The winners of the final round of 2015 continued their winning ways, with Annika Langvad (Specialized Racing) and Nino Schurter (Scott-Odlo) becoming the first riders to don the leader's jerseys in 2016.
The women's field was missing a number of the top riders, who elected to skip the long trip to Australia. Among those absent were Jolanda Neff (Stockli), Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa (Multivan Merida) and Pauline Ferrand Prevot (Rabo Liv).
Langvad quickly jumped into the lead, with only Linda Indergand (Focus XC) able to respond. Henderson initially went with the front two, but the pace was too much and she had to back off, eventually being caught by Catharine Pendrel (Luna).
Langvad and Indergand stayed together until a lap and a half to go, when the Danish rider attacked on the climb, quickly opening a gap, which she held to the finish line. Henderson, buoyed on by the crowd dropped Pendrel to take third.
"This [win] is so special," said Langvad. "The first one [in Val di Sole, Italy, last year] was quite a surprise to me, because I came straight from a crazy race the weekend before and I was absolutely dead during the week leading up to Val Di Sole. So to win that one was absolutely amazing."
"This week I struggled a lot with the jet lag and the heat and everything and only just yesterday I felt great. So I said today I don't care about anything, let's go. I felt really good and I focused a lot on staying within my comfort zone, and it paid off quite well."
"Only in the last kilometre I allowed myself to say 'yeah, this is really, really amazing'. I'm just so excited because it's the first time I have the leader's jersey in the World Cup and it is so special to me."
"I think my smile says it all," commented Henderson, "it's sinking in at the moment. The crowd out there was amazing, so to do that in front of a home crowd, it was super awesome."
"She [Pendrel] helped me get the best out of myself today. Early in the race I wasn't backing myself, I was waiting for most of the field to catch me. Catherine then caught me and I just tried to follow her as best as I could. Then on the last lap I thought it was now or never."
In the women's under 23, Australia's Holly Harris finished a solid fifth.
The men's race was missing only one top ranked rider - Jaroslav Kulhavy (Specialized Racing), who is still recovering from a broken hand suffered earlier in the year. The race was expected to be the resumption of the ongoing battle between the two top men in the world - Schurter and Julien Absalon (BMC).
However, after Absalon suffered a rear flat on the first lap and had a slow change, he dropped to the high-40s, and it appeared his race was over. At the front, Schurter was on cruise control, with only Mathias Fluckiger (Stockli) and Maxime Marotte (BH-SR Suntour-KMC) able to keep pace with him; and Schurter appeared to be just biding his time before dropping first Marotte and then Fluckiger. A chase group containing McConnell was hovering behind by about 30 seconds.
The real story was behind, where Absalon was making a remarkable charge through the field. By the halfway mark he was back in the top, with two laps to go into fourth and then into third with a lap to go, joining Fluckiger. Schurter had clearly received word that Absalon was coming back, because he accelerated and began to race seriously.
Marotte fought back, but came up short by three seconds, with Absalon at 27 seconds. Absalon pulled back over half a minute, through heavy traffic and limited passing options. We can only speculate the battle that would have happened if Absalon had not flatted.
"Yeah, it's really amazing," commented Schurter. "I was hoping for a good start [to the season]. I felt really good in the spring but I had a bit of a cold a couple weeks ago and I didn't know how fit I really am. So, yeah, I'm really lucky and happy with the win."
"When I realized that Absalon had a flat I knew I could sit in a bit in the group and see how fit the others are. Then mid race I saw that Absalon was making his way back [up] so I had to attack and go full out."
"I am a bit disappointed," admitted Absalon, "because the legs were very good today. I had a flat tire in the first lap, right on the first climb, and I lost a lot of time when it took quite a bit of time in the tech zone to change the wheel."
"So it's a shame, because my shape was really good and the legs were perfect today to fight for the win and maybe another good fight with Nino. So even with the technical problem, my shape is really good. It will be nice to go back to Europe and try to fight in Albstadt [Germany, Round 2] and La Bresse [France, Round 3]."
"I think my tactics were pretty good today," said McConnell, "but I've been struggling with fitness and health the last three weeks and on lap four my body pretty much just shut down followed by two flat tires. I know my form is good, so you know I just got to put it together on race day and really mix it up."