Those not kicking a ball around descended upon me when they learned I had bicycled all the way from Dubai, more than five hundred miles away. It was a feat totally beyond their comprehending. They had never heard of someone riding their bike such a distance. They were full of questions and were encouraged by their teacher to keep them coming. One asked, "Don't you get tired? I get tired whenever I ride my bike."
Eddie Merckx was standing less than thirty feet away under another tree, but my bike and I were getting all the attention. The teacher was following the progress of the peloton via twitter on his phone. When it closed to within thirty kilometers he assembled his students to go out and brave the sun along the barriers at the finish line.
Before I could join them a French photographer with the race organization came over for a chat and a few photos. She said she was having a difficult time finding interesting shots. It was her first time in Oman and also the first time she had ever photographed a race. Graham Watson, the legendary English photographer is also here, but I've only seen him moments before the peloton arrives, as he's been out on the race course getting distinctive desert photos. This woman had been hired to capture the non-racing side of the race and was having a struggle. She thought I was quite lucky to have the freedom to be cycling around the country and camping wherever I chose.
I could point to where I had spent the previous night just a mile away around the bend off in a cluster of trees shielded from the road by a chest high hedge. She wondered how I bathed. This very park, I told her, had a rest room with water. I simply filled my water bottle at its sink and poured it over my head several times and wiped myself down with my soaked neckerchief. I do that several times a day when its this hot at the frequent gas stations. Fortunately, she didn't ask what I eat, as I know my basic default evening meal in my tent of ramen and baked beans would have been an affront to her French palate. The French usually gag when they learn I eat their favored causolette stew, when I'm in their country, cold out of the can. Ah, but that all adds to my freedom, not compelled to search for different foods, content with the easy and simple.
Rather than stationing myself right at the finish line in the shade of the arch as I had been doing here and at Dubai I backed off a bit so I could capture the winner with his arms fully in the air. Several climbs in the final kilometers thinned out the peloton, so it was just down to a select group of eighteen strongmen including Valverde, Van Garderen, Sagan and Cancellera but minus Nibali and Rodriquez. And the strongest of this day was the man known as Spartacus, Cancellera, who had won the inaugural Tour of Oman.
It was an uphill finish that left all the riders bent over their bikes and gasping just beyond the finish. Cancellera whipped off his helmet and squeezed what fluid was left in his bottle down his throat.
In the park where the podium had been set up a group of Omani musicians played traditional music. There were almost as many of them as there were spectators.
I needed to get down the road, but I lingered for the awards presentation for the rare opportunity to be in close proximity to one of the great cyclists of our time, a man so strong that he was seriously accused of having a motor in his bike when he rode away from everyone at Paris-Roubaix one year. Plenty of people were convinced that a flick he made with his brake lever at the time of his acceleration activated the motor hidden in his bottom bracket, a story that some still hold to be true.
It would have been nice to start riding as soon as the race finished as the road along the coast had been blocked to traffic and was still blocked as some late arrivals straggled in. I had to ride twenty-five miles on the six-lane super highway through Muscat to just beyond the airport before I could turn inland away from the urban sprawl out into the desert. By the time I started I had a little more than two hours before dark. This would be my third time along this nerve-wracking, less than desirable route.
Though I could fly along on a nice wide shoulder, I had to contend with regular on and off ramps that were sometimes two-lanes wide with surging virtual non-stop traffic. It can literally take several minutes before there is a break in traffic to dart across. Leana, the South Africa, had to be rescued by the police when she was stranded in the middle of the highway entering Abu Dhabi, unable to cross a couple of lanes of traffic. I suffered that fear myself a couple times in Dubai. There is no alternative to the super highways at times, and since so few ride bicycles here, they don't bother with forbidding bicyclists on such roads, though they easily could.
It felt good though for the first time in several days to be riding hard at the end of the day, trying to get as far down the road as I could. I had fresh legs after a couple of twenty mile days of minor meandering. Ever since my night in the hotel on Valentine's Day I have been camping in pre-selected campsites on the fringe of Muscat, waiting until dark until I could retreat to them. I pedaled on right to dark this night and was able to set up my tent tingling with the exhilaration I had lately been deprived of. And I could go to sleep happy to know I had a full day of cycling ahead of me the next day. I wasn't upset at all that I would be skipping the day's third stage way out by the team hotel, as I continued heading inland seventy-five miles to Green Mountain, the stage four finish.
I didn't have the most isolated of campsites, but it was perfectly adequate.