Team BikeExchange opened up their Australian racing season at the Santos Festival of Cycling by delivering plenty of air-time for their new sponsors and carving out what looks like a near unbeatable lead at the men’s National Road Series event, after Luke Durbridge spent the vast majority of stage 1 alone off the front.
The Australian time trial champion rode away with nearly 80 kilometres to go and did it with such power that the gap stretched beyond four minutes during the stage.
The 29-year-old lost some of that time in the final stretch but never looked in any great danger of losing his lead even as the salt stains accumulated on his jersey in the heat and the pain crept in.
“Probably the last lap I started to get the twinges. My fingers started to go each way and my legs started to cramp a bit so I was getting a little bit nervous,” said Durbridge. “But I had enough of a gap.”
The chasers banded together to try to make inroads in Durbridge’s advantage early in the race, but they were unable to do so. They knew they were out of the fight for the stage win and perhaps ultimately for overall victory too.
“We’re in an awesome position now, we’ve got the strongest team in the race and got the lead by two and a half minutes, so we couldn’t ask for anything more," said Sports Director Matt Wilson.
The event, which is replacing the cancelled WorldTour race the Santos Tour Down Under, has three stages left. They are the 116 kilometre race from Birdwood to Lobethal, an 88.2 kilometre stage with two ascents of Willunga Hill and then a criterium in Adelaide on stage 4.
German professional cyclist Raphael Freiensten (Inform TM Insight Make) is the closest to Durbridge on GC, 2:28 back. Two-time Tour Down Under winner Richie Porte finished in the main peloton and is now 17:05 down on Durbridge.
Even though Durbridge’s lead shrunk from a maximum of four minutes, it is still a huge gap, especially considering that stage 1 was considered likely to end with the group coming in together or, at most, with a winning move that established itself on the final climb before the finish.
“I think if the gap was four minutes, it’s really hard to take back, unfortunately the GC is almost over. You see that at the Tour de France, let’s hope he doesn’t have a crash or a mechanical but we will be fighting to the end,” said Freiensten. “You never know.”
However, even in the unlikely event that Durbridge falters, there are plenty of other teammates to take up the fight with the best-placed being Damien Howson in third, just three seconds behind Freiensten.
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