The final two technical corners into the picturesque Mitchelton winery posed such a danger, the final three kilometres were neutralised already for the general classification in a bid to reduce the number of riders fighting for position.
It didn't help. Coming into the hazardous finale, no one team had full control of the peloton resulting in two crashes in quick succession - one with four kilometres to go, the next sending multiple riders scattering with just 1.4 kilometres left.
A drastically reduced bunch made the hard right into the Michelton winery entrance, Orica-Scott leading out the sprint with Mitch Docker launching his bid at 200 metres to go. McCabe sat comfortably poised on Docker’s wheel coming over the top of the mustachioed rider in the final dash to the line.
— Jayco HeraldSun Tour (@HeraldSunTour) February 4, 2017
McCabe was pleased with how he and his team navigated the carnage.
“We came into it with high hopes and we came into this stage as one we really targeted,” he said. “So I’m glad it worked out the way we planned."
"It was hairy, it got really crazy those last few kilometres. I put all my faith and trust in the guys and everyone rode really well and kept me out of trouble.
"They kept me safe until that last corner. Mitch (Docker) punched out with 200 metres to go and I knew I had the legs so I went as soon as he did and held it to the line with a decent gap.”
The remainder of the wounded peloton followed in dribs and drabs, sporting bloody injuries and scrapes. McCabe described the action that led to the crashes.
“It looked like it was just guys fighting for wheels. You had a tailwind coming into it and a bit of a hill, so no one could really keep the speed and there was that washing-machine effect. I think someone was fighting to come over and stay on and it just blew up. You just make a little mistake, touch wheels, it’s easy to happen. You take risks, it’s part of the sport.”
Howson was happy to finish the day in yellow after a chaotic day.
“Another nervous day, the sprinters had their chance today and of course everyone was fighting and jostling for position in that final five kilometres. It made for some dangerous, exciting racing but I’m happy to get through unscathed. I was in the middle (of the crashes), weaving my way out of it and keeping it interesting like I do.”
The race leader has his sights firmly set on the final stage where a number of riders are expected to have a shot at his lead in Kinglake tomorrow.
“As soon as I crossed the finish line on Falls Creek, Kinglake was the one stage I knew was going to be the biggest challenge and I was aware of that. Obviously yesterday threw a bigger curveball than I thought but I’m fully aware of what’s coming up tomorrow.”
As it happened
It was a relatively sleepy day for the main bunch after some initial aggression to establish the main break of the day. Eventually a group of nine was allowed up the road. Pavel Brutt (Gazprom-Rusvelo) was the most dangerous man in the general classification, starting the stage three minutes and 44 seconds behind Damien Howson and Orica-Scott kept the move pegged at the four minute mark throughout the stage.
Coming into the outskirts of Nagambie, Team Sky brought the race back for their sprinter Danny van Poppel. In the flat terrain, the winds picked up and riders began to get dropped from the back of the peloton. The gap to the breakaway began to fall drastically as the pressure was applied behind, the breakaway was caught with less than 10 kilometres to go.