The opening salvo in the Ingkerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro stage race has seen last year's champion, a strikingly in-form Andy Blair, winning the 42km Mt Gillen stage 1 after snatching the lead in the final five kilometres in Alice Springs.
Blair gave signal to intentions for a back-to-back title chase after holding off U23 National Champion and Torq rider Robbie Hucker, who raced into the Alice Springs velodrome for his finishing lap 23 seconds behind Blair.
Hucker had led for the entire stage, before misjudging a ride line in the final kilometres as the pair crossed a railway track cost him the lead. Hucker's Team Torq teammate Jack Haig was third over the line, just over two minutes in arrears of Blair.
"I pretty much just stayed on Robbie's tail until about five kilometres to go when he made a mistake, taking a bad line at the railway crossing. I'd managed to save a bit of energy sitting back, so was able to steal a gap and hang on up the final climb."
That final, brutal climb is known Blair's Stairs, the ACT rider having been the first to conquer what many considered an unrideable challenge in last year's event.
"Similar to last year, I knew that climb would be the make or break moment. Luckily I had that small lead and the legs to get up it while staying on the pedals - it's changed a little from last year and the line has eased up a bit," said Blair. "I was expecting to have to attack before heading up that hill, but Robbie made his mistake 500m before the rise, giving me enough time to get my breath back leading into it, so I was more in control and got up okay."
A final stretch headwind delivered confidence to Blair that the opening stage would be his.
"I knew it would have been hard for Robbie in a headwind to breach back. I'd saved energy early on, trying to use my brain more than brawn. I knew Robbie had gone fast early and figured he'd have less in the legs.
Blair nominates the Team Torq threesome of Robbie Hucker, Jack Haig and Billy Sewell as the biggest threat to his aspirations for the podium come the end of the week.
"I am cautious going into this event against such a strong team - they have the advantage of three strong young and exciting riders who can work together out on the trails. I wouldn't be surprised if they put me away as they week progresses.
"But today, the fact that Robbie went out hard, dropping his team mates behind, played into my hands as they couldn't work together to hold me back."
Blair doesn't expect the same grace from Team Torq come this afternoon's stage 2 hill climb, a 300-metre dash up to the top of Anzac Hill in the centre of Alice Springs.
"I'm not expecting to win that one. Those guys are young, strong, punchy riders, so they'll do well in this kind of stage where my experience doesn't count for much - it's more about explosive speed. With their youth and enthusiasm, it'll be hard to hold out, so I'll just try to minimise my loss of time," said Blair, who notes that he still needs a posium to ensure the time bonuses on offer don't add up to an unassailable lead by any other competitor.
In the women's field it was Hurstbridge rider Melissa Anset who finished striking early with a six and a half minute winning gap over the line from New South Wales rider Terri Rhodes and Queensland-based Naomi Hansen, who rode with stitches in her knee following a training incident in Alice Springs over the weekend.
Anset and Hansen rode together early on after a flat road start, but once on fire roads, Anset made her break on one of the early hills and never looked back.
"I still doubted whether I was actually leading a few times though," said Anset, whose singular concentration on the bike, she admits, "sometimes takes me off into La-La land!"
"It wasn't actually until later in the stage that some spectators yelled out 'first female!' as I rode past that I knew I was in front for certain."
"I just pushed on. I'm not great on flat sections so as soon as it was undulating and single track I felt more at home," says Anset, who is "loving the technical, rocky single track here - these kinds of trails definitely play to my strengths."
As with men's leader Andy Blair, Anset will be looking behind her as she takes on the dash up Anzac Hill this afternoon, knowing that second place getter for stage 1, Terri Rhodes, is a skilled climber and the depth of field this year in elite women is strong overall.
"I haven't raced most of these girls before, so I'm not sure of their capabilities. It's going to be an interesting week of riding."
Brief stage and GC results
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