Blazin' Saddles

The boys (and Katusha) are back in town

Blazin' Saddles

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The sight of big guns Joaquim Rodriguez, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali going head-to-head on the Green Mountain in Oman had most cycling fans going weak at the knees.

After an opening of the season dominated by the likes of fastmen Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, we finally had some proper uphill racing on our hands – and boy, was it a treat.

Not that any of us outside Oman could actually watch it live. Fierce TV licensing in the host nation means the rest of the world has had to rely on Twitter updates from the race – which is a great shame because some of the scenery – and riding – in Oman is spectacular.

When the highlights packages are posted online at the end of the day, they have been a joy. The Omani helicopter camera crews are giving the Tour de France chaps a run for their money. Or perhaps the French dudes have simply come here for a spot of pre-season training...

The package for stage four – way too short at just three minutes – was a work of art. The first half showed the peloton weaving through some rolling valleys surrounded by lunar-esque peaks capped with circular watch towers; we saw a break form and get reeled in on the flat – all set to a searing Ludovico Einaudi-style piano and strings score ('Stupeur' by Jean-Marie Leau, apparently).

Then the road headed upwards and the music's pace shifted accordingly to something akin to the atmospherically epic 'O Fortuna' from Orff's 'Carmina Burana'. (Shazam informs Saddles it was 'Akkadian Empire' by Audiomachine – a motivational piece if ever there was one.)

It was like watching that battle scene in Gladiator as Rodriguez – playing the Russell Crowe role and unleashing hell – brought his men to the front.

On the 13% slopes of the race's only summit finish, off pinged Purito after some shoulder-to-shoulder squaring up alongside his rivals. Evans, on his 36th birthday, managed to claw his way back to the others, while defending Oman champion Nibali, looking very out of place in the baby blue of Astana, faltered.

Putting aside all the problems at Katusha, Rodriguez took the win by four seconds ahead Froome, the new race leader, while Evans beat Contador for third.

It's early days, but it bodes well for the new season. And seeing Rodriguez yet again so majestic on the climbs was a reminder of how dull any Grand Tour will be without his presence. As expected, a love-in ensued on Twitter for both Purito and Katusha on Valentine's Day.

Perhaps the chaps at the Court of Arbitration for Sport were watching because, less than 24 hours later, they upheld Katusha's appeal of the UCI's decision not to issue the Russian team a WorldTour licence.

The big wigs of Russia's Global Cycling Project were clearly not expecting any favours from CAS ahead of the hearing – hence the not-so-covert testing of a series of new high-powered Katusha rockets over the Urals on Friday morning.

Russian authorities were swift to downplay the rockets – claiming, as you do, that the explosions came from a couple of meteorites. There was even talk of the loud bangs merely being the result of a celebratory fireworks display organised by Katusha's Denis Menchov in his Chelyabinsk winter retreat.

Menchov himself made no effort to distance himself from the incendiary accusations, telling his followers on Twitter that he was going for a training ride, adding the caveat: "Mama Menchov cook new borscht recipe this morning so will be more explosions in Urals for sure today."

CAS ruling aside, Rodriguez had contributed to another fine stage in Oman on Friday as Froome cemented his lead on the penultimate day of the race by outsprinting Contador and Rodriguez for his first win of the season.

The three riders had broken clear of the pack on the last of three nasty climbs in the stage from Al Alam Palace to Boshar's Ministry of Housing. Contador, ahem, looked very much at home with a series of pulsating attacks that only Froome and Purito could follow – despite a valiant effort from Evans, who looks in far better nick at this stage of the season than he did last year, where sinus problems ravaged his preparations for the new campaign.

Froome's win gives him a theoretically unassailable 27-second lead over Contador in the overall standings – meaning the Kenyan-born Briton will start his big season as Sky's top dog in the same way that Bradley Wiggins carried out most of his entire 2012 campaign: winning.

As for Wiggo – or as Dave Brailsford would diplomatically put, Sky's other "talent" – the reigning Tour champion led the chasing group alongside Evans on Friday but lies over eight minutes down on GC. Not that this will be a concern; there's still plenty of time to condition himself ahead of the Giro d'Italia in May.

One former big gun, who is now but a mere misfiring starting pistol at a shambolic school sports day, was absent from the gathering arsenal of stars in Oman. As Froomey et al battled it out on the Arabian Peninsula, Andy Schleck continued his long and protracted comeback with yet another withdrawal – this time from this weekend's Tour de Haut-Var. Instead, he'll train in Mallorca.

If the boys are back in town, then Schleck is very much stuck in the suburbs armed with nothing but a faulty satnav.

Still, things could be worse: he could work for the UCI, who now face a mammoth task of saving face in the whole 'Katushambles'.

With Katusha forcibly reinstated, there are now 19 teams and not the allocated 18 in the WorldTour. Something's got to give – and those wildcard entries such as Saxo Bank-Tinkoff, Argos Shimano, Ag2R and Lotto Belisol will probably be sweating it out a bit.

With Saxo manager Bjarne Riis back under the spotlight following the recent doping confessions of Michael Rasmussen, perhaps Oleg Tinkov is regretting posting a picture of the UCI overlords Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen back in January, days after his Saxo team were given the green light.

It wasn't so much the picture of McQuaid and Verbruggen that no doubt caused consternation; rather, the accompanying (and ever so slightly hypocritical) message: "Two bosses. They are responsible for s*** in the cycling, and need to be clean out of modern cycling. #Greed #Fat".

Pat's decision may not be so hard, after all.

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