Søren Kragh Andersen soft-pedalled in looping circles near the Team Sunweb vehicles after winning stage 3 of the Tour of Oman, waiting for each of his teammates to clamber their way to the top of the final climb and across the finish line. "Seriously guys, thanks so much," he said, and then repeated it, as though still in disbelief at landing his first victory as a professional.
The young Dane was not among the favourites to win on the hilltop finish above Quriyat, a fishing village some 80 kilometres southeast of Muscat, and even his directeur sportif Marc Reef had insisted to one reporter ahead of the stage that Sunweb had no realistic ambitions on the day. The slew of white and black jerseys marshaling Andersen into place at the foot of the day’s final, 2.8-kilometre climb suggested otherwise.
"Well, he didn't underestimate me when I was talking with him this morning," Andersen smiled after dismounting the podium. "Of course, we didn't expect to win, but I had a good feeling in the past days."
After an attack by another promising youngster, Laurens De Plus (Quick-Step Floors), was pulled back in the finale, Kragh Andersen unfurled a long-burning sprint of some 250 metres to claim the honours ahead of Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) and overall leader Ben Hermans (BMC). "I did my own thing today. I had my own plan in my head with my team and they brought me as fresh as possible into the bottom of the final climb," Andersen said. "I felt good all the way up and once Hermans went, I followed and then I just sprinted to the finish line."
Andersen turned professional in 2016 following an amateur career that was capped by two stage victories in the Tour de l'Avenir; first the opening prologue and then a sprint win ahead of Mathieu van der Poel. The scouting reports spoke of a strong rouleur and quick sprinter, the kind of talent who could develop into a contender in the cobbled Classics. The finale at Quriyat was rather different fare, but still within the ample range of his capabilities.
"The main goal, and what we focus on, is to be good in the classics and the smaller hilly races. They're the main target in the Spring," said Andersen. "I'm not going for the Ardennes, I'm going for the cobblestone races. It's hard and it takes years to have the experience and the level to compete with the best there."
Following John Degenkolb's departure for Trek-Segafredo, there is a less rigid hierarchy in Sunweb's cobbled Classics unit, even if Andersen downplayed his prospects in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad next week, or in the Monuments that follow. Only 22 years of age, the man from Strib on the Danish island of Funen, knows that there is time yet for him to develop.
"I like these races, but who knows?" he said. "I'm riding Het Nieuwsblad next week. For me, I don't know, but I think you should put a cross on Team Sunweb because we have a nice team and we work well together."
Andersen's debut campaign in 2016 began in rather traumatic circumstances when he was a witness to the team's mass crash during its pre-season training camp in Calpe in January. With so many riders injured for the opening months of the season, the Dane perhaps saw more action than he might otherwise have expected, but he shone early by winning the white jersey of best young rider at the Tour of Qatar. He showed signs of his quality, too, at the Tour of California and Ster ZLM Toer, but, like for many new professionals, he struggled to find consistency.
"That's the weird thing about being young. I was good in Qatar last year, and then when I came here, I was tired. When you're young, you're maybe unstable. Sometimes you peak, and sometimes you're bad," he said. "But I was good the whole winter this year and I feel more stable, at a higher level, and the last three days I just felt amazing. Today was a really nice day where I could the results of my work over the winter."