Stage 3 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour was on paper one for the sprinters. Orica-GreenEdge's Caleb Ewan delivered on his favourite status for the 144.2km jaunt from Yarra Glen to Moe but it wasn't quite the finish many had expected. The three WorldTour teams in the race, Team Sky, Orica-GreenEdge and Trek-Segafredo, dropped the hammer in the final five kilometres to split the already reduced peloton.
A six-rider group of Ewan, Jack Haig (Orica-GreenEdge), Peter Kennaugh, Chris Froome (Team Sky), Jack Bobridge (Trek-Segafredo), and Tanner Putt (UnitedHealthcare) initiated the race winning move in the gusty conditions. Kennaugh won the sprint for third place behind Ewan and Putt to pick up four bonus seconds to extend his overall race lead with Froome following him home for a prosperous day in the saddle in which they eliminated several GC threats.
Although Team Sky lost the king of the mountain's jersey it held at the start of the day with Froome, it ended the stage with Kennaugh 13 seconds ahead of the two-time Tour de France champion, and 31 seconds ahead of Bobridge.
Stage 4 is again another day for the sprinters before Sunday's queen stage up Arthurs Seat with Team Sky in pole position to finish one-two on the final podium.
"That’s the beauty of cycling, you never quite know what to expect with some of these stages," Kennaugh said after the podium celebrations in which he also collected the sprint classification jersey.
"It’s good that we have the upper hand I guess and weren’t caught out ourselves. The boys did a fantastic job. We were just at the front covering moves all day. They love to race hard out here. The first 40 minutes was just full gas racing, everyone trying to get into the break. That’s always exciting and another day in the office."
While Kennaugh's comments post-stage were in praise of the way the day played out, Froome was more relieved as his tone suggested.
"Not really, I expected it to be a big bunch sprint so it was a little more selective than that but it was a good day out there. The guys did a good job out there controlling for us. Pete in third place so we are happy with that," Froome said. "There was a little bit of wind there which shook things up a little bit there before the final climb. That’s all part of it."
Unsure exactly what the Continental Avanti Isowhey team were aiming to do on the stage, Kennaugh added that he also didn't see the day playing out as it did but nevertheless enjoyed the racing.
"You could explain it as dramatic I guess, the whole stage was quite exciting really," Kennaugh said. "Avanti took it up on the main climb which was interesting. I wasn’t quite sure why, maybe they were going for the king of the mountain points but either way, it made for exciting racing and also made the stage hard. I think that’s partly why it split in the crosswinds in the end because everything was already racing on quite tired legs.
"There was no science involved, that’s for sure. It was just racing your bike. It was almost like being a junior again, getting stuck in. A bit of old-school bike racing really."
With two wins to his name already in 2016, Kennaugh added that once he found himself ensconced in the stage-winning move, he was contemplating a third victory.
“Once we got over the final climb, I said to myself ‘just sit on now and don’t do a single turn’. I thought just one big move and if I was going to do it, it was going to be into that final corner, just before the one k to go and try and catch them by surprise but it was hard because of the headwind," he explained. "By the time I made my attack, they’d all seen it because the wind was so strong but I managed to gain a bit of time on Jack Bobridge, which is never a bad thing.”
Bobridge, who earned a three second time bonus via an intermediate sprint win, and Haig are now the only two riders within 50 seconds of the Sky duo. With the GC all but sewn up with two stages to race, Kennaugh added he and Froome are now looking forward to the queen stage up Arthurs Seat.
“I am quite excited for Sundays race to be honest. Hopefully, take it up on that climb and either Froome or me will be up for trying to go for another stage win," he said.