Domestiques have their day
The 2017 edition of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour turned out to be a celebration of domestiques, with riders who are more familiar with being in the service of their team-mates being given a chance to shine.
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Overall winner Damien Howson (Orica-Scott) was the case in point. The 24-year-old Australian rider has spent the past four seasons as a worker for the Orica/GreenEdge team, but took his chance for a victory on stage one – his first as a professional cyclist.
Realising that Howson was in very good shape, and wishing to pay him back for previous hard work, his Orica-Scott team rallied around him to ensure he stayed in the yellow jersey until the end.
Howson’s show of racing savvy and climbing ability may now mean he gets more opportunities in the future.
Team Sky workers Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard also came away with stage wins. Although, unlike Howson, the British pair get their chance for personal glory in the Spring Classics, wins are still hard to come up when you usually spend hours sat at the front of the peloton.
“There are bigger bike races out there to win,” said Rowe. “But a win’s a win, and I’ll take anything I can get.” It was his first victory since 2012.
No win, but Chris Froome is where he needs to be
One Team Sky rider who didn’t come away with a win this time was Chris Froome. Froome went into the race as defending champion, and was a hot pre-race favourite.
Despite being in good shape, Froome could not repeat the feat of winning the Australian race – which he admits to being one of his favourite events. He finished sixth, a minute and 12 seconds down on Howson. Team-mate Kenny Elissonde of France was the British squad’s highest-placed rider in third.
However, Froome is evidently in feisty form. He launched several attacks on the final stage to try and overhaul Howson, but to no avail. What it shows, though, is that the three-time Tour de France champion is in good shape after a solid block of training in the Australian summer.
He’ll now head off for more training at altitude, before tackling the Volta a Catalunya in March.
Esteban Chaves swaps overall ambition for team duty
Like Froome, another Grand Tour contender who has consistently shown that he is starting the year in fine form is Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott).
The ever-smiling 27-year-old came away from the Tour Down Under as runner-up behind a rampaging Richie Porte (BMC Racing), and went into the Herald Sun Tour as a favourite for the win.
However, with his team-mate Damien Howson taking the race lead after winning stage one, Chaves willingly switched roles, playing super-domestique for Howson. With the support of the likes of Chaves and Simon Gerrans, Howson duly delivered – and Chaves placed ninth overall into the bargain.
The Chaves versus Froome show perhaps didn’t materialise as fully as many were expecting, as both riders were eclipsed by their team-mates, but we’ve already seen a tantalising glimpse that both riders are willing to take the fight to their rivals.
JLT Condor are flying
On paper, British Continental squad JLT Condor went into the Herald Sun Tour at a distinct disadvantage. They faced competition from the cream of Australian talent and the likes of Froome and Chaves, warming up for the Grand Tours ahead.
JLT Condor really stepped it up, with Australian Breton Jones and New Zealander Alex Frame placing second and third in the opening prologue time trial, and then subsequently put riders into breaks and were undaunted in bunch sprints and on the climbs.
Particularly impressive was Ian Bibby. The former British cyclocross, circuit race and Premier Calendar champion finished the race in 11th spot, just 14 seconds behind Froome.
He started the race strongly, placing eighth in the prologue, and then placing 12th, ninth, 12th and 26th in the following days.
JLT Condor’s Alistair Slater, Steve Lampier and Edmund Bradbury also put in good rides, tackling some tricky stages with aggression and style.
It’s hard to beat an Aussie at home
The Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Herald Sun Tour may be the big Australian races that attract attention from European riders, but they come at the end of a summer season for many ‘home’ riders.
It’s well known that the Australian riders hit these races with plenty of racing miles in their legs, whilst their European counterparts are easing themselves back into it after a winter lay-off.
This scenario evens up the playing field a bit, giving domestic Australian riders a chance to get one over on their WorldTour rivals. And they take the opportunity with gusto.
This year, the majority of top 10 positions in all of those races were taken up by Australians, with only German Nikias Arndt’s victory in the Ocean Road Race splitting up overall wins by Aussies Richie Porte in the Tour Down Under and Damien Howson in the Sun Tour.
Although Howson’s stage one and overall win may have been the only victories for a home rider, cast an eye down the top 10 of the Sun Tour and you will see no less than seven Australian riders. Five of these are from the Korda Menthe Real Estate-Australian national team – a stunning result from a composite squad not used to riding together.
When it comes to early-season Australian races, there really is a home advantage.