Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mutrah, Oman

Although the distant and isolated Millennium Hotel and Resort, that is Tour of Oman headquarters and will be hosting all eighteen teams and their eight riders and staff, had no race programs or brochures on offer four days before the race is to commence when I made the seventy-five mile ride out there from Muscat two days ago, the concierge did share with me the stage route information she had.  It was just what I wanted--much more detailed maps than available on line of each of the six stages and estimated times it would take the peloton to ride each stretch of road of all the stages.  

I sat in the lobby of the deluxe hotel among the upper crust copying down all the information and taking advantage of the hotel's WIFI and electricity.  There were no racers ambling about, as none of the teams had arrived yet, many wrapping up the Tour of Qatar over 500 miles away.  This was the first time in its six editions that the race had based itself at the Millennium.  In previous years it had used a hotel in the city.  This would entail considerable transfers for the riders.  Most of the stages started nearby, but ended a long ways away, inflicting a not very welcome two hour or longer drive back to the hotel in buses much less luxurious than the riders are accustomed to.  If they had a union, they might be mounting some grievances.

I didn't altogether object to my long ride out to the hotel and back, as it allowed me for the first time some cycling along the Arabian Sea and a couple of dips.  Long stretches were lined with fishing boats and small shanties.  The beaches were otherwise quiet and uninhabited, more scarred by tire tracks than foot prints.

I was also able to get a taste of quite a few miles of the various stages, as course markers had been posted for all of them, though there was no defining which markers were for which stage.  They criss cross one another, so it could be hazardous to start following course markers unless I was absolutely certain where they were leading, as they could take me a long ways from where I intended to go. They heat and relentless sun (I have yet to see a cloud) discouraged me from wanting to unnecessarily meander.  Many miles will be ridden on super highways.  The below may be called a street, named for the current Sultan, but it is actually a six-lane divided highway through the heart of the city with two lanes merging from the right at this intersection.

Unlike when following The Tour de France course markers, I couldn't turn off my navigational systems and simply follow the arrows.  I had to remain alert as to where they were taking me.  Still each and every one gave me a jolt of joy knowing I was on a race route and that I was in Oman of all places. They were also a strong reflection on the integrity and goodwill of the Omanis being posted better than a week before they were needed without any concern of their being prematurely appropriated as souvenirs.  Racing fans elsewhere would not be able to resist temptation for such a prolonged period.  In Europe they are erected just the day before and are largely respected.  Only rarely does some miscreant snatch one before the peloton passes.

I've already got my eyes on a handful of markers in the finishing stretches of several of the stages.  I've been able to scout out all six of the finishes and feel well prepared.  I can somewhat relax the next two days, perhaps finding a beach to hang out at down the coast and taking my first rest.  I've ridden 800 miles since I arrived in Dubai  eleven days ago and haven't made as big of a dent in the four books I brought along as I would have liked.  And I just downloaded a Peter Mayle ebook I had on reserve from the Chicago Public Library in preparation for another summer in France.  The marvels of this technological age never cease.

Nor does the generosity and the goodwill of the Omanis.  Motorists continue to stop to express interest in my welfare, even giving me their phone number in case I have need of any assistance.  The latest was an Omani/Indian duo as I backtracked to the old port and fishing village of Mutrah that is just two miles from the Sultan's palace.  They too were amazingly cordial and good-hearted.  They got a good laugh that friends feared for my life coming to Oman, assuming that it being Islamic and in the Middle  East that I was putting my neck at great risk. No one has been upset by such a misconception, just amused. They knew I could camp anywhere and not worry.

I had just visited the stage two finish at Al-Bustan a bit down the coast and was returning to Mutrah, which Lonely Planet said had the cheapest hotels in Muscat, though cheap in Oman is forty dollars.  Food and drink are a bargain.  I haven't even been spending five dollars a day, but lodging is not.  I was going to spend my first not in a hotel since I arrived because it was Valentine's Day and I owed Janina a call.  With the ten hour time difference it wasn't really feasible to call her during the day-light hours. 

The cheapest hotel in Mutrah was closed. The next cheapest next door, overlooking the port, had risen its rates making it more expensive than a cheap hotel in America, An English woman of my age had arrived just before I had and joined me as we looked at our options.  She had spent several hours looking for a bargain hotel and admitted that this would have to do even though it was more than she anticipated.  We might have agreed to share a room, but such a suggestion might have gotten us a visit for the police.  I've had no sense of censure, nor gotten any dirty looks for wearing shorts despite notices on some stores that they are discouraged, but sharing a room with a woman I had just met might have been pushing it.

The hotel had WIFI, but it was too feeble for FaceTime and Skype is blocked here. I tried an Internet cafe.  Its signal was strong enough to get the ringing tone but fell short of connecting, so we had to settle with an email exchange.  At least Janina was able to send a brief ballet routine and Valentine greeting she had just taped in her living room--another technological marvel that somewhat made it feel like Valentine's Day.  I asked the two guys I met along the road if they were acknowledging the day.  They were both aware of the day, but the young Omani said he didn't have a girl friend and the older Indian said his wife was back in India and they were having a tiff. 

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