It may have been completely unexpected six weeks ago, but Ryan Gibbons' career is undergoing something of a sudden shift in direction in the first weeks of the 2019 season.
The late climb of Al Jissah – 1.4km at nine per cent – took out two thirds of the Oman peloton on Sunday, including every sprinter, but Gibbons survived, and went on to produce an impressive effort in the uphill final 100 metres. The South African was pipped to the line by stage 1 winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) – who'd clawed his way back on the descent – in the group sprint behind solo winner Alexey Lutsenko (Astana).
"Maybe that's become more my specialty than the plain sprints," Gibbons noted back at the buses in Al Bustan.
The result comes off the back of 11th overall at the Tour Down Under, where he beat climbers like George Bennett and Domenico Pozzovivo to the top of Willunga Hill, and fourth at the Cadel Evans race.
The secret to the 24-year-old's run of form? "I actually put on weight and I did less training," he said with a chuckle. His winter plan, he explained, had been to become a more powerful sprinter. As a result, somehow, he is a better climber.
"Normally I try, as a baseline, to do about 110-120 hours [of riding] during December. This year I did 90 hours, so quite a lot less, and a lot of gym work, focused work. I put on a bit of weight, so when I went to Australia I was actually quite nervous. I thought, 'Oh dear – maybe I'm going to feel it.' But I've just got stronger and stronger, so I'm enjoying the form, and hopefully it lasts a bit longer.
"I think I've always kind of tried to be good at everything, but not really focused on anything in particular – a jack of all trades, master of none. So I thought I'd do more sprint training, and the irony is that I'm climbing better than ever. There's a tip for the climbers – if you want to climb better, do more sprint training."
Gibbons, whose string of top 10s as a neo-pro at the 2017 Giro d'Italia seemed to mark him as a sprinter – albeit a versatile one who'd just won the Tour de Langkawi – now seems ready to shift gears.
The race programme that was drawn up for him over the winter is about to be ripped up and replaced with more hills.
"Going into the season, I would have said that I'm targeting more sprints because I trained specifically for that. But now, the way the form's going, my whole calendar is probably going to change," he said.
"Normally I would've done some of the spring Classics, but now I might move more to the Ardennes Classics, so a very, very different kind of riding, with a very different field. But I'm actually looking forward to that."
The punchy terrain continues at the Tour of Oman over the next two days. Monday's stage 4 finishes with a climb to Qurayyat – 2.8km long at 6.5 per cent – while stage 5 features three climbs of Al Jabal Street (3.4km at 8.8 per cent) ahead of a flat 20km run-in and another uphill drag finish.
"It definitely reassures me that I'm capable," Gibbons said of his podium finish. "It gives me more confidence and gives the team a bit of confidence in me, so they'll back me and it will just raise the morale in general, and that's what our team needs. It's definitely positive, and hopefully we can go from strength to strength and keep the momentum going."
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