have been doing the cooking.  She was visiting from Chicago, where she now lived.   As we ate, we scanned the Tour of Oman website orienting ourselves to the various stages.  They don't all start at the same place as they did in Dubai, but are scattered up and down the long coastal area of Muscat's sprawl.  We also took a glance at Stephen's Facebook feature on his cycling in Oman available to all--cyclOman.  Though it may have been mere happenstance we had met, as Stephen was just returning from a 25-mile training ride and had picked up his daughter at her school, it may well have been preordained that two such enthusiasts would be brought together when they were in such close proximity to one another.

I cycled thirty miles further until dark, camping half a mile off the main highway, leaving me seventy miles from Muscat.  I had a nice shoulder all to myself on a busy four-lane divided highway.  How there could be so much traffic in a country of not much more than three million people I knew not.  And the traffic only thickened as I closed in on the city.  The urban area sprawls for over fifty miles along the coast and began twenty miles away from the interior where I had enjoyed such minimal traffic.  As I closed in on the city the road was bounded by a corridor of grass and trees with sprinklers spraying water.  It was a genuine oasis compared to the desolate terrain of my last couple of hundred miles.  I passed embassy row of magnificent bright white buildings.  There were no futuristic skyscrapers blighting this urban scape.  Muscat remained true to its roots.  There wasn't a building taller than ten stories and none trying to stand out, all blending into a harmonious whole.  The scenery brightened even further when I came upon the first of many billboards advertising the upcoming race, featuring Cancellera up front.

But even more glorious was the first of a series of course markers, a site that always fills me with cheer, though I knew not where these would take me.

If they marked a stage, they were up very early.  Usually they aren't mounted until the day before each stage.  I thought maybe they would lead me to the hotel where all the teams were staying.  But I learned from the Ministry of Tourism that the hotel was actually sixty miles from the town center, well past the airport at Al Musanaah.  I feared I might have to stay at a hotel in town, my first of the trip, but since the Ministry of Tourism had no race or route information, other than what was available on line, I continued on biking out of town to the race headquarters at the hotel hoping for printed material of more detail than given on line.

On the way I came upon a cluster of young cyclists.  It was the junior and cadet national cycle teams just setting out on a training ride.  I stopped for a chat with their coach.  He said he knew Stephen and would be seeing a lot of him next week.  We couldn't talk long as he was driving behind his riders, but before he took off he presented me with a banana. 

As dark approached the coastal corridor wasn't offering any patch of wilderness for camping so I headed inland to the desert.  It took five miles, putting me over one hundred miles for the day, my most by twenty miles of these travels.  For the first time too I set up my tent in the dark and not in the most isolated of places, but I had no concerns for my safety.  I was somewhat disappointed to have to push on so far to the team hotel and not to have gotten all the race information I wanted in town, but I could happily end the day in my tent after Another Great Day on the Bike.  


Bob Hogan said...

Keep living the dream.
Your own Tour series.
with all the water bottles you can carry.
How many do you use in the desert?

Yonder Vittles said...

George - My friend from Rapid Transit, Ben Fietz, is a mechanic for the Optimum Pro women's team and is working the tour in Quatar. You should try to track him down.

george christensen said...

YV: Unfortunately I couldn't include the Tour of Qatar in these travels if I wished to remain fully faithful to the bike. I couldn't have made the 500 mile transfer from Qatar to Oman in time for the Oman race. But the World Championships are in Qatar in the fall of 2016, so I may have another chance.

Regards, g

Laura Bentz said...

But you can have dinner with Stephan's mom when you are back in Chicago!!! You told him that is where you are from? I love your stories; I love that you are sharing your adventures with us. All best, all for now!