The big winners Sunday in the four stage races being contested this past week were Ben Hermans in the Middle East, Alejandro Valverde in Spain, Primož Roglič in Portugal and Arthur Vichot in France. Although it was a fifth overall win in six years for Valverde at the Ruta del Sol and a third title for Vichot at the Tour du Haut Var, there were break-through victories for both Hermans at the Tour of Oman and Roglič at the Volta ao Algarve. Hermans overcame an early crash on the closing Oman stage before cruising to victory with his BMC Racing team, while Movistar’s Valverde had no real scares on a rainy day in Andalusia. That was not the case for the other two. LottoNL-Jumbo’s Roglič had a to parry attacks by Team Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski on the summit finish in Portugal, while FDJ’s Vichot had to race hard to displace the overnight leader Samuel Dumoulin in France.
Words: John Wilcockson and James Startt | Images: Kåre Dehlie Thorstad and Yuzuru Sunada
Tour of Oman
BMC Racing’s Belgian all-arounder Ben Hermans sealed the biggest win of his career at the Tour of Oman on Sunday, and although the 30-year old was not a pre-race favorite, he won in impressive fashion, scoring victories on the two hardest stages. If Hermans surprised everyone by winning the race’s first uphill sprint on stage 2, he just surprised himself when he repeated with a second stage victory on the much tougher climb to Green Mountain on Saturday. “I was never performing so well against the kind of climbers who are here,” Hermans said. “So in this way I surprised myself.”
Hermans, who has spent much of his career in the shadows of the stars, primarily former team leader Philippe Gilbert, is forging a new role for himself on BMC as a possible team leader. And victory here in Oman—after taking second to Nairo Quintana at last week’s Tour of Valencia—will provide a strong argument.
“To be worthy of this confidence [from the team] I worked really hard over the winter,” Hermans said. “That’s clearly the reason behind my early-season form.” Looking ahead, he added: “It definitely gives me more confidence. I am not at the level of Richie Porte, Tejay van Garderen or Greg Van Avermaet. I am going to have my chances though, I think. For the classics, perhaps I will have a chance. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is for sure a goal for me.”
Meanwhile, Norway’s Alexander Kristoff of Katusha-Alpecin came to Oman to improve his condition for the northern cobbled classics, and he too can go away satisfied after winning all three sprint stages. “I am happy about my Oman campaign,” Kristoff said. “Three victories and really nice weather, which was perfect to train and to race. We had also good climbs. I needed those climbs too for my classics preparation. I need to suffer on training. It was good that I could go deep here. It was the perfect preparation for our spring campaign.” But first, after next weekend’s opening Belgian classics, he will fine-tune his condition at the Paris-Nice race in the lead up to Milan–San Remo in March.
Ruta del Sol
It’s said that “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. But Alberto Contador learned Sunday that “close” is certainly not good enough to win a bike race. Although Trek-Segafredo’s new Spanish leader began the day only one second behind his countryman Valverde, there was little he could do to make up the difference. And Contador finished the final stage just as he had started it—one second back.
“It was a bad day for racing with the wind and rain,” said Contador. “We were almost thinking more about what there is to come. I have to practically go directly to Abu Dhabi and we start to race there in three days, so I think my mind was already there.”
Valverde and Contador, two of the greatest riders of their generation, went head to head all week in the Ruta del Sol (a.k.a. Tour of Andalusia). Although Contador finished ahead of Valverde on stage 2’s uphill finish to Alto Peña del Aguila, Valverde bested him in the following day’s time trial to forge that one-second gap.
And that is the way the standings remained throughout the final weekend of racing in southern Spain as Valverde held his lead on Contador, with FDJ’s Frenchman Thibaut Pinot—winner of stage 2—just six seconds behind in third. Meanwhile, Lotto-Soudal’s Belgian Tim Wellens, grabbed final stage honors, after Direct Énergie’s French sprinter Bryan Coquard won on Saturday. The versatile Wellens, who has been on the attack throughout the week, finally saw his efforts pay off, and that is a good sign as he prepares for the upcoming Belgian classics.
Volta ao Algarve
Like Hermans in Oman, Slovenian Primož Roglič scored the biggest victory of his career on Sunday. After taking a close second to Quick-Step’s Irishman Dan Martin on the first summit stage finish, Roglič took the overall lead in Friday’s time trial, to take a 22-second lead over Sky’s Kwiatkowski into the final stage—which finished on another difficult uphill, to the Alto de Malhäo. After Team Sky had closed down a break led by Dimension Data’s American Ben King right at the foot of the seven-minute-long climb, Roglič closely marked his Polish rival, and remained calm after Portuguese climber Amaro Antunes (W52-FC Porto) jumped clear halfway up the hill.
Kwiatkowski waited until the final kilometer to launch his own attack, but the Slovenian was strong enough to cover the move. The 26-year-old Antunes—who’d never won a pro race in his career—held on to take the stage win, 12 seconds ahead of Portugal-based Spanish rider Vicente García de Mateos, with Belgian classics hope Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) in third. Kwiatkowski and Roglič finished in fourth and fifth on the stage, 15 seconds back.
Tour du Haut Var
All the action at the second and final stage of the Tour du Haut Var happened in the final lap of a finishing loop at Draguignan, with attacks flying after a long breakaway group was brought back. The peloton was shredded on the closing climb, with overnight leader Dumoulin dropped. He eventually came in 28 seconds behind an 11-strong lead group that was brought home by new Cofidis team signing, Julien Simon, who scored his first victory in three years. Vichot was third in the sprint, with BMC Racing’s American Brent Bookwalter taking seventh. There were no time bonuses in the two-day race, so Vichot took his third overall Haut Var on finish-place points ahead of runner-up Simon, with Bookwalter in seventh.