The last time Chris Froome failed to win the first race of the season was 2012. In subsequent seasons he has conquered the Tours of Andalucia, Oman and the Herald Sun Tour to set up his tilts at the Grand Tours later in the year.
This year, it looks like that trend will not continue, with Froome sitting one minute and 12 seconds behind Howson after the queen stage.
It's almost a tradition that Froome starts his season with a win. Indeed, stages were made longer and harder and team sizes were increased at Sky’s request by the Herald Sun Tour’s organisation to entice the three-time Tour de France champion back to the race.
However, it now looks like the British star will either need to pull a rabbit out of his helmet or go into the European part of the season without a morale-boosting win under his belt.
Going up the final climb of Falls Creek, Froome was made to look vulnerable. First Orica-Scott exploited Sky’s tactics by leaving Froome isolated as they were more than happy for Howson to take on Elissonde up the road.
Then Froome was caught off-guard by the attack from the KordaMentha national team with young Australians Jai Hindley and Michael Storer jumping off the front and stealing a march.
Brett Lancaster, Sky’s sports director for the race, was left to pick up the pieces after the stage finish.
“Everything was going to plan,” Lancaster said. “Ian (Stannard) rode strongly all day and Orica had a rider up front too. They had the same idea as us I think, which was to let the best man win. We thought that would be either Chris (Froome) or Esteban (Chaves).”
Watch the 2017 Herald Sun Tour Stage 2 Highlights on Saturday 4 February from 1630--1730 on SBS
Elissonde said after the stage that the plan had been for Froome to bridge across to him before lending assistance, but the attack never eventuated, something Lancaster put down to faulty communication.
“Kenny did what he was asked to do but unfortunately the race radio wasn't the best so communication was tough, but (Damien) Howson was stronger on the day out of those two guys.”
The race is far from over for Sky, who have Elissonde in third and Froome in fifth overall but they will have to be very aggressive to make up time now that the queen stage has come and gone. It may be that spectators are treated to a return of the version of Chris Froome that wowed fans at the Tour de France with his surprise attacks and daredevil descending.
The team is also built up out of strong men who can do a lot of damage on flatter courses and Orica-Scott will need to keep a sharp eye out to make sure the Sky team aren’t able to exploit any favourable conditions. Brett Lancaster promised that there would be some fireworks in the coming stages.
“We've got some hard days coming up though so we'll shake it up and see what happens. It's not over yet. It will be very tricky to get over a minute on Howson but it's bike racing and Froomey is one of the best bike riders in the world. We'll never give up. It's not over until the fat lady sings.”