Luke Rowe (Sky) belied his domestique status to take a solo win in a dramatic stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. Tour leader Damien Howson had punctured within twenty kilometres of the finish and was only just able to rejoin the main bunch with 500 metres left in the race but did maintain his overall lead.
Tour leader Damien Howson punctured within twenty kilometres of the finish and was only just able to rejoin the main bunch with 500 metres left in the race to maintain his overall lead.
Rowe had been part of the early breakaway and made the most of the leash given him by the peloton, shedding his companions on the final climb of the day and riding into the finish to win solo from Conor Dunne (Aqua Blue Sport) and Tanner Putt (UnitedHealthcare).
“It’s been a long time coming,” Rowe said, “we said at the end of last year that it was about time I got a win. There are bigger bike races out there but a win’s a win. It’s kinda surreal, putting your hands in the air and going through the winning motions giving the time I spend helping others. If you get half an opportunity, you have to take it.
“Last night I said I wanted to go in the breakaway because it could stay today. It wasn’t by coincidence or chance, it was really my goal to get in the break today. On a climb like that, I don’t want to sound too big-headed but the strongest guy is going to win and I took my opportunity.”
Watch the 2017 Herald Sun Tour Stage 2 Highlights on Saturday 4 February from 1630--1730 on SBS
On what had been a relatively sleepy day of the race, the early action saw Ben Hill (Attaque Team Gusto) continue his campaign for the King of the Mountains classification as fellow Australian Jake Kauffmann took a nearly unassailable lead in the Sprint classification as he swept up the intermediate sprint points from the breakaway.
It was a strong ten rider move and whilst they cooperated well together back in the peloton Orica-Scott were happy to keep the gap hovering around the five-minute mark throughout. The key point of the race was a tricky nine-kilometre climb which summited with 14km remaining.
The break hit the foot of the climb hard with Putt and Rowe leaving their companions behind before the latter hit out alone cresting the summit solo.
The action was heating up behind and reached crisis point when race leader Howson punctured. Teammates immediately scrambled to help and turned themselves inside out to get him back to the peloton.
Meanwhile, the race in the peloton was continuing without the tour leader and Chris Froome attacking to go clear with three others over the top of the climb.
The Froome group of four seemed to continue to push on before was caught by a set of fresh chasers. Finally, Howson managed to get back on even terms with just 500 metres left in the stage.
Chris Froome was at the forefront of affairs leading the way over the climb and keeping the pressure on into the finish and gave his impression on how the day panned out.'
“We had Luke up the road all day and we gave him the green light to go for the stage win,” Froome said. “He proved to have the best legs of anyone in the race and rode away from the climbers on that steep climb ten to twelve kilometres out.
“For us behind in the bunch, we obviously wanted to shake things up in the general classification. We hit the climb and halfway up we heard that Howson had punctured but by then the race was in full swing and there was no stopping.
“Once we made it over the climb, Kenny and I found ourselves in the front group there from the rest of the peloton, we just sat on wheels and tried to stay at the front. Then it came all back together for the finish with the Orica guys bringing Howson back.”
After the stage, a clearly relieved Howson was full of smiles and compliments for his team.
“The full team, you can’t fault any of their efforts today,” Howson said. “To be on the front containing moves all day with Sam Bewley and Michael Hepburn. Then when things went pear-shaped with 20km to go, trying to stay calm is pretty difficult but I had Mitch Docker lending me his front wheel.
"Simon Gerrans and Rob Power were there, the first time I’ve ridden with Rob Power but you can already see that he wants to give everything he’s got. Esteban obviously, to keep over the climb and keep going on with it… phenomenal.”
Howson has found himself in the unusual position of being the man with leadership duties for the rest of the Herald Sun Tour but survived the big scare and will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief with tomorrow’s stage one for the sprinters.
“It’s definitely a learning experience, I haven’t found myself too much in this position, certainly not too much in recent years. I’m embracing it while it lasts.
“What could have been a horrendous ending turned out not so bad after all. The bad luck was on me this time and hopefully, I’ve used that up for the rest of the stages.”
Next for the peloton is the 167.7km stage from Benalla to Nagambie, with a sprint finish expected in the Michelton Winery. For stage winner Rowe, it will mean a return to his normal duties as a domestique in the sprint train.
“Yeah, I’ll be last man with Danny (van Poppel) tomorrow. Back to duties. It doesn’t last long, this fame and glamour and shit. So back to the grind tomorrow and we’ll try to drop off Danny in the perfect place.”