The big climbs on stages 1 and 4 of the Herald Sun Tour were the greatest challenges for the general classification hopefuls on paper, but it was a small stone with 20km to go on stage 3 to Beechworth that almost ended Damien Howson's race lead.
With the stage-winning breakaway up the road and the category 2 Stanley climb to come, Howson and his Orica-Scott team were getting into position for the ascent when disaster struck: Howson suffered a puncture just as the race was heating up.
Defeat was staring Howson in the face, but his teammate Mitch Docker was there quickly to hand over his front wheel. Once Howson had two good tyres again, the team set off in furious pursuit to chase down an attack from overall rival and defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky).
With 3km to go, second placed Jai Hindley became the virtual leader on the road, but Orica-Scott was committed to 'operation save yellow'. With Esteban Chaves, Simon Gerrans and Rob Power, Orica pulled one out from the furnace and made contact on the final corner of the stage, just 700 metres from the line.
It was no surprise that Howson was effusive in his praise for his teammates once he completed the podium celebrations: the top three overall remained unchanged with Hindley second at 38 seconds.
"Remaining calm was the most difficult thing to do," a very relieved Howson said after collecting his yellow jersey. "I was just stressing… I was nervous going into that climb. I knew it could have been a difficult ride to the finish depending on how teams played their cards. To be on the back foot from a cause I couldn't control definitely added an element of stress. It makes it more sweet at the finish.
"You cannot fault any of the efforts today," Howson said. "To be on the front today covering moves all day, riding to contain the breakaway with Sam Bewley and Michael Hepburn and then when things went a bit pear-shaped with the front puncture 20km to go, trying to remain calm is pretty difficult but once again, I had the team around me.
"The experience of Simon Gerrans, Mitch Docker lending me his front wheel, and Rob Power, [it's the] first time I have ridden with him on this team, but you can already see that he wants to give everything he has and is a true talent," Howson said, adding that there were few words spoken as the team knuckled down and concentrated on the chase rather than chit chat. "And also Esteban, to get over the climb and keep going on with it, phenomenal."
Howson has spoken of his general classification ambitions for the future, but for the present he is content to craft out his niche as a climbing domestique for the likes of Chaves. Having seen how quickly well-made plans can go up in smoke, Howson will surely be a better rider, not only in his support role but also when opportunities present themselves for him to chase personal goals.
"It is definitely a learning experience," he said. "I haven't found myself in this position too often, definitely not in recent years, and to have one of the world's best teams behind me is a true honour. It is a learning curve, and I am embracing it while it lasts. [I am] overjoyed to remain in the lead, and what could have been a horrendous ending turned out not so bad after all.
"The bad luck was on my side today, and hopefully I have used all that up for the remaining few stages. I am just happy to be back in the lead, and like I said, the team was unbelievable."
Howson and Orica-Scott will be hoping for a calmer stage with the expected day out for the sprinters on Saturday before the final showdown on four laps of Kinglake to decide the 2017 Herald Sun Tour.
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