Ben Hermans went up Green Mountain on Saturday afternoon looking to hold onto the red jersey at the Tour of Oman. He came back down it with his second stage win of the week, a hefty down payment on overall victory, and a significant boost to his standing within the BMC Racing team.
It is one thing to earn an opportunity at leadership, but quite another to seize it as convincingly as Hermans did here. He insisted earlier in the week that the departure of Philippe Gilbert during the off-season has not altered his place in the BMC hierarchy this season, but the manner of his triumph in Oman suggested that the Belgian will have further chances to shine before the spring is out.
“It's a confirmation after many good placings in the last few years,” BMC directeur sportif Valerio Piva said just past the finish line. “When he has space within the team like on this occasion, he knows he needs to grab it with both hands.”
Hermans led the race by five seconds from Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) coming into its pivotal stage, but rather than seek simply to hold onto his advantage, he adopted an aggressive stance on the stiff upper slopes of Green Mountain, where the average gradient exceeds 10 per cent. After Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data) attacked in the finale, Hermans responded in kind inside the final kilometre. Only Fabio Aru (Astana) could offer resistance, but even the 2016 Vuelta a España winner had to yield to Hermans on steepest ramps before the finish.
“I was quite confident when I saw the others for the GC, they were on the limit while I felt I could still accelerate,” Hermans said. “But when I accelerated to get Kudus, I saw Aru, and he really, really wanted that win today. He didn't give up. Even at 100 metres to go, he saw that I had won, but he was still sprinting for this win, so I had to dig really deep to get this win. I couldn't say anything for two minutes afterwards.”
Hermans inched across the finish line three seconds clear of Aru and 11 in front of Rui Costa, and thanks to the stage winner’s time bonus, he has considerable breathing room atop the general classification ahead of Sunday’s flat final leg on Matrah Corniche. His lead of 22 seconds over Rui Costa ought to be sufficient, even if memories of the puncture that cost him the 2015 Arctic Race of Norway on the final day still linger.
“The more seconds you have, the easier it is tomorrow, and I didn’t want to go into the last stage with a one-second advantage and then lose it because of a bonus sprint. That would have been a big stress trying to sleep tonight,” Hermans said. “It doesn't happen often where you go into the last stage as a leader and lose it, but I also had the lead in the Arctic Race two years ago, and I still lost it by a mechanical, so I can't say I have won the GC yet.”
Hermans entered the professional ranks with Topsport Vlaanderen in 2009 after an impressive under-23 career in Belgium, but it is only in the past two seasons that he has begun to confirm that potential at elite level.
Victory at Brabantse Pijl in 2015 had the feel of a turning point, but even then, his progress in the Ardennes Classics was stunted immediately by a bout of illness that forced him out of Flèche Wallonne and limited his capacities at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Following Philippe Gilbert’s departure for Quick-Step Floors during the off-season, Hermans will enjoy greater freedom at the Ardennes this season, though he stressed that strong displays on the longer ascents of Oman were not necessarily a reliable indicator for the more explosive efforts required in April.
“They are different; you have three-minute efforts in the Ardennes, whereas here you have five- and twenty-minute efforts,” Hermans said. “You can compare this to the Dauphiné, Tirreno-Adriatico or the Tour of Poland, but not the Classics.”
Hermans’ next stage racing appearance will come at the Volta a Catalunya in March, though with BMC’s two Grand Tour leaders, Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen, both pencilled in to start, the Limburger seems resigned to performing in a supporting role there. He is also set to line up at the Giro d’Italia in May, and though van Garderen will lead the line there, the corsa rosa seems replete with opportunities for a rider of Hermans’ characteristics.
“In the Classics, I'll have a free card if I'm in shape, and in other stage races I'll have my possibilities, but not when Tejay and Richie are there, that's clear,” Hermans said.
Hermans stepped up to the mark in their absence in Oman, to approving nods from his directeur sportif Piva. “He’s had bad luck in recent years. He fractured two vertebrae a couple of years ago, and he’s had a lot of second places,” Piva said. “But he’s earned an important space in our team, because we don’t have too many winning riders and he’s certainly one them.”