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KINGLAKE, Australia (CT) – The Australian summer of cycling began in the wake of tragedy, less than a fortnight after the untimely death of Victorian cyclist Jason Lowndes. The summer of cycling ended with an emotional tribute to Lowndes, courtesy of his friend Sam Crome (Bennelong-SwissWellness), winner of the final stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
Crome celebrated emphatically as he crossed the finish line in Kinglake, winning the stage 4 sprint from a significantly reduced peloton. In doing so Crome beat WorldTour riders Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott; second) and Ruben Guerreiro (Trek-Segafredo; third) for stage honours in what was the biggest win of his career.
With a quiver in his voice, Crome spoke after the stage of the importance of the victory. He wasn’t just winning for himself or his team; he was winning for a fallen mate.
“It’s been a really tough time,” Crome said. “Late last year that was one of my best mates Jason Lowndes that was killed in the accident by the car. So it really hit home with us all at Bendigo. He just would have loved that so that one was for him today.
“He’d be stoked looking down at that one, that’s for sure.”
For Crome, Lowdnes’ death put everything into perspective and provided extra motivation to get the most out of himself.
“No matter how hard anything is, you’re here doing something you love and he’s not,” Crome said. “No matter how much it hurts, no matter how hard it’s been, you just keep going and going and going because you’ve got your life, you’ve got your family and friends and he’s not here.
“It’s really hard, so [the win] just means a lot.”
Crome was part of a 17-rider lead group that returned to Kinglake at the end of five laps of a hilly, 31km circuit. Up against world-class riders, Crome bided his time before hitting the front around the final corner.
“I was originally going to follow Guerreiro in the sprint because I know he’s quite fast,” Crome said. “Luckily Cam launched early and I got on it — I had to really really fight for that position into the corner.
“I thought I’d left it a bit late — when I tried to step out around Cam I wasn’t sure if I was going to get there but I managed to and just loved it.”
Crome’s win was the highlight of the week for Australian Continental team Bennelong-SwissWellness, but only one of the setup’s many impressive achievements. In addition to the stage win — the only stage win for an Australian — the team won the points classification (with Steele von Hoff), the best young rider classification (with Dylan Sunderland) and finished fifth, sixth, and seventh on GC.
For Crome, these achievements speak to the team’s spirit and their ability to match it with the best teams in the world.
“The majority of the guys have been WorldTour or ProConti that win and we’re just an Aussie Continental team but we don’t care who we race — we just come to race,” Crome said. “If it’s here, if it’s the NRS [National Road Series] we just race to win all the time and we got that.
“I think it just goes to show the strength of this team, the guys we have. That’s basically it — we’ve got a really strong team this year and I think we’re just going to continue to get these results.”
Also in the winning group on today’s final stage was Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott), the Colombian climber who had won Saturday’s queen stage to propel himself into the overall lead. Damien Howson (Mitchelton-Scott) was there too, the defending champion sitting third on GC. With Meyer finishing second, Mitchelton-Scott were able to secure an impressive clean sweep of the overall podium.
They’d locked up the GC podium after stage 3 and today’s final stage was all about defending those positions. It was a chaotic day out on the circuit, with the race splitting apart on the first of five laps and then several dangerous breakaway groups getting clear throughout.
Some of those moves contained riders well within striking distance of the overall lead, including Sunderland who was the virtual leader on the road in the closing kilometres. Stage 2 winner Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) was also among the riders to try his luck off the front, the Danish champion looking dangerous in the closing stages.
“We hoped to come in a good breakaway with guys that were far behind in the GC so we could go away and we could fight for this stage,” Pedersen said. “But [we] had three guys in the break that was under three minutes [from the overall lead] so [Mitchelton-]Scott wouldn’t let it go and then we just had to fight the whole day.
“I don’t know what Scott did in the peloton but at one point they came too close on the climb and then people thought they could could jump and then the race actually started all over again halfway. We tried to have me in the break and then we hoped that it would be a break that could go for the win.”
But Pedersen’s efforts were thwarted by Mitchelton-Scott, the team controlling the race to perfection.
“It probably looked like it was getting out of control and … some teams would definitely panic in that [situation],” said Meyer. “I mean we had a lot of guys up the road at different stages who were very close on GC. But we knew the depth of our squad and how strong it is.
“We had three guys to use even before we got down to Damien and myself so we knew that we had a lot of firepower; we knew that we had things under control. We’d been able to sew this race up before in the last stage — they did it last year — and we knew we could do it again.”
Chaves’ victory puts him in good stead as he builds towards a tilt at the Giro d’Italia’s general classification in May. While the Sun Tour isn’t the biggest race he’ll do along the way, he understands the significance of the race to his team.
“It’s a really nice feeling to win here in the home town — this is like [our] home race,” he said. “We are really happy. The team worked really well again — Edmo [Alex Edmondson] and Heppy [Michael Hepburn] and Luca [Lucas Hamilton] — they do a fantastic job for more than half of the race. And in the final we needed to control the last two climbs.
“Different to last year, we raced this time every single climb really fast. The breakaway’s really close. It’s intense but the team did really well. Thank you very much for all of the guys for all they’ve done for the GC.
“And it’s unbelievable — one, two, three on GC. I can’t believe [it].”