With temperatures topping 35 degrees Celsius and European riders melting in the sun, it was Spratt who took a decisive lead in the Tour Down Under.
Mitchelton-Scott managed an impressive 1-2 with Lucy Kennedy dropping third-placed Kristabel Doebel-Hickok (Rally-UHC Cycling) in the final metres, with the same three riders taking over the top three positions on the general classification.
“It’s a race that I’ve targeted the whole off-season,” Spratt said. “This was my main goal for January, the team went incredibly today, we had a good plan and they made life easy until the bottom of that climb. Lucy was there on the climb and I could attack and get a lot of time for the GC.”
Spratt launched her attack over the top of teammate Lucy Kennedy to explode away from the remnants of the peloton for the victory, making the most of her early season form in what was a tough day out on the road.
Mitchelton-Scott left little to chance, riding the front of the race the majority of the stage and putting their star climber in with the best chance to win the race. An early break of two was hauled back in the final kilometres by the chase of the Australian World Tour squad, with Spratt paying off the hard work of her domestiques with a win.
“We were pretty confident we could bring that (the breakaway) back,” Spratt said. “The time was coming down when the pressure was put on by the peloton, so we were confident. It was such a hard day with the heat as well and we knew that would take it out of them, with there only being two riders out there.”
Spratt now holds a 43-second advantage over Kennedy, with Doebel-Hickok 51 seconds in arrears with the rest of the field a minute or more off the pace.
“It’s a great position to be in, but tomorrow isn’t an easy day either,” Spratt said, “we need to go home, recover well and be ready to battle again tomorrow.”
Hot, gusty conditions were the setting for the start of the queen stage of the Tour Down Under as the peloton left the township of Nuriootpa to head into the heart of the Barossa Valley.
Rebecca Wiasak (UniSA) and Deborah Paine (NZ National Team) were the riders to light up the race early, breaking clear off the front of the race in the early kilometres and pushing out their advantage. A few riders tried to bridge to the move, but any attempts were quickly swallowed back into the peloton.
The gap reached a maximum of four minutes at the halfway mark of the race before Mitchelton-Scott sent Grace Brown to the front of the peloton to put the hammer down on the first Queen of the Mountains climb.
The race was very fast from that point onwards, with Spratt ending up crossing the finish line over 20 minutes before the scheduled time expected by the officials.
Wiasak and Paine were caught before the final hill as attacks flew off the front of a shattered peloton. The strongest riders were in the right position, with Mitchelton-Scott in the driver’s seat with their two strongest climbers Kennedy and Spratt in the box seat as the race reached the tough ascent of Mengler Hill.
Kennedy attacked first on the climb and had an advantage before Spratt exploded past her in the run to the finish line, ending with a 39-second gap to second-placed Kennedy. Kennedy made it two second-place finishes in two years on Mengler Hill, after finishing just behind Katrin Garfoot on the same finish last year.
“It hurt actually,” said Kennedy of the finale to the stage. “I’m not in the same form I was last January. I’m sort of fit, but I haven’t had a heap of intensity yet, I’m easing into it this year.”
“I knew she would be coming and I probably wouldn’t be able to hang on to her, but it was good. The Rally girl (Doebel-Hickok) came up on me and that worked out well because she decided to sit on me for a while and I just stalled to give Spratty some more time.
“Then I unleashed my ‘huge’ sprint,” Kennedy added, laughing as she’s not renowned for her fast finishes.
Stage 3 sees the riders face a tough course around the traditional men’s stage location of Stirling, with the race likely to see a fair bit of aggression as the teams that lack a sprinter will see it as their last chance to influence the race before the final stage criterium.