After the longest stage in recent Herald Sun Tour history at 218 kilometres, Esteban Chaves was basking in the glory as the stage winner and new overall race leader. A 17-kilometre solo attack from the finish line at the Lake Mountain netted Chaves his first win on Australian soil and first victory since the 2016 Il Lombardia.
Chaves was full of gratitude for his teammates for their roles in setting up victory and slingshotting him into the yellow jersey with one stage remaining. The 28-year-old will start the hilly Kinglake circuit, which the peloton navigate five times, with teammates Cameron Meyer second overall at 32 seconds, and defending champion Damien Howson third at 39 seconds. An all Mitchelton-Scott podium is the likely outcome.
"I am really happy to start the season in this form. It is a really hard and tough race. It is not easy. It is nearly six hours on the bike but we have a really strong team, really strong guys and in the end, we have the jersey and we have the stage. It is a pretty special feeling," the ever-smiling Chaves said.
"When it is not easy, keep the feet on the ground, work hard and work with love for what we do."
Breaking down the team plan for the 20-kilometre climb up Lake Mountain, Chaves explained the winning tactics and his decision to move from so far out.
"I try and if the guys come back, we have the other options with Cameron and Damo we can keep everyone together," he said of the climb.
"Lucky for me I arrive at the finish line. Congratulations also to Edmondson and Hepburn, they did a really good job. They pull like five hours and this is not easy."
Alex Evans of Mobius-Bridgelane was the only rider to take off in pursuit of Chaves when the Colombian launched, the 20-year-old holding at 15-seconds for the majority of the climb. Unsure who the pursuit rider was, Chaves tipped his hat to Evans for his strength post stage, the Colombian only knew he had the win in the bag at the death, as he added.
"They never catch me and I continue and don't have 100 per cent security I will take the stage and GC until 300 metres before the finish line because it is not a typical climb. It is more or less flat," he said of the 4.5 per cent average gradient climb.
In 2017, Chaves' season was troubled by a knee injury after his Australian block of racing and was bookended with a serious crash at Giro dell'Emilia. During the solo raid up Lake Mountain, Chaves explained there was little for thoughts of redemption or his comeback from the broken shoulder he sustained in October,
"It is pure pain and the kilometres pass quickly so there is not a lot of thinking or thoughts," he said.
At the finish line, Chaves had time to sit up and perform his regular winning salute but with his eye on bigger prizes across the season, the festivity was kept in check.
"It is beautiful to arrive at the finish line and have everyone cheering your name. The people in Australia really love me and this makes me really happy. I say I was born in Colombia but I am Australian as well," he said.
"You need to keep the feet on the ground. It is awesome to start this season like this but the season is long and everything can change in one day. For now, we will enjoy this day and we try and keep the jersey for tomorrow, which is not easy. It is five times that climb and for sure the people will attack.