Cresting a hill in the Al Hajar Mountains, the spectacular vista of a valley bathed in late winter sunlight reveals itself to a rider clad in skin-tight, lightweight racing gear, sunglasses and a helmet.
But he has little time to appreciate the view as the short, sharp inhalations and exhalations from behind him signal that a competitor is hot on his heels. Pedals once again kicked into action, he is on his way as the track takes a steep decline and veers to the right.
Taking in some of the best off-roading Oman has to offer two-wheeled riders with a course that stretches from Yiti right down to Qalhat, the Trans Hajar Mountain Bike Race is back for the 6th year and its popularity continues to surge. What was started in 2010 by some local expat cyclists quickly gained traction, fans and – most importantly – sponsorship, funding and logistical support to become the Middle East’s premier multi-day mountain bike stage race.
More than 300km of fierce off-road terrain including mountains, canyons, wadis, will be traversed in the four-stage race, spread out over as many days, starting on February 22.
“It’s a long endurance race and riders’ abilities will be tested in every sense of the word,” says Rob Gardner, founder of Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre, the company drafted in by the Oman Cycling Association [OCA] to help run this year’s event. “There will be steep descents through mountains, but it will offer great views and the chance to see parts of Oman that very few people ever do.”
Rob has a passion for cycling as well as all other forms of outdoor activities and after spending 20 years in the Sultanate, firmly believes that the country is an “untapped adventure playground”.
With the Trans Hajar Mountain Race starting as the Tour of Oman comes to a close, it’s fair to say that Oman is currently in the grip of cycling fever, as fans of the sport are treated to a high-quality double bill.
While the Tour of Oman only allows cycling enthusiasts the chance to look on in amazement as their favourite professional riders hurtle by, the Trans Hajar Mountain Bike Race offers the opportunity for them to get right in there among the action. With day rates starting at RO40 for local riders and four-day packages from RO250, which includes all board and lodgings, food and mechanical support, the event is open to all.
The Trans Hajar Mountain Bike Race also has a growing international following, attracting riders from as far afield as Denmark, South Africa and Switzerland, as well as GCC neighbours the UAE and Qatar.
“The race offers people a great experience to meet some of the professional riders you see on TV and read about in the magazines. You get to talk to them, experience how they do things and set your skills against them,” says Rob.
Rob’s team spent a solid month going out every single day, checking over the routes, cleaning them up and making sure they were safe and accessible. The aim is to take riders away from the typical tourist hotspots and into the wilderness, where some of Oman’s real beauty can be found.
“I know some of the [stage] areas very well and there’s one particular route in mind that is going to be a mind-blowing experience for riders,” Rob says enigmatically, refusing to reveal any more.
Although the riders are yet to pull up to the starting line for this year’s event, the plans are already being put in place to ensure that the Trans Hajar Mountain Bike Race continues to go from strength to strength and becomes an internationally recognised staple on the mountain bike racing calendar.
“We want to grow the race into a big event that will help to bring tourism, generate a sport that Omanis will look at and want to take up and provide an event for Oman that is internationally recognised,” says Rob.
The possibility of introducing a shortened loop for students is another option that is being explored for the future. “If we can develop that, they [the students] would then be seen as potential athletes, which the OCA could pinpoint and develop further into an Omani team,” says a hopeful Rob.
And if that does come to pass, in the future, it could be an Omani crossing the finish line first and stepping up to the podium to lift the trophy as the eyes of the world look on.