• The peloton at the 2017 Jayco Herald Sun Tour. (Getty)Source: Getty
The Jayco Herald Sun Tour was the scene of dramatic racing, an unexpected winner and results which were tough to predict before a stage.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
7 Feb 2017 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 7 Feb 2017 - 2:09 PM

It did what it does best in thrusting domestic riders and teams into the spotlight and highlights the next generation of Australian talent.

Damien Howson (Orica-Scott) had a relatively straightforward final day in the defence of his yellow jersey after taking the lead in style and then having to scramble to defend it on a hectic finish to Stage 2. He only really had to counter a move on one occasion on Stage 4 when Chris Froome (Sky) launched off the front on the final ascent of the climb.

“It’s a big sigh of relief now,” said Howson, “it’s been an amazing week and to finish it off the way we did, I couldn’t be happier. Every lap that went by I became more calm. Each time we had a full team through the finish line and still plenty of numbers to go in that final lap. Everyone went further than they needed to and made my day as easy as possible.”

Howson normally rides in a climbing domestique role with Orica-Scott but took to his unexpected leadership role with the team with gusto. At the Tour Down Under, sports director Matt White nominated Howson as the next Australian GC star and fans soon had another name to add to their follow list.

“You can never limit yourself on what you can accomplish in your career," Howson said. It’s always nice to get a win but I’m happy to go back into the support role with that experience of being a leader and I can take that knowledge into future races.”

It’s part of the beauty of the race that some riders come to check off some early season training requirements while it is a Grand Final for others.

Jake Kauffmann (NSWIS) was one who grabbed his opportunity with both hands, battling his way into the sprint jersey on the first day then riding smart to ensure that he maintained his stranglehold on it and was relatively safe on the final stage.

“I had a decent enough lead after the first two days,” Kauffmann said., "As long as they weren’t getting up the road without me it was kind of plain sailing. Unfortunately, Robbie Hucker (IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness) went up the road today but Dan Fitter (NSWIS) was there and mopped them up for me, the time cut was the biggest problem for me and I made it comfortably.”

Kauffmann is a veteran of the local scene, coming from an unconventional background as a rugby player who works as a builder and fits his cycling around those commitments. He came up against some of the best cyclists in the world as part of one of the smallest teams in the race.

“It’s a bit different being in a smaller team, coming off Budget Forklifts in the past we were one of the bigger teams in the country and we could kind of do whatever the hell we wanted," he said. "It wasn’t quite like that this week, we had to be smarter when we wanted to move forward because they weren’t really letting us get up there. But I was up in the breakaway the first few days so I didn’t notice it too much.”

The result for Kauffmann was particularly poignant as he has delayed the end of his cycling career to help mentor the young talent and take a win at his favourite race, the Melbourne to Warrnambool.

“If I win the Warrny, I’ll hand my bike back the next day but I haven’t managed it yet," he said. "It’s now about mentoring the young guys, it’s as much about off the bike as on the bike, so yeah, the pressure isn’t on me to get results anymore but sometimes I can pull one out the bag.

"It’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever won in my career, probably the biggest thing I’ll ever win… retirement’s on the horizon. It’s the biggest race we’ll do as a team in the next couple of years, so it was a big deal for me.”

Another battler who got the chance to throw his name in the ring with the big boys was the always aggressive Ben Hill (Attaque Team Gusto). One of the most colourful characters of the Australian peloton,

Hill is always on the front foot and it was no different throughout the Jayco Herald Sun Tour as he attacked up road often to secure KOM points. Still, coming into the final stage the jersey was on the line. Hill went into the stage with the blue polka dot jersey but only had 28 points, compared to the 80 points available out on course so he had to get into the break.

“It wasn’t easy,” Hill said, “it was a fast downhill run with a lot of riders trying to get away but a good move snuck up the road and I just managed to get across," he said. "I think I was the last rider to get into it. Once they finally got away I was pretty happy.”

Hill had initially been aiming for a repeat victory of sprinters jersey he had won last year but got beaten by Jake Kauffmann in the sprints on Stage 1 and had to fall back on trying to win the polka dot jersey instead.

“It was a blessing in disguise really, as it forced me to get in the break and chase the KOM points and after I won the first two I changed my intention, with the gap being so big to go for the stage. It really worked up well," he said.

Hill had a chance to take the stage win, coming to the top of the climb with the front group but the late attack of Sky powerhouse Ian Stannard prevented him from icing on the cake, perhaps literally, as Hill turned 27 on the final stage.

“It was quite tactical in that last three kilometres, Stannard would always go to the back and take a flyer and everyone scrambled for his wheel and the last time everyone missed it and all of a sudden he was gone," he said. "Coming into the finish as we started sprinting and he sat up it looked like we might pip him on the line but we didn’t get there.”

Hill will add that victory to his growing palmares, which includes last year’s overall win at the Tour of Thailand. His effort reflects the reality of riders struggling to take that next step up, the need to take results.

“It’s something different, a polka dot jersey, the green jersey wasn’t recognised on ProCyclingStats so having the mountains jersey is good in that regard at least.”

Throwing good riders of the local scene against names like Froome and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) is part of what makes the Jayco Herald Sun Tour a great race and it gives the greater public an opportunity to see Australian riders who don’t normally make the headlines.