The 30-year-old Belgian climbed up to 1,200 meters, held off attacks from Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data), Rui Costa (UAE – Abu Dhabi), and Fabio Aru (Astana) to defend his red jersey. The victory came on the Tour of Oman’s famous Green Mountain, where Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, and Robert Gesink triumphed in previous editions.
The race ends with a flat stage for sprinters Sunday in the capital city of Muscat. Hermans should confirm the victory then on the Arabian Sea coastline.
Sport director Valerio Piva said, “It’s a confirmation after many good placings in the last years, but he was always out looking for a result.”
Hermans sat nearby on Green Mountain. He took two minutes to catch his breath, such was the effort needed to hold off established champions like 2015 Vuelta a España winner Aru and and 2013 world champion Costa.
At first, the Belgian appeared to be only a stage winner in this Tour of Oman. He bagged victory on the second day, but followers considered Costa, Aru, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) contenders for the overall.
“I had the confidence after the win on the second stage and then on the third stage I placed third,” said the Belgian from Limburg. “Then yesterday, when I won the bonus sprint against the climbers on the mountain, I really knew I could take the win today.
“The team gave me more confidence and more pressure by riding so impressive yesterday, I really didn’t want to lose. I had to take the win here.”
Wins come infrequently for Hermans. His biggest one was Brabantse Pijl, the one-day Belgian race that opens up the Ardennes classics week.
Quietly he has been improving. He signaled his intentions when blasted up the mountain stage in pursuit of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the Volta a Valenciana, his first race of the 2017 season. Like everyone, he came short of Quintana, but managed seventh and thanks to a strong team time trial, claimed second overall.
“He had bad luck in the last two years; two years ago, he broke two vertebrae,” Piva added.
“He restarted last year, had many good results, many second places, second behind Alberto Contador in the Vuelta a Burgos. Second in the Tour of Poland.
“He return to the Vuelta a España and in the end was our best rider for the classification [14th overall] after Samuel Sánchez crashed. He rode a good Vuelta. He had his best feelings since he turned pro.”
Piva looked over toward Hermans, who will continue to race the Strade Bianche one-day race and take a break before the Vuelta a Catalunya and the Ardennes classics in April, where he will lead the team.
“It was the right moment to bring home a win,” Piva continued. “When he receives the responsibility, he is able to bring home a good result.”
Leadership responsibility is hard to come by in such a star-studded team. American Tejay van Garderen for years led the Tour de France team. This year, he will lead the Giro d’Italia team with Richie Porte heading to the Tour.
Hermans will go to the Giro as a team player, but the Belgian insiders say that he has no intentions on trying to become a grand tour cyclist.
“He has space within the team like in this occasion. He knows he needs to grab it with both hands when he has chances like this,” Piva said.
“He gained an important place in our team. It’s not that we have many winning cyclists, and he’s one of them.”
“It makes the win that much more impressive with Aru, Fuglsang, Costa, Bardet …” explained Hermans. “It’s really great to beat those guys here. The team didn’t expect it and I hope I impressed them.
“You can compare this to the Critérium du Dauphiné, Tirreno-Adriatico, or the Tour of Poland.
“I’ll get my chances. In the classics for sure I’ll have a free card if I’m in shape. Also in the other tours I’ll have my possibilities, but not when Tejay and Richie are there, that’s clear.”
He will race the Vuelta a Catalunya with Porte and van Garderen. In the Giro d’Italia, he will support van Garderen and try for stage wins.
“I think Tejay is there and Richie is there in Catalunya,” he added. “I go in full support of them. No stress because my stress periods come in the classics and Giro d’Italia.”