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Crocodile Trophy - NE
Australia, October 17-29, 2006
Race 11 - October 27: Laura - Cooktown, 142 km
Stevens wins grand stage into Cooktown
Heat and fatigue tear apart the field
Belgian Christophe Stevens is poised to claim overall victory in the Crocodile Trophy of 2006 after winning today's dramatic 142 kilometre stage from Outback Laura to the historic coastal port of Cooktown in Australia's remote Far North.
Describing the race as a mental battle, the three time Crocodile Trophy protagonist fought hard against the elements on the aptly named 'Battle Camp Road' through magnificent Lakefield National Park, on a surface littered with potholes, bull-dust patches and endless corrugations.
As Stevens held on, one by one, several of the highly rated Crocodile Trophy contenders dropped off the pace or were eliminated due to the crippling effects of fatigue. It was that sort of day, one synonymous with what the Croc Trophy stands for - human suffering on a grand scale.
"I've seen lots of guys actually just break when they saw a long stretch ahead of them, I saw Michael [Borup] the Danish completely die today but that's what Croc Trophy is all about," a philosophical Stevens said as he admired the view on Cooktown's Grassy Hill at stage end.
"It's a mental game, the heat and everything. Some of these guys will start to appreciate the Croc Trophy now and won't be so easy about it anymore."
A day of dramas
The peloton set off from Laura at 0800 hours on a relatively cool north Australian day, farewelled by Laura's traditional owner Tommy George - the guardian of the mythical Quinkan country.
Accepting the honour of leading the Croc Trophy bunch out of Laura was Will Bird, the first competitor in the event to hail from historic Cooktown. It didn't take long for the attackers to emerge on the punishing Battle Camp Road.
The first move came from Belgian Niek Lingier, who just days ago was on the verge of being airlifted out of the race with a suspected broken leg. But again today, the long term effects of a badly corked thigh sustained in an earlier crash quickly re-appeared, accentuated by the pummelling Lingier copped on the Lakefield Road.
"I had a very tough day, I took my chance in the beginning but I didn't know it was such a bad track today," Lingier said. "I drove along for about 15, 20k's and there was so much headwind and the gap wasn't big and I told to myself wait for the group."
The next move came from the Dutch Tandem team, which moved from the rear to the front of field and set a cracking tempo on the sandy Battle Camp road - a tempo which took its toll on many of the riders in the lead bunch.
"The first part was quite good for us, it was not as bad as anyone said, it was a little bit hilly but the terrain was good, the tandem handles quite well in the loose sand," the Dutch tandem team's Francesco Wessels said.
"In the downhills we were able to make some progression and then we took over the lead and I believe somewhere between 20 and 30 kilometres we took apart the whole group."
High profile riders to get shot out the back of the group included Dane Michael Borup (dual stage winner) and the Felt Shimano Dream Team's Valentine Zeller, who was defending third place in the overall standings - along with the lead in the teams championship.
"I didn't have the best day, I think I had the worst day so far in this year's Crocodile," Borup said. "I got sick last night [after the hot stage into Laura] and I was really having problems in the first eighty k's.
"You learn some new things every day when you're a rookie in the Crocodile Trophy, but it's a good adventure and I'm having fun every day."
Zeller forced out
Fun wasn't a word to describe Valentin Zeller's experience during stage eleven of the Crocodile Trophy.
After suffering on the road into Laura yesterday with suspected heat stroke, Zeller returned to the race today, but lasted only fifty kilometres before being forced to withdraw by the race doctor.
Desperate to go on - with the teams prize at stake along with his third place in the overall standings - the brave Austrian tried gallantly to overcome his illness, but the hand of fate conspired against him.
Doubled over, unable to stomach fluids and projectile vomiting by the roadside, the toughest of all decisions was made to pull the champion endurance racer from the event, fearing he would risk his life by attempting to continue and potentially perish in the Outback.
"Ultimately the decision is up to him, but we had no choice, he understood he could not go on - I think he was happy we made the decision" race doctor Roswitha Kortschak said after examining Zeller.
With numbers rapidly dwindling at the front end of the race, the remaining protagonists settled into a steady, if not slow, pace. A long distance attack by Belgian Christophe Heinix, which never appeared too threatening, was reeled in as the race reached the hills heading towards Cooktown.
"I should have known there was a hilly part and they took me on the hilly part," Heinix said. "The wind was blowing very very hard, but I arrived here, I hope I get back into the top ten maybe."
Australia's Struan Lamont was also dropped in the hills, and yet another puncture just after a picturesque river crossing put pay to Austrian Manuel Treven's stage hopes.
