The re-introduction of Falls Creek to the Herald Sun Tour, 10 years on from its last appearance, was designed for an Esteban Chaves and Chris Froome showdown. Instead, it was a day for the domestiques, leaving Team Sky on the back foot in its defence of Froome's 2016 title.
Kenny Elissonde and Damien Howson reversed their usual domestique roles to attack on the 29km climb, and both took full advantage of the opportunity to press for personal glory. While long, the Falls Creek climb was better suited to the characteristics of Howson who was also aided by prior knowledge of the climb.
Howson duly dispatched Elissonde in the closing kilometres to seal the stage win and move into the yellow as the Frenchman faulted and fell to third. Froome crossed the line in a select group, containing Chaves, and now sits fifth overall.
"Everything was going to plan. Ian [Stannard] rode strongly all day and Orica had a rider up front too. They had the same idea as us I think, which was to let the best man win - we thought that would be either Chris [Froome] or Esteban [Chaves]," director sportif Brett Lancaster explained of the stage.
"Kenny did what he was asked to do but unfortunately the race radio wasn't the best so communication was tough, but [Damien] Howson was stronger on the day out of those two guys."
There was no mention of radio issues from Elissonde when he spoke to the press post-stage, explaining that he was expecting Froome to bridge across then launch the winning move. The Frenchman added Howson was aided knowing the climb whereas it was his and Froome's first ascent.
"The plan was that he would come from behind," he said, adding "I would prefer Chris to win than me to finish third. That is maybe for later in the week."
After stage 1 of the race last year, Sky were sitting one-two on GC after Peter Kennaugh and Froome put on a demonstration into Healesville to all but secure the victory. Twelve months on and Sky's tactics will need to be aggressive rather than defensive and that's precisely the approach Elissonde and Lancaster stressed post-stage.
"It seems logical that we don't ride for third place. We will not defend this place for sure so we will try something," said Elissonde. "Chris is also there to make some effort and there is still place for making some action so it is just the first day.”
"It will be very tricky to get over a minute on Howson but it's bike racing and Froomey is one of the best bike riders in the world," said Lancaster who rode with the Orica team before retiring in 2015. "We'll never give up. It's not over until the fat lady sings.”
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