The seemingly interminable uphill drag to the line at Al Bustan seemed to lend itself to the talents of a Belgian rider in the red and black of BMC, but it was Ben Hermans rather than Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet who claimed the spoils on stage 2 of the Tour of Oman.
The finish came little more than a kilometre after the summit of the climb of Al Jissah, and effectively felt like an extension of the same ascent. The BMC squad was active in leading the peloton on Al Jissah and continued in that same vein on the short drop that followed, primarily with Van Avermaet's chances in mind.
At this early juncture in the season, however, hierarchies are not rigorously enforced, and Hermans, by dint of his showing at the recent Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana, also had the freedom to chase stage victory. While Van Avermaet was primed to attack on the final kick to the line, Hermans lay in wait for an eventual sprint, and so it played out. Van Avermaet tracked Merwadi Kudus' initial acceleration as the road reared upwards, but when his effort petered out, Hermans took over.
"We had the plan to attack with Greg and we did like the team asked us," Hermans said. "Greg saw his moment when we just tried to do a little bit of tempo in the middle of the climb. He countered Kudus, but Kudus was too explosive. When Greg came back, I tried. There was still 300 metres to go, but I knew I had only one chance if I made it a very long sprint and not too explosive. It worked out well. I knew the finale was going to be a tough five minutes of climbing, and it was going to be every man for himself.
"I knew the last climb from 2015 when I attacked just before the bottom with Greg and Tejay [van Garderen] as leaders, and I made it with the first guys over the top. I knew this climb was good for me but I didn't expect to win."
Faced with a headwind and a deceptively stiff gradient, the sprint seemed to take place in slow motion, but Hermans had the raw strength to pull away and take victory from Rui Costa (Bahrain-Merida) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), while Kudus came home in fourth. Van Avermaet crossed the line seven seconds down in ninth place, alongside overall favourites Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana).
Hermans's victory sees him divest Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) of the red jersey of race leader, and he lies four seconds clear of Costa, though he downplayed his prospects of defending it all the way to the finish.
"I think there are 10 or 15 riders who are favourites for the podium, so it's not finished today," Hermans said. "The climb of Green Mountain [on stage 5 – ed.] will be something completely different. It's a very long climb, and it's totally different to this."
Two years ago, Hermans scored something of a breakout win when he claimed Brabantse Pijl ahead of Michael Matthews and his then teammate Philippe Gilbert, but in a squad replete with as many potential leaders as BMC, opportunities to win can be few and far between. Now 30 years old, Hermans harbours ambitions of performing in the Ardennes Classics, but Gilbert's departure for Quick-Step Floors during the off-season hasn't automatically upgraded his status.
"We have Nicolas Roche now on the team, and Samuel Sanchez is still on the team. He was fourth in Liege last year, I never made even the top 10 in Liege, so I think we still have captains," Hermans said. "Greg will do Amstel Gold Race, too, so it will not be easy to get my chance but for sure there will be one race where I can go for my own. If you're strong enough, then you get your chance.
"But the Ardennes are still far away. My early goals were Valencia and this Tour of Oman. I always want to be good in the beginning of the season. It's always good to have a good start. After this I take a rest and then I'll build towards the Volta a Catalunya, and then we'll see how it evolves."
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