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by Matt de Neef
February 3, 2017
Photography by Con Chronis/Jayco Herald Sun Tour
BEECHWORTH, Australia (CT) – Two road stages of the 2017 Jayco Herald Sun Tour complete and two victories for riders usually consigned to working for others. A day after Damien Howson (Orica-Scott) won solo on Falls Creek to take the yellow jersey, Luke Rowe (Sky) took his own solo victory by attacking from the day-long breakaway.
But the real drama on today’s stage 2 happened in what remained of the peloton in the final 20km, several minutes behind Rowe.
While Rowe was riding away from his breakaway companions on the tough climb to Stanley, race leader Howson was in difficulty at the bottom of the climb, his progress halted by a front-wheel puncture. Howson took a wheel from his teammate Mitch Docker and was soon on his way, but the South Australian had a considerable chase on his hands.
Somewhere around the time Howson punctured, defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) attacked solo out of the peloton. It’s not clear whether Froome attacked once he saw Howson was in difficulty, or if, as Froome suggests, he only realised later that Howson had flatted.
“We obviously wanted to shake things up on the general classification so we hit the climb hard,” Froome said. “Halfway up we heard that Howson had punctured but by then the race was in full swing and there was no stopping again.”
Froome’s account differs to that of his teammate and stage winner, Luke Rowe. According to Rowe, Froome sat up when he heard Howson had flatted and his sports director told him to “stop riding”.
“I heard over the radio ‘stop riding’ because it’s not … a very classy way to take the win,” Rowe said. “He [Froome] was on his own, on his own off the front. He said he could see three guys in front of him, who were just behind me [Rowe’s former breakaway companions].
“Yeah there was an opportunity there [for Froome to take time on Howson] but I think it just shows that the class that Froome’s got and how good of a guy he is.”
According to Froome’s account, he didn’t sit up and wait. Rather, he was joined by seven other riders — including teammate Kenny Elissonde — and continued on as Orica-Scott worked hard behind to help put Howson back in contact.
“Once I made it over the climb and Kenny and I … found ourselves in the front group from the rest of the peloton we just sat on the wheels; pretty much just tried to stay at the front,” Froome said. “Obviously it all came back together for the finish with the Orica guys bringing Howson back.”
By the time Froome crossed the line in a group that had swelled to 27, 77 second had passed since his teammate won the stage solo. Rowe had made his stage-winning move with a kilometre remaining in the climb to Stanley, before riding the remaining 10km to Beechworth on his own.
Rowe’s former breakaway companion Conor Dunne (Aqua Blue) battled his way back from a mechanical with 10km to go to finish second, 33 seconds behind. Tanner Putt (UnitedHealthcare) finished third at the front of a group of three, another 23 seconds behind. The first five across the line had all come from the original 10-man breakaway which came together after 45km of racing.
For Rowe, today was only the second time in his six-year career he’s won a bike race as an individual, the only other win being his stage victory at the 2012 Tour of Britain.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Rowe said after today’s stage. “We said at the end of last year that it’s about time I won something. There’s bigger bike races out there to win but a win’s a win and I’ll take anything I can get.
“It’s kind of a surreal putting your hands in the air again and going through the winning motions. But as you say most of the time is spent working for others so if you get half an opportunity you’ve got take it. That’s exactly what I did today.”
Like Rowe, Howson found himself in unfamiliar territory, dealing with the challenges of leading a tour.
“I was stressing,” Howson said with a smile. “I was nervous going into that climb — I knew it could have been a difficult ride to the finish [depending on] how teams played their cards. But to be on the back foot, in a cause that I couldn’t control, definitely added an element of stress.”
After spending so much of his career riding in support of others, today Howson called in some favours with Rob Power, Simon Gerrans, Michael Hepburn and Esteban Chaves all contributing to the chase. Howson was full of praise for his entire team, but was particularly glowing when asked to describe Chaves — a rider whom Howson helped to podiums in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España last year.
“Hero. Always has been,” Howson said. “Such a phenomenal rider. For me to usually help him out — I get great pleasure in doing that. And for him to turn the screws today and just give everything he had just to retain the yellow jersey in the Herald Sun Tour? I can’t thank him enough.
“But on top of him just the full team. Every one of them — you can not fault any of their efforts today.”
It took until the final 500 metres of the stage for Howson’s Orica-Scott teammates to drag him up to the Froome bunch. In doing so they ensured the former U23 world champion would spend another day in yellow.
“It’s a different feeling,” said Howson, comparing the feeling of relief to the joy of winning stage 1. “I’m overjoyed to remain in the lead. What could have been a horrendous ending has turned out not so bad after all.”
For Team Sky and Chris Froome, the battle to take a second overall victory is, in all likelihood, over. Howson remains 38 seconds clear at the top of the GC, with Jai Hindley (Korda Mentha-Australia) second and Kenny Elissonde (Sky) third, another 15 seconds back. Froome sits in sixth, 1:12 behind Howson.
“GC wise it’s going to be tough,” Rowe admitted. “I said it before — Damien’s a class act. To try and get rid of a guy like that … If he hadn’t punctured today he’d have been right there anyway.
“But we’ll keep pushing. There’s still opportunities. The last stage is hard, there’s wind. Any opportunity we get we’ll take it, but it’s going to be hard to dislodge Damo now.”
Sky will get their opportunity for a third stage win tomorrow with the race’s only day for the sprinters. Danny van Poppel goes in as the favourite to add to his victory in the prologue in a stage that concludes with a technically challenge approach to the Mitchelton Winery.