Leigh Howard Pulls On Best Young Rider Jersey at Tour of Oman

Tue 18 Feb 2014

Leigh Howard sprinted into the best young rider jersey on the opening stage of the Tour of Oman. Howard finished second to André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) in Naseem Garden. Nicola Ruffoni (Bardiani-CSF) rounded out the podium.

The early action was dominated by a four rider breakaway that slipped away from the peloton shortly after the neutral section. The quartet opened up a five minute advantage before Lotto Belisol sent its troops to the front to begin the chase. As the Belgian squad closed in on the escape group, the peloton hit a crosswind section that split the field. Greipel was the most notable name to miss the selection.  Howard and all seven of his ORICA-GreenEDGE teammates had made the split.

The excitement was short-lived. The peloton quickly came back together and the sprint trains began to ready for the fast finale. Howard looked towards his teammates to keep his safe and well-positioned in the build-up to the sprint, and they did exactly that, their efforts propelling him into second place on the stage.

With bonus seconds up for grabs at the finish line, Greipel pulled on the red leader’s jersey with a 4” advantage over Howard. Ruffoni sits in third overall at 6”, tied on time with Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), who scooped up bonus seconds after a day spent in the break.  The majority of the field is 10” behind Greipel and 6” behind Howard after the first day of racing.

Back at the race hotel, Howard took some time to answer questions about his day.

Q: Can you briefly review your past experience in Oman for those that might not know?

Oman was actually my first race as a professional, and I won stage four here that year – which was 2010. I still hold the record as the youngest stage winner over the past six editions of the race. This is my first time returning to the race since that first year. It’s good to be back.

Q: Looking at the profile, it was pretty clear today was going to be a sprint. What was the team plan?

Yes, as you said, we had a pretty good idea that it was going to be a sprint. Other teams obviously knew that as well. The break went right away, and it was pretty relaxed racing until the last 30 minutes. The way things unfolded was as expected and according to the plan.

Today was a was a good way to kick off the tour without too much stress – especially after Qatar, which was six days with as much stress as you could handle.

Q: The early break went pretty quickly today – then what?

Not much really until the end. With about 20 kilometres left, there was a crosswind section. We were lucky; we were all in the front. Greipel missed the split, which could have been a good opportunity for us. In saying that, we knew there was always a good chance it would come back.

We were pretty pleased to have the whole team was up there. It gave us confidence, and I was ready for the sprint by that point.

Q: Did we choose to get involved with the chase?

No, we didn’t do too much. I’m not one of the favourites for the sprints, especially with Greipel here. Lotto was the first team to come to the front. They did most of the work chasing. A few other teams helped at the very end.

Q: Can you walk us through the build-up to the sprint and the actual sprint in a bit of detail?

From about ten kilometres to go, I tried to stick around Daryl Impey. He’s very skilled at staying toward the front in finishes like this. At one stage, we had nearly the whole team on the front.

With about five kilometres to go, Daryl and I got separated. There were some concrete barriers that disrupted the bunch, and in the re-shuffle, I lost him.

After that, there was a deviation from the originally planned finish because of some road work. The final four kilometres got changed a bit. With two kilometres to go, there was a big round-about, and we had to go three quarters of the way around, in the long direction, and switch the left-hand side of the road. It was a pretty decisive point. Anyone who wanted a chance at a result had to be on the front because coming out of the corner, if you weren’t in the top 20, it was too much ground to make up.

Jens Keukeleire did a really good job bringing me to the front right at the right time. I was top 15 out of the corner. From there, I was by myself.

There was a headwind sort of from the left hand side. I picked a good train, taking the wind direction into consideration. I think I slotted into fourth wheel with 500 metres to go.

I had a bit of a battle with Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) in the last 500, and luckily I won that battle. I ended up third wheel when Greipel started his sprint. I couldn’t make up enough ground on Greipel to challenge him, but I beat the other guys to the line. It was a nice result considering it’s my first sprint of the year.

Q: You earned the best young rider jersey for your efforts. From your Tweet it sounds like that was a bit of surprise. Is that right?

It was less about that and more – it four years ago that I was here for the first race, so I’m mostly surprised that I’m still classified as a young rider. I’m very happy to be in it. It’s always nice to have a jersey on your back. It will be good to start the stage in the white jersey tomorrow.

Q: Looking towards stage two – do you anticipate going for it again?

Yes, absolutely. I’m going to try to win tomorrow, just like all the other sprinters. With the time bonuses and my result today, if I can post a good result again tomorrow and Greipel isn’t in the top three, it’s possible that I can take the leader’s jersey. The main focus, of course, is the stage win, but I’m thinking about the jersey a little bit, too.