Day 3 - January 4: Geelong. Start 4:00pm, finish 9:00pm
By Karen Forman In Geelong
Robbie McEwen is Australia's newly crowned criterium champion following a dynamic sprint finish involving all the major players in an action-packed third round of the 2002 Skilled Geelong Bay Classic in the seaside Victorian city of Geelong tonight.
As well as the coveted national title, the Crown team rider snaffled the yellow Bay series leader's jersey, and along with it, a sense of having "restored the order" following an ugly incident the previous day at Barwon Heads involving he and rival Graeme Brown (SBR-Elite).
Brown was relegated from first to 11th place for going against the international cycling rules and changing his line in the final sprint, which resulted in McEwen coming dangerously close to a parked car and losing his own opportunity for prize money. McEwen protested, commissaires upheld his complaint and Brown found himself out of the points.
His appeal prior to today's racing on a picturesque but very fast 800 metre Geelong carpark circuit was dismissed following a 10-minute hearing by three independent commissaires.
And although the Sydney rider accepted the decision, saying it was "final and tonight is another night", there was no doubt that he would be out for retribution at Geelong tonight.
"We will start today with the attitude that we started the first day," he said. "We really want to win. Yesterday was just a glitch. I am not surprised that it created such a storm . . . Robbie is a high profile person and he had a bit of a cry and the media responded to it . . . but I still don't believe there was a problem with my sprint."
He said he and team-mates including Hilton Clarke, who took the first place points the first day at Rye after Brown set up the win with a serious of strong attacks throughout the race, were feeling good and ready to tonight's event.
"I will do whatever it takes to win . . . I mean you can't take drugs and you can't break the rules, but I will do whatever it takes inside that to win."
Known as a hothead within the Australian cycling community, Brown made no apologies for his attitude. "I am a sprinter and sprinters want to win," he said.
"I want to win an Olympic gold medal. I want to beat Mario Cipollini." The St George Cycling Club member, who joins Italian pro team Panaria this year, also maintained he had "nothing personal" against McEwen.
However, there was no disguising the anger, the determination and the hunger between the two rivals tonight, and the atmosphere was crackling with an electricity which delighted the large crowd which gathered to watch the event and enjoy gala festivities organised by the Geelong Council, including a celebrity race, fireworks and a sausage sizzle.
Brown shot onto the front from the start and it was clear he and Clark had orchestrated another tight team plan for the event.
After Brown wound the field up for two laps, Clark took his turn on the front, but the pair were never far from each other - or from McEwen throughout the race.
The bunch was tight and tense and the pace was cracking. New Zealander Graeme Miller (Skilled) led out an 11-man breakaway at the fifth lap of the hour-long race and the group - which included the major players - became a decent working group with a 50 metre gap.
It was, as visiting from Britain international cycling voice Phil Liggett said, "an excellent start to the race."
Back on the main bunch and iteamNova.com captain David McKenzie from Melbourne was putting some hard yards in at the front, but observers could see that the main action from here on, was going to be in the breakaway, which had settled into a group of nine - Robert Tighello (Ashburton Cycles), Graham Roots (Rio Coffee), Peter Milostic (International), Brent Dawson (NSW IS), Clarke, Brown, Mark Renshaw (NSW IS), Greg Henderson (SBR-Elite) and McEwen.
Two laps before the first of three intermediate sprints, the break had a 100 metre lead on the chasing bunch.
The sprint was taken by Renshaw with Brown, determined to hang onto his sprint ace jersey from the previous two stages, second and Tighello third.
There was no relenting on the pace . . . the chasing bunch just could not close the gap. In fact, there were a number of attempts of breakaways from the breakaway. Tighello and Clark had a go, then Brown, McEwen and Clark had a go but were consistently caught. Nobody was going anywhere.
It wasn't long before the breakaway had half a lap on the main field, where SBR-Elite mover and shaker Krisjan Snorrason had gotten himself on the front.
Tour de France champ Stuart O'Grady, who had been doing his share of work in the chasing bunch, pulled out of the event with shoe cleat problems, as the sun began to set.
"It hasn't been a good week actually," the Skilled team member said on the sideline. "The bottom of my shoe snapped off." However he said the course had been "fantastic" and suggested the pace out there was "full-on".
Newly signed Mapei Quick Step member Cadel Evans, was also out of the event early.
It was after Renshaw took the second intermediate sprint, with Tighello second and Brown third, that three riders (Tighello, Clarke and Dawson) came down. However they all rejoined the field back in their original positions, according to racing rules.
With 25 minutes to go, there was speculation that the hard working breakaway could possibly lap the field. Meanwhile, there was some foxing along the way - mainly from Righello and Renshaw. Then Clark, in a solo breakaway, latched onto the back of the chasing bunch, where team mate David Pell was waiting to pull him up. Another ally Snorrason was ideally placed on the front to control the pace.
It took a while for the remaining eight riders to get onto the back and it was sometime then that Brown and Scott McGrory (Skilled Quest), collided, resulting in a fall for Brown, who took a lap out.
The third intermediate sprint went to McKenzie with Rodney McGee (NSWIS) second and Lee Godfrey (City of Greater Geelong) third, but attention was quickly stolen by the likes of McGee and Snorrason, who were doing some stirring on the front.
With nine riders having lapped the main bunch, judges advised there would be a sprint for 10th place, then lapped riders would be stopped five laps short of the distance.
With eight minutes to go, Brown was attacking off the front and the field was agitated. The coveted spot went to Brett Aitken (Rio Coffee) who won the Barwon Heads stage after Brown was disqualified, then the course was clear for the remaining nine to battle it out.
Tighello led out at the final bell with Brown on his wheel, Clarke on his and McEwen right there, but it was McEwen's phenomenal sprint down the inside that whipped him across the line first and well clear of the others, to taken the Australian criterium title for 2001.
"It was a great race, the course was fantastic and the atmosphere was unreal," he said afterwards.
"The race was so hard . . . it was full gas the whole way."
He said he made his move on the last corner, kicking as hard as he could.
Brown, who finished eighth, was nursing a sore shoulder and hip after his crash and was not happy.
"McGrory came out of nowhere and went boof. I was fighting for it and went down. It just happened like that and it completely impeded me.
"I might protest. I mean, I may have got in the way yesterday but I never dropped anyone."
He said until the fall, he had been "riding for Hilton", the team tactics had been "going perfect" and he had been "feeling great."
Points from the win propelled McEwen to 30, two points past Clark (28)for the series leader's jersey, which Clark held on the first two days. Aitken stands third with 19. Brown retained his sprint ace jersey for the third consecutive day.
1 Robbie McEwen (Qld) Crown Casino 2 Hilton Clarke (Vic) SBR - Swim Bike Run 3 Greg Henderson (NZl) SBR - Swim Bike Run 4 Peter Milostic (NSW) Fitzroy Cycles 5 Brent Dawson (NSW) NSWIS 6 Mark Renshaw (NSW) NSWIS 7 Robert Tighello (Vic) Ashburton Cycles 8 Graeme Brown (NSW) SBR - Swim Bike Run 9 Graham Roots (SA) Rio Coffee 10 Brett Aitken (SA) Rio Coffee Sprint 1 1 Mark Renshaw (NSW) NSWIS 2 Graeme Brown (NSW) SBR - Swim Bike Run 3 Robert Tighello (Vic) Ashburton Cycles Sprint 2 1 Mark Renshaw (NSW) NSWIS 2 Robert Tighello (Vic) Ashburton Cycles 3 Graeme Brown (NSW) SBR - Swim Bike Run Sprint 3 1 Baden Burke (ACT) Ashburton Cycles 2 Rod McGee (NSW) NSWIS 3 Lee Godfrey (Vic) City of Greater Geelong Sprint ace 1 Graeme Brown (NSW) SBR - Swim Bike Run (6) 1 Mark Renshaw (NSW) NSWIS (6) 3 Jono Davis (NSW) NSWIS 2 (5) 3 Baden Burke (ACT) Ashburton Cycles (5) 5 Robbie McEwen (Qld) Crown Casino (4) 5 Lee Godfey (Vic) City of Greater Geelong (4) 7 Alan Iacune (Vic) iteamNova.com (3) 7 Jan Koerts (Ned) Fitzroy Cycles (3) 7 Robert Tighello (Vic) Ashburton Cycles (3) 10 David Pelle (Vic) SBR - Swim Bike Run (2) 10 David McKenzie (Vic) iteamNova.com (2) 10 Greg Henderson (NZl) SBR - Swim Bike Run (2) Pointscore 1 Robbie McEwen (Qld) Crown Casino (30) 2 Hilton Clarke (Vic) SBR - Swim Bike Run (28) 3 Brett Aitken (SA) Rio Coffee (19) 4 Graham Roots (SA) Rio Coffee (17) 5 Graeme Brown (NSW) SBR - Swim Bike Run (13) 6 Scott McGrory (Vic) Skilled Quest (11) 6 Greg Henderson (NZl) SBR - Swim Bike Run (11) 8 Peter Milostic (NSW) Fitzroy Cycles (7) 9 Mark Renshaw (NSW) NSWIS (6) 9 Graeme Millar (NZl) Skilled (6) 9 Brent Dawson (NSW) NSWIS (6) 12 Baden Burke (ACT) Ashburton Cycles (5) 12 Leigh Egan (Vic) Ashburton Cycles (5) 14 Robert Tighello (Vic) Ashburton Cycles (