James Knox battled with some of the best climbers in the world to finish top-10 in the UAE Tour’s first mountain stage.
The Brit was the last Deceuninck – Quick-Step rider to hold onto the front of the race, as Belgian star Remco Evenepoel slipped back in the closing kilometres.
A step up in performance saw Knox finish eighth at the summit of Jebel Hafeet, in a top-10 that included Alejandro Valverde, race leader Primoż Roglič and Ireland’s Dan Martin.
The former Team Wiggins rider finished just 35 seconds down to stage victor Valverde (Movistar).
After the stage, 23-year-old Knox told Cycling Weekly: “I’m very happy with that.
“It’s not easy when you’re there at the time, but I’m extremely happy with how I performed.
“It was a completely different calibre of riders I was with there.
“Normally I would never find myself in that group, so it’s a big step up for me on the performance.
“I can’t complain at all.”
A tense 10km finishing climb saw world-class riders spat out the back of the front group, including Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo).
As the number of contenders for the stage win was thinned by Roglč (Jumbo-Visma), who raced aggressively in an attempt to extend his overall lead, Knox was able stick with the best and bridge up as others in front fell away.
He added: “I find that real high pace at the bottom difficult and all the fighting as well, I’m not a fan it. I just ride to save myself, stay out of trouble, stay out of the wind. I had to come across a couple of gaps when guys started pulling out.
“Then in the end, in the last one or two kilometres I was starting to tie up with a bit of cramp and had nothing.
“With those moves to start opening time gaps, I couldn’t go with anything but just waited for that last little kick, knowing the climb.”
Knox’s team-mate, 19-year-old Evenepoel, finished 15th at the summit, 56 seconds down on Valverde.
The breakthrough performance puts him ninth overall at 1-07 down on Roglic, securing his position as the GC man for the team.
He said: “Now suddenly I’ve got an ambition for the next couple of days and particularly on GC.
“If I can keep going then maybe that’s the ambition for the race as well, or just keep progressing.”
When asked how it feels to climb with the best, he added: “You’re hurting too much, you’re just trying to hold the wheel you can see in front of you and find the wheel that’s going forward and not backwards and that’s about it.
“I saw the rainbow jersey up ahead of me a couple of times and thought ‘awh that’s nice’, but you’re not really thinking about it.”