Damien Howson is a man who usually finishes a mountain stage wrecked after helping his leader to the spoils but on Stage 2 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour is was his day to shine.
Cycling Central

2 Feb 2017 - 5:18 PM  UPDATED 3 Feb 2017 - 11:35 AM

The 174.2km stage shaped as the decisive moment of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and it didn’t disappoint, with Howson (Orica-Scott) playing his cards perfectly to win.

He outrode Kenny Elissonde (Team Sky) in a personal duel up the Falls Creek summit finish, then held off late attacks from the Australian national team youngsters to take the stage win and overall lead.

Howson attacked from the peloton just before the start of the climb proper, with Elissonde joining him. The two rapidly overtook the remaining members of the breakaway and with the climbing stars of their respective teams behind them, an intriguing tactical race took shape.

Friday 3 February: 2017 Herald Sun Tour: Stage 1 Highlights 1630-1730 on SBS Television

After the stage, Howson was ecstatic with his victory over some of the best climbers in the world.

“I’m very happy. I’ve ridden the climb many times in training. Once I hit the bottom of the climb I felt good, I’d been pretty average before that," he said.

"I got a gap on the main field with Kenny (Elissonde) who’s obviously a good climber in his own right. I did back myself in that final kilometre it was a matter of holding it to the line.

“It was a dream scenario to have enough time in the last kilometre to come into the line thinking what salute to do. To finish it off the way I did, I was very happy with that.”

An early break of eight formed that would hang off the front of the race for almost the whole day. Jake Kauffmann (NSW Institute of Sport) and Ben Hill (Attaque Team Gusto) were the main beneficiaries of the move. Kauffmann hoovered up the intermediate sprints to finish the day in the sprinter’s jersey, while Hill was the first over the first King of the Mountains point of Tawonga Gap.

It continued with a maximum advantage of seven and a half minutes, but with the imposing finishing climb of Fall Creek looming on the horizon it was never going to be enough. So it proved as the attacker’s advantage was gradually reduced until only two minutes separated them and the chase at the bottom of the final climb.

The attacks quickly came, with Sky and Orica-Scott jousting for the advantage in the battle for the GC. Several skirmishes later, Howson and Elissonde launched off the front of the main bunch and bridged over to the last remaining member of the breakaway, Steve Lampier (JLT Condor), soon leaving behind the British rider behind.

Elissonde was happy with the move, with the expectation his team leader Froome would use the platform offered to bridge across.

“The plan was for (Froome) to come from behind,” Elissonde said, “it was a big consideration with Esteban behind. I would have preferred Chris to win today than me to be third.”

With seven kilometres remaining, the gap was at a minute and thirty-two seconds and the pre-race favourites, Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) sitting behind in a 20-strong group, waiting to see the outcome of the battle up front.

The move was gradually brought back as the race got closer to the finish and then a dual attack exploded off the front of the main group. Kordamentha Real Estate National Team’s Jai Hindley and Michael Storer surged clear in an attempt to track down the leaders.

Ahead, Howson was finally able to get rid of Elissonde and set about securing the stage win and overall lead, with a strong ride into the finish confirming both as he crossed the line.

“Before the climb started everyone was looking at each other and I threw down the gauntlet," Howson said. "It took a while for people to react and thankfully I was able to maintain the gap all the way to the finish.

“It was a bit of a cat and mouse game with myself and Kenny there. We both had cards behind to play but we were also in with a chance for our own little bit of glory, so it was about making sure you had the legs to finish it off.

“I knew I had to get rid of Kenny so I had a few cracks at it. The little guy, he didn’t give, so with two kilometres to go I really threw it all on the line. It was make or break.”

Howson’s gamble paid off and he finished well in front of the rest of the field, with Jai Hindley overtaking Elissonde late to take a memorable second position for the youngster.

“It was pretty scary coming into that last kilometre,” Hindley said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to catch up to Kenny or if Froome was going to fly past me so I just put my head down and gave it everything. 

"There was a bit of cat and mousing coming up the hill and I wasn’t really sure if it was going to come back. The plan was for everyone to ride aggressive in the last three kilometres.”

Possibly the most exciting aspect of the result is that it sets up the next three days of action to be an attacking bonanza, with the likes of Sky and KordaMentha Real Estate unlikely to sit passively and let Howson retain his lead the whole race.

Stage 2 into Beechworth has a challenging finale whilst the Kinglake circuit is sure to see fireworks on what is a climber’s course.