The 26-year-old Welshman put himself into the lead group in the finale of the hilly 147-kilometre race in Geelong, but was ultimately out-paced by winner Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb) and a handful of other riders in the drag-race to the line.
“It’s quite frustrating,” Rowe said on TeamSky.com after the race. “I think I pretty much rode the perfect race and was in the right place at the right time.”
A succession of attacks had been fired off as the race hit its finale, with Tour Down Under winner Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Jack Bauer (Quick-Step Floors) and Cameron Meyer (KordaMentha Real Estate-Australia) all trying to stake their claim.
Rowe put himself on the wheel of Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), who he’d marked out as one of the strongest riders in the lead group.
“Everything went to plan and then in the sprint it was a cross-headwind from the left,” said Rowe. “I banked on Jay McCarthy and stayed on his wheel but we didn’t come into the finish as fast as I’d have hoped.”
As Meyer was caught on the line, Rowe simply couldn’t come around Arndt, Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott), Meyer and Jhonatan Restrepo (Katusha-Alpecin), perhaps paying for his efforts to stay with the leaders over the day’s punishing series of climbs.
“I felt I could have got a better result but that’s bike racing. No excuses. I think I hit my max heart-rate on each of the three climbs on the last lap! I was literally hanging on by the skin of my teeth.”
Team Sky went into the 2017 edition of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race as defending champions. Although 2016 winner Peter Kennaugh was not among Sky’s line-up, the British WorldTour team had a strong roster – including the first 2017 WorldTour outing for Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
Froome worked hard to Rowe in the finale, assisting in the catch of Porte’s solo attack. It’s the first time that Froome and former Sky team-mate Porte have ridden against each other this season.
Earlier, Sky’s Kenny Elissonde and Sebastian Henao had each attacked, and Sergio Henao had also been active in a move just inside the final 10km but suffered a badly-timed slip of wheels on a roundabout and crashed.
Sergio Henao picked himself up quickly and re-joined the group, finishing in 22nd behind Arndt. Froome finished in a group just behind in 49th place at 43 seconds.
Next up for Rowe and Froome will be the Herald Sun Tour in Australia, running from Wednesday, February 1 to Sunday, February 5.
Froome goes into the race as defending champion, and it’s likely that Rowe will switch back to a support role before he returns to Europe and starts the important second phase of his season: the spring classics.
You can read more about Luke Rowe’s experiences in the Australian races in Cycling Weekly, in Rowe’s exclusive weekly column.