• Orica-Scott will have their work cut out for them in Sunday's finale around Kinglake. (Orica-Scott)Source: Orica-Scott
As Anthony Tan sees it, three teams stand an even chance for one of their riders to be crowned champion of the 2017 Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
Cycling Central
4 Feb 2017 - 3:25 PM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2017 - 10:40 PM

You need only look at the results sheet from the second stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour to see who has the strongest team.

We already knew after Falls Creek, but that was confirmed Friday when no less than five KordaMentha Real Estate Australian National Team members - unsurprisingly, the same riders who did so well the day previous to Falls - finished in the first group behind the remnants of the successful escape, Luke Rowe of Team Sky being the greatest beneficiary.

Howson hangs on as Rowe races to a Herald Sun Tour stage victory
Damien Howson has survived a scare to retain the Herald Sun Tour lead as Luke Rowe claimed the stage with a solo effort.

Current race leader Damien Howson's front wheel puncture 20 kilometres from Beechworth was surely unlucky. Though more tellingly, we learned that when the race reaches its denouement Sunday on the four circuits at Kinglake, when the proverbial hits the fan, he can count only on Esteban Chaves. On the deceptively difficult Myrtleford-Stanley Road climb (The Climbing Cyclist provides an excellent overview of the ascent), the latter turned himself inside out to regain contact with the group containing Chris Froome, so it appears Orica-Scott is keen as mustard to give Howson, normally the Colombian's tireless domestique, overall victory.

"Arguably the greatest conundrum for Dave Sanders, manager of the KordaMentha Real Estate Australian National Team, is who to lead."

Thirty-eight seconds to KordaMentha's Jai Hindley and 53 seconds to Team Sky's Kenny Elissonde is a nice buffer, though it's by no means assured. According to race director and three-time Sun Tour winner John Trevorrow, the Kinglake circuit (course profile here), which includes a 9km climb for each of the four laps, is as hard (probably harder) than the Arthurs Seat stage, the final race chapter the previous four editions (in 2014 the stage was cancelled): "This is a sensational new course that we have hand-picked to create an amazing final stage. With four climbs, the stage is as hard as the finale that saw Froome claim victory last year." As mentioned in my previous blogpost, Howson has not been in this position before - until Thursday, he had not won a professional bike race; and on Friday, when he punctured at the base of the Myrtleford-Stanley Road climb, he said the hardest thing was not the chase itself, but staying calm: "I was stressing out", he later admitted.

"I can't jump ahead of myself," Howson said after Saturday's stage, won by UnitedHealthcare's Travis McCabe, asked for his thoughts on joining the honour roll of champions. "I still have an epic day tomorrow to conquer and after that hopefully it's champagne showers all around and I'll be very happy to join that list."

Yes, no one said being a leader was easy - which is perhaps why, unlike Orica-Scott, Team Sky continue to hedge their bets with Froome, who is more comfortable being a leader than not. While Chaves has been seen working for Howson, the same cannot be said for Froome and Elissonde, even though the former is 19 seconds in arrears of their new French recruit. On the final stage last year, the havoc wreaked by the three-time Tour champion is indication that, until the Fat Lady sings, all podium positions are up for grabs.

Why is Chaves willing to give Howson the win and Froome not with Elissonde?

Well, in every year since 2013 - that is, since he first won the Tour de France - Froome has not been worse than first in the opening race of the season. In 2013-14 it was the Tour of Oman; in 2015 it was the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol; last year it was, of course, the Sun Tour. 2.1 or 2.HC races they may be, but in terms of setting himself - or rather, his head - up for the year ahead, their importance cannot, and should not, be underestimated. Richie Porte wanted to win at Down Under for the exact same reason Froome wants to triumph tomorrow in Kinglake.

Arguably the greatest conundrum for Dave Sanders, manager of the KordaMentha Real Estate Australian National Team, is who to lead: Hindley, Cameron Meyer, Michael Storer, Lucas Hamilton or Nathan Earle? Just 37 seconds separate the quintet, who sit second to eighth on GC. Does one go for youth or experience - or a bit of both?

Perhaps Sanders feels he doesn't need to decide; after all, it is really up to Orica-Scott to control, for Team Sky to play the Froome trump card, and for the rest to hang on and, if the situation presents itself, counter. As good as he is, the Kenyan-born Brit is some way off his Tour-winning best, which is why I give Orica-Scott, Team Sky and KordaMentha an even chance of taking out the title of champion of the 2017 Jayco Herald Sun Tour.