The 2017 edition of the Herald Sun Tour saw star turns from Jai Hindley, Michael Storer and Lucas Hamilton, all now racing at World Tour level. This year's race appears to have been no less successful in showcasing the next generation of climbing talent.
Heading into the final 20km climb of Stage 3, the race was all together with a frantic surge by all of the major teams trying to get their chosen climber into position to assault the crucial first few kilometres of the climb.
Among them was the unlikely sight of Australian Continental team Mobius Bridgelane coming to the front of the race in the early slopes of the climb, setting out a fast train for their star climber Alex Evans.
With Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) racing away on the steepest section of the climb, many in the peloton tried to respond, but it was Evans that proved the strongest, surging away from the pack in pursuit of the Colombian.
Soon after, Lionel Mawditt (KordaMentha national team) and Dylan Sunderland (Bennelong SwissWellness) jumped away as well, trying to get to the front. They ultimately were brought back by a Mitchelton-Scott outfit keen to keep control of the race, but they showed their ability in making the initial move on the steep slopes.
Chaves was to take the win, but the arguably the biggest stories of the day came from behind the 'Colombian Kangaroo'.
Alex Evans (Mobius Bridgelane) was already known as a strong climber after winning the queen stage of the Tour of Tasmania, but he became the revelation of Lake Mountain. Accelerating away from WorldTour teams and respected climbers, he then pushed through to the finish to take second, 42 seconds behind Chaves.
“Chaves put a big attack in and I tried to follow it,” Evans said. “But just couldn’t quite bridge the gap in the end. I held it at about 15 seconds for half the climb, then he rode off again. I’m happy with how I rode, really happy.”
For the moment, the youngster from Bendigo works at Maroney’s Bikes and said he doesn’t expect to be getting a day off on Monday. But the future beckons for the former triathlete, who will have attracted a lot of attention from the calibre of his ride and looks forward to a potential professional career.
“Well, just honestly we’ll take it as far as I can, that’s the ambition,” Evans said.
Evans’s Mobius-Bridgelane team produced just as an impressive a ride as their star, putting him in the perfect position on the early slopes of the climb as they drove the pace to set up their leader’s move. Sports Director Tom Petty spoke after the stage on the team’s plan heading into the climb.
“You’ve got to have a plan and we aimed to get Alex through the week as high on GC as possible until it came to this stage. We saw what he could do up Poatina (Evans’s stage win in the Tour of Tasmania) and since the course got released, we’ve been working and planning towards this exact stage.”
Mobius-Bridgelane has been one of the top performing National Road Series (NRS) teams in recent years and took the step up to Continental level to get the opportunity to show themselves in this race. Evans was a new addition to the team from fellow NRS squad AMR Renault and Petty went into detail about how the team rallied around their new climber to propel him to this lofty level.
“Alex is still relatively new and inexperienced,” he said. “He requires a lot of shepherding around. Excellent bike handler and talent, but it takes a bit of experience to catch up. The guys absolutely nailed it and really committed to the plan.
“It’s a shame they invited Esteban Chaves to the race because otherwise, we would have pulled off an excellent victory,” he joked. “When you put so much effort into a plan and it comes off like that it’s a really special feeling.”
Mawditt was another protagonist of the Tour of Tasmania in 2018, the winner of the overall race, who franked his form on the steep slopes of Lake Mountain.
“Chaves attacked and I didn’t have enough to go with him and wasn’t in the right position," he said. "I went to the front and felt like we weren’t going fast enough so I lifted it a bit and went away.”
Mawditt’s temporary ally on the climb was Dylan Sunderland, the pair working well together until the Mitchelton-Scott chase shut the pair down.
“We were co-operating really well,” Mawditt said, “we were getting a bit of a gap because the other guys were hesitating for a while there. I think the speed we were doing needed to be a little bit higher.
“I felt like I had more in the legs, but when one of my turns came around Dylan said ‘just drop it back’ because there was a long way to go. I didn’t think I could that pace by myself, I needed someone to chop off with.”
Mawditt is set for a season with NRS team Inform-MAKE, racing the NRS calendar along with a short stint in Europe. He hasn’t looked out of place so far at the Herald Sun Tour, animating the race and looking like he’s a potential candidate for a step-up in the future.
“This tour has been a really good step,” Mawditt said. “Just the opportunity to mix it with these guys and know that I can feel comfortable there and have a crack. Not just sitting in but able to go off the front. Potentially with a bit more support and numbers we could look to push further up the GC.”
Mawditt wasn’t even awed by the presence of top-tier athletes in the sport like Chaves.
“It’s funny, but as soon as you’re out there around them, they become just another rider,” he said.
Dylan Sunderland largely echoed the sentiments of Mawditt, but his team had extra cards to play in the group behind with Sam Crome and Chris Harper. When the pair were brought back, the fight for the rest of the stage resumed in the 14-man chase group.
“It was a bit stop-start,” Sunderland said. “With Guerreiro (Trek-Segafredo) trying to get time and Mitchelton slowing things down. We we’re eager to cover moves and try and get Chaves, but no.”
Sunderland has spent time over in Europe, racing locally in Belgium, as well as riding well in NRS races back in Australia. He’s been considered a top talent in Australia ever since beating the now WorldTour Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott) in a stage of the Tour of Tasmania in 2016.
Like the others who showed their worth on the ascent, this performance ranks as one of the best for the youngster from Inverell, who is a nephew to former Australian star Scott Sunderland.
“It’s definitely one of the high points for me. Nice to take the step up to that next level," he said.
Local riders getting the opportunity to excel against top opposition is one of the best aspects of the Herald Sun Tour. Last year it was Jai Hindley, Michael Storer and Lucas Hamilton who took their chance to perform and all ended up signing WorldTour contracts the next year.
We may see the likes of Evans, Mawditt and Sunderland follow in their footsteps.