Team Sky's second win in three days of racing at the Herald Sun Tour was just the tonic it needed after Orica-Scott's Damien Howson put them to the sword by claiming the Queen stage and race lead 24-hours before.
While victory on stage 2 from Mt Beauty to Beechworth via the breakaway for Luke Rowe was celebrated, the day marked the first of two opportunities Team Sky has to claw back Chris Froome's 1:12 deficit to Howson.
"We had Luke up the road all day, and he was feeling good, so we gave him the green light to go for the stage win. He proved to have the best legs out of everyone in the race and rode away from the climbers on that steep climb," Froome said of his teammate's victory.
With Rowe riding away to the stage win, a few minutes down the road back in the peloton the teams were positioning their riders and jockeying for space in the fast run into the base of the Stanley category two climb. The fact that Howson suffered a flat front tyre and Froome was one of several riders to attack were undisputed facts post-stage. The order and precise detail in which the events took place though were less clear with conflicting accounts on the specifics of the matter.
Froome explained that he had marked the climb as a launch pad to steal back time on Howson. Along with teammate Kenny Elissonde, JLT Condor's Ian Bibby, St George's Ben Dyball and four riders from the Australian national team, Froome found himself off the front of the peloton with Rowe in sight.
At this point, Froome explained the news of Howson's puncture came over the radio, and there was no chance of slowing down to let him back on.
"For us back in the bunch, obviously we wanted to shake things up on the general classification, so we hit the climb hard," he said. "Halfway up the climb, we heard that Howson had punctured, but by then the race was in full swing, and there was no stopping."
Howson had his entire team drop back to pace him through the peloton and up the climb in the attempt to catch the 'Froome group' and keep the jersey and overall win which was riding away from him.
With three kilometres to go, Froome's group had 30 seconds over Howson and the chasers, but on the final right-hand turn into the finishing straight with 700 metres to go, the race leader made contact to all but save his race. With Cam Meyer taking a late flyer to steal seconds on the bunch, Froome dropped from sixth to fifth but importantly didn't lose any time on Howson.
"Once we made it over the climb and Kenny and I found ourselves in the front group there from the rest of the peloton, we sat on the wheels and pretty much tried to stay at the front," Froome recounted of the final. "Obviously, it all came back together to the finish with the Orica guys bringing back Howson and [I am] pretty happy with the end result with Luke taking out the stage."
With stage 3 expected to conclude with a bunch sprint and Team Sky ‘100 per cent’ committed to Danny Van Poppel as Rowe explained, Froome's final opportunity to wrest the yellow jersey off Howson's shoulders will be Sunday's hilly Kinglake circuit stage.
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