"I didn't count them anymore, I think it was eight or nine [punctures]," a physically and mentally exhausted Treven said. "Overall it's a really hard thing because the stages are quite long and conditions are very hard. It is sandy and the corrugations. The people who drive in front are very very tough riders."
Once again, that group of tough riders included the likes of Stevens, Attila Marton, Stefan Rucker and the Felt Shimano Dream Team's Dave Wood and Darren O'Grady. The group stayed together on the approach to Cooktown, and waited until the final one kilometre ascent of Grassy Hill to fight it out in an uphill sprint finish.
It was a finish custom made for Stevens, the man who has one hand on the Crocodile Trophy, with Wood coming through for his second podium finish.
"It's always one of the hardest stages but today seemed to feel easier," Wood said, providing a different perspective to his fellow competitors. "I don't know if the road was easier or we were easy on ourselves. I didn't quite have the legs racing against Christophe at the end."
Ever consistent Hungarian Attila Marton finished third, cementing his second place on the overall standings. Arren O'Grady reached the top of Grassy Hill in fourth place, hanging in there, and continuing to show improvement.
"I've experienced my first tour as far as day to day racing goes," O'Grady said. "The trials and tribulations of recovering and trying to eat every day. It's been a real challenge in that sense for me."
At the back end of the field, there were noteworthy performances across the board in the Crocodile Trophy stage to Cooktown.
Veteran American Cal Burgart experienced his highest placed finish yet in 17th, one place in front of Frenchman Charles Blanc, who is desperately close to finishing his first Crocodile Trophy from four attempts.
"It's a really nice place to end right up the top of the hill," Burgart said as he peered out over the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to the Endeavour River. You make it up the hill, you feel like you've accomplished something."
One rider who has accomplished more than most on this Tour is Australia's Will Bird. The local Cooktown lad, who a couple of days ago experienced his 29th birthday on the Crocodile Trophy, enjoyed the pleasure of riding back to his home town. His family, waiting at the top of Grassy Hill, for a rousing reception.
"Oh it's a bloody amazing feeling just to finish today," Bird said. "I've been looking forward to it the past two weeks, just riding into town was pretty amazing for me.
"I grew up here so it was kind of all the memories of everything coming back and just knowing I'll have friends and family waiting for me at the end."
Two stages remain in the Croc Trophy of 2006. Tomorrow the race heads into the Daintree Forest, along sections of the CREB track and zig-zag trail. The race will reach its climax on Sunday when the Crocodile Trophy rolls into Cape Tribulation.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by John Flynn/Cyclingnews.com
1 Christoph Stevens (Bel) Belgian Bike Power 5.52.40 2 David Wood (Aus) Dream Team 0.15 3 Attila Marton (Hun) Meditech Sport Club - CIB Leasing 0.27 4 Darren O'Grady (Aus) Dream Team 1.02 5 Manuel Treven (Aut) Lietz-Sport Team 1.07 6 Ingmar Brichenfrid (Aut) Lietz-Sport Team 1.27 7 Stefan Rucker (Aut) Elk Haus 3.30 8 Struan Lamont (Aus) Team Scott Racing 10.42 9 Christophe Heinix (Bel) Passage Fitness First Oudaan 12.05 10 Michael Borup (Den) RT-Adidas-Roadbike Shop 21.54 11 Erik Goeleven (Bel) Team MI Croc for Sofhea 30.13 12 Joel Geny (Bel) P. Léger Artisan Chocolatier 30.55 13 Frederik Dewilde (Bel) Lingier-Versluys MTB-TEAM 31.15 14 Luc Gielen (Bel) Team MI Croc for Sofhea 33.44 15 Fred/Francesco Gras/Wessels (Ned) Dutch Crocodile Tandem Team 41.01 16 Ralf Peter Schnorr (Swi) Fitmanager.de 54.13 17 Cal Burgart (USA) San Diego Cyclo-Vets 1.29.36 18 Charles Blanc (Fra) 1.36.21 19 Christophe Desimpelaere (Bel) Team Descente - CSC 20 Niek Lingier (Bel) Lingier-Versluys MTB-TEAM 1.41.28 21 Erik Baeteman (Bel) Lingier-Versluys MTB-TEAM 1.41.48 22 Dominique Angerer (Aut) 1.48.28 23 Harald Reisinger (Aut) Lietz-Sport Team 1.50.05 24 Guy Lemmens (Bel) Team MI Croc for Sofhea 1.52.38 25 Günter Rafeiner (Aut) Mountainbiker.AT 1.56.48 26 William Bird (Aus) 2.09.29 27 Ole Egeblad (Den) Team Descente - CSC 30 Melanie Grant (Aus) 28 Marco Bücken (Swi) Tri Team Glarnerland 2.17.08 29 Hansi Friedl (Ger) 31 Roger Freixenet (Spa) Yorky's 2.23.50 32 Shane Laird (Can) NSD 33 Fulvio Villano (Ita) 2.26.43 34 Salvador Ribotipons (Spa) Matxacuca - Xaloc 2.37.48 35 Patrick Libert (Bel) SOWAT 2.48.56 36 Toru Watanabe JPA Green Life Tohoku 2.55.55 37 Ronny Potter (Bel) SOWAT 3.37.00 DNF Heinz Zörweg (Aut) Team Zörweg DNF Valentin Zeller (Aut) Dream Team DNF Rik Vincke (Bel) Lingier-Versluys MTB-TEAM 2 Fastest woman 1 Dominique Angerer (Aut) 7.41.08 2 Melanie Grant (Aus) 21.01 Most aggressive rider 1 Christophe Heinix (Bel) General classification after stage 11 1 Christoph Stevens (Bel) 41.55.19 2 Attila Marton (Hun) 33.17 3 Ingmar Brichenfrid (Aut) 1.00.22 4 Stefan Rucker (Aut) 1.09.52 5 David Wood (Aus) 1.26.04 6 Manuel Treven (Aut) 1.48.27 7 Michael Borup (Den) 1.55.17 8 Struan Lamont (Aus) 2.11.54 9 Darren O'Grady (Aus) 2.55.53 10 Frederik Dewilde (Bel) 3.43.45 11 Christophe Heinix (Bel) 3.44.42 12 Erik Goeleven (Bel) 4.07.29 13 Joel Geny (Bel) 4.51.54 14 Luc Gielen (Bel) 5.17.23 15 Ralf Peter Schnorr (Swi) 7.16.14 16 Niek Lingier (Bel) 8.21.25 17 Ole Egeblad (Den) 9.51.35 18 Guy Lemmens (Bel) 10.02.44 19 Dominique Angerer (Aut) 10.39.27 20 Charles Blanc (Fra) 11.43.07 21 Cal Burgart (USA) 11.57.02 22 Harald Reisinger (Aut) 11.58.48 23 Fred/Francesco Gras/Wessels (Ned) 12.10.57 24 Marco Bücken (Swi) 12.13.50 25 Erik Baeteman (Bel) 12.27.14 26 Hansi Friedl (Ger) 12.28.06 27 Günter Rafeiner (Aut) 13.05.12 28 Christophe Desimpelaere (Bel) 13.22.20 29 William Bird (Aus) 14.32.20 30 Roger Freixenet (Spa) 14.57.43 31 Shane Laird (Can) 16.10.58 32 Patrick Libert (Bel) 17.20.50 33 Fulvio Villano (Ita) 18.00.51 34 Melanie Grant (Aus) 18.06.06 35 Ronny Potter (Bel) 18.34.58 36 Salvador Ribotipons (Spa) 19.53.20 37 Toru Watanabe JPA 20.47.25 38 Valentin Zeller (Aut) 39 Heinz Zörweg (Aut) 40 Rik Vincke (Bel) Fastest woman 1 Dominique Angerer (Aut) 52.34.46 2 Melanie Grant AUD 7.26.39 Points classification 1 Christoph Stevens (Bel) 112 pts 2 Stefan Rucker (Aut) 100 2 Michael Borup (Den) 87 4 Attila Marton (Hun) 61 5 David Wood (USA) 42 6 Heinz Zörweg (Aut) 40 7 Ingmar Brichenfrid (Aut) 25 8 Darren O'Grady (Aus) 22 9 Niek Lingier (Bel) 20 10 Fred/Francesco Gras/Wessels (Ned) 20 10 Valentin Zeller (Aut) 17 12 Christophe Heinix (Bel) 10 13 Manuel Treven (Aut) 7 13 Luc Gielen (Bel) 5 15 Struan Lamont (Aus) 4 Most aggressive rider classification 1 Stefan Rucker 5 pts 2 Fred/Francesco Gras/Wessels 2 3 Dominique Angerer 1 4 Christoph Stevens 1 5 Christophe Heinix 1 Teams classification 1 Lietz-Sport Team 140.33.45 2 Team MI Croc for Sofhea 4.39.48 3 Lingier-Versluys MTB-TEAM 13.42.34 Out Dream Team