Cycling can be a cruel sport, and it's a wonder how Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie) managed to summon the energy for the final pedal strokes on stage 5 of the Tour of Oman. He had ridden pretty much the whole of Green Mountain alone and looked set for huge underdog triumph, only to be unceremoniously passed by race leader Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) just 100 metres from the summit.
It was the second day in a row the Tour of Oman has served up heartbreak for breakaway riders. On Tuesday, Ian Boswell, Darwin Atapuma, and Nathan Van Hooydonck were caught by the peloton 500 metres from the line, and on Green Mountain it was more acute still.
Grellier had been in the day's early break and they reached the foot of Green Mountain – a 5.7km climb with an average gradient of 10.5 per cent – with a lead of three minutes over the peloton. There was faint hope.
As the breakaway group fragmented, Grellier had company in teammate Romain Cardis and told him to lead the way, on the lower slopes, setting tempo even if the slipstream counted for little on a road that steep. Soon Grellier was alone, making his way up the mountain and stalked by the GC riders in a dramatic pursuit match that could be seen played out in full panorama – albeit in miniscule – from the summit.
"My director was saying 'don't look back, don't look back, you can do it, you can do it'," Grellier revealed.
"I wasn't looking behind much. I didn't really have any way to judge it properly because they can seem very close, but it's so steep that it can take minutes to cover 500 metres.
"I was going full gas, I didn't calculate anything at all, and I really put everything in. I was just taking it kilometre by kilometre. At three kilometres to go I said to myself there are two kilometres to go, and with two kilometres to go I said to myself there is one left. In the end I wasn't thinking straight at all. I think my masseur will have a lot of work on his hands this evening..."
Grellier, 24, turned pro with Direct Energie in 2016, and victory on Green Mountain would have been his first as a professional.
Unfortunately, Lutsenko and Domenico Pozzovivo were advancing and, while he managed to hold off the Italian, Lutsenko had enough in the tank to summon another acceleration and round him in the dying moments.
"It's shame, but I have no regrets, I gave everything. That's how it is," Grellier said.
"Voila, I'm still happy with myself. It's still a great performance, to be second here on such a hard day. It's a hell of a climb. I've gone up hard climbs in my life but nothing like this, so it will remain ingrained in my head for a long while."