A red jersey on Green Mountain is not what Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert had expected, or planned for, heading into Monday's key stage at the Tour of Oman, but it's what they came away with after Jan Hirt's winning effort on the race's queen stage.
A day after losing over a minute when Fausto Masnada soloed to victory in Muscat, seemingly all but sealing overall victory in the process, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert and their Czech leader turned the race on its head once more in the Al Hajar mountains.
Hirt stormed to his first victory since 2016 by 39 seconds on the steep slopes of the climb, which averaged 10.5 per cent over its 5.7 kilometres, putting 1:48 into Masnada in the process after the Italian cracked two kilometres from the line.
After the stage, Hirt said that the red jersey was a "bonus" after the team had only planned to fight for the stage win.
"I believed in myself today, that I can win the stage from what I've seen in other stages and the climbs," he told assembled journalists, including Cyclingnews, just past the finish line as his team celebrated around him.
"I thought for sure I was one of the best here in this race. I had really good shape so I believed that today I can at least win the stage.
"I didn't believe that Masnada would drop more than a minute and that I could take the jersey. This is a big, big bonus that we have the jersey, but the main objective for us was to take today's stage. I'm happy that we did it."
Hirt, who added that he only had good memories of the climb, having also helped deliver Alexey Lutsenko's victory with Astana back in 2019, thanked his team for the job they did throughout a trickier than predicted day on the bike.
Though the majority of the 150.5-kilometre stage was held on flat and rolling roads, the wind whipped up with 70 kilometres to go and the break was caught soon after as the peloton split, with former race leader Anthon Charmig (Uno-X) among those caught out.
With Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert on the front for much of the day, their leader was kept well out of trouble.
"We were in front [in the echelons] because we were all day in front with the team and they helped me, they kept me safe in the echelons. We didn't have any troubles today – it was a perfect day," Hirt explained.
"I'm super thankful for my team today. It was an amazing job. Kévin [Van Melsen] was pulling all day. It was hard and in the crosswinds, it was really dangerous. The whole team was incredible. It was not just Rein [Taaramäe], it was the whole team. Already at the bottom of the climb, we were pulling with a hard pace and then it was on Rein."
Taaramäe, who had come into the race as co-leader with Hirt, lay ninth overall heading into the day, 1:28 down on Masnada and 30 seconds behind his teammate. The Estonian ended up sixth on the day and now lies in eighth overall, having put in the work on the steep ramps of Green Mountain for Hirt.
"I think on the paper, we had maybe the strongest team," Taaramäe said after the finish. "Me with my experience and Jan with his climbing talent.
"Actually, he was almost like 90 per cent sure that we can grab the stage but he was not sure how good Masnada was, but everybody can lose ground on the climb because I also felt really tired legs today. Yesterday was hot and hard, so it's normal. We are not machines."
Taaramäe, who earlier in the race told Cyclingnews about his unusual off-season spent training in Rwanda, said that after his work was done he kept on pushing to maintain a top placing and so score precious UCI ranking points. the three-year WorldTour licenses are renewed at the end of the season and several teams, including Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert are fighting for points and WorldTour survival.
The team has already taken two other wins this season, with Alexander Kristoff winning Clásica Almeira and Biniam Grimay the Trofeo Alcudia in Mallorca.
"I did pacing until two kilometres to go. And then yeah, I came to the end. You know, it's cycling today so we have to fight for the points. So it's not only the work, you also need to finish in the top 10 and points, points, points," Taaramäe explained.
"It's really possible that [Masnada] suffered from yesterday," he concluded, referring to the Italian's multiple attacks and 15-kilometre solo on stage 4.
"In the Arctic Race some years ago there was also a really hard stage and Ben Hermans took the jersey, but he went really, really hard to win the stage and the next day was gone."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.