Although downplaying his form leading into the national road championships and the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, Robbie McEwen has not lost a trick yet: today on the road to Tanunda, the newly crowned national champion took his second consecutive stage of the tour, and in doing so, extended his overall lead in the race over Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros Team) and Mickael Delage (FDJeux.com).
A dangerous four-man break flew the coup at the 11 kilometre mark and stayed away for almost the entire race, but McEwen's Davitamon-Lotto team turned on the screws right when it was needed, bringing the race back for a second sprint finish in as many days. With a slightly downhill, non-technical finishing straight, pundits were leaning towards a Baden Cooke (FDJeux.com) or a Jaan Kirsipuu (Crédit Agricole) victory, but with McEwen on song, no-one was able to match Rockin' Robbie's two-wheeled karaoke display.
"My guys were up the front all day; they did all the hard work and really deserve this win - I was glad he could repay the team for all the hard work, because it's the first race of the season and they were up the front for 100k's," said the smiling McEwen straight after the race finish. "I don't think I'm necessarily the strongest in the field, but today, I just left it late and got it right."
However, the stage was not without incident. Henk Vogels was forced to return home today, sick as the proverbial dog, and will undergo blood tests tomorrow for glandular fever after running a high temperature following last night's criterium, according to The Australian's Peter Kogoy.
Then, in the finishing sprint, McEwen faced a tougher-than-usual sprinters' tussle with a few blokes from the Ceramiche Panaria-Navigare squad, who were leading out for Paride Grillo. The Queenslander complained afterwards of receiving "a hard time" and found himself dangerously close to the barriers, but with one of the best bike-handling skills in the peloton, 32 year-old McEwen somehow managed to get himself around the other side for a last-leap victory.
Said McEwen to Cyclingnews, "The Panaria guys were giving me a hard time; they were giving number 98 [Grillo] a lead-out and I got squeezed into the barriers - so I had to back off [his wheel] and come round him again."
Boasting two wins in two days, McEwen leads both the overall and sprint classifications, while 19 year-old neo-pro Mickael Delage (FDJeux.com) looks like becoming yet another of FdJ directeur-sportif Marc Madiot's finds in the vein of Philippe Gilbert, the Frenchman leading both the mountains and young riders' competitions after his efforts in today's main escape. Also in the move was Irishman David O'Loughlin (Navigators Insurance), who was rewarded with the most aggressive rider jersey, but when Cyclingnews spoke with him post-race, the rider was disappointed not to have come away with the win.
"I was basically out in the break to win the stage, so this jersey doesn't mean a great deal to me, but it's a good consolation after a hard day working in the sun," said O'Loughlin. "I will be under attack the coming days if I [am given] a free hand."
How it unfolded
With Vogels out of action, 94 riders from 12 teams took to the start line amid cloudy skies in Salisbury at 11am this morning. The threat of rain was looming over the northern Adelaide suburb and the expected maximum of 36 degrees Celsius appeared unlikely; for the Europeans at least, it was a blessing in disguise.
Despite cooler temps and the late morning start, however, it took a good half-hour before the peloton arose from its slumber, dawdling along the flat before any real action occurred. That action was in the form of a four-man escapade at the 11 kilometre mark, with four teams represented: Credit Agricole (Lazlo Bodrogi), (Mickael Delage), Navigators Insurance (David O'Loughlin) and United Water (David McKenzie). As none of the quartet presented any real threat to the overall classification, the peloton was content to let them go, and by km 29, their lead had amassed to more than five and half minutes.
Adelaide boy Russell Van Hout (Uni SA) did try and bridge across, but with four working smoothly in sync, Russ stood little chance of catching the leaders, and was forced to return to the comfort of the bunch before the first sprint prime in Williamstown (km 46.8). Roughly 20 kilometres later at KOM of Smith Hill (km 64), Hungarian Bodrogi found himself dropped, but the chrono man dug deep and was back in the break shortly thereafter.
By the second sprint at Mt Pleasant (km 85), the break's lead was hovering at a tenuous 1'30, with McKenzie strangely sitting up after taking maximum points. However, the gap remained this way for virtually the next 30 kilometres, and it was thought that maybe, just maybe, the remaining three had a fighting chance. But within the next 10 clicks, Davitamon-Lotto buried the idea and the break vanished, as if by magic...
... which is about the only way to describe Robbie McEwen's sprinting performance this afternoon - at first looking boxed in with nowhere to go, then suddenly leaping off Paride Grillo's (Ceramiche Panaria-Navigare) wheel like a rabbit out of a hat, with the Italian second and Liberty Seguros' Allan Davis third.