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Herald Sun Tour: Former winner Howson steps up as Simon Yates cracks

The rain starts to fall as Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) finishes stage 2 of the 2020 Herald Sun Tour at Falls Creek almost six minutes down on the day’s winner
The rain starts to fall as Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) finishes stage 2 of the 2020 Herald Sun Tour at Falls Creek almost six minutes down on the day’s winner (Image credit: Con Chronis)

Mitchelton-Scott were forced to improvise through a late-change in plans during stage 2 at the Herald Sun Tour when their expected overall contender Simon Yates cracked in the final kilometres of the 117.6km stage from Beechworth to Falls Creek on Thursday. 

His teammate Damien Howson took up the responsibility as team leader and finished second to stage winner and new overall leader Jai Hindley (Sunweb).

"I wasn't on a good day today so I made the call to the team with about 10km to go," said Yates, who has recently recovered from a knee injury sustained in a crash at the Tour Down Under last month. 

"Damien had great legs so was able to take the lead for the team in the final and almost rode himself to another stage win here."

Yates crashed during the second stage of the Tour Down Under, and although he injured his knee, he finished the next day in third place and then went on to finish seventh overall.

He told Cyclingnews at the start of the Herald Sun Tour that his knee had been "all right" and that he had not had any problems with it since the crash. 

Mitchelton-Scott anticipated a strong performance from Yates on stage 2 given the race ended with a 30km final undulating climb to the Falls Creek ski resort. However, he ended up losing contact with the select lead group with 5.5km to go and finished in 27th place at more than six minutes behind Hindley.

In those vital closing kilometres, Mitchelton-Scott shifted the overall classification responsibilities from Yates to teammate Howson. Howson stepped up the challenge and wound up in a lead group of three that included Hindley and Sebastian Berwick (St George Continental Cycling Team). 

Howson went on to finish second and is now positioned second in the overall classification just four second behind Hindley.

"It was a pretty difficult stage, obviously our team took control from the bottom of the climb and it'll be pretty interesting to see, even with the head wind, what time we did from bottom to top. It was raced very hard," Howson said after the stage.

"Unfortunately Simon didn't have the best of days today so Matt Wilson, our director, gave me the responsibility to try to pull something off today. I knew I was feeling relatively good, and to be around the mark is nice and pleasing and we're look forward to the rest of the Tour now.

"I just had to bide my time. The other teams had a fair few numbers still late into the race so I knew I could play off them a little bit. That last 300m was an endless effort and I could taste the victory but I knew at the same time it was going to take a big effort, so second is not too bad."

It wasn't a surprise to see Howson excel on stage 2 of the Herald Sun Tour, which presented the first opportunity for an overall classification shack-up. He won the stage into Falls Creek ski resort in the 2017 edition. On that day, he beat Hindley, who then raced for Korda Mentha Real Estate, and Kenny Elissonde then from Team Sky. Howson went on to win the overall title at the end of the five-day race. 

"Jai finished second to me a couple of years ago and now the roles are reversed, but this time it was a lot closer as well so it's all to play for on the remaining three days of the Tour," Howson said.

Stage 3 will take the peloton on a 178.1km race from Bright to Wangaratta, and includes several climbs. Stage 4's 106km race will end with a summit finish on Mount Buller. The Herald Sun Tour will wrap up with a flat stage 5 in Melbourne on Sunday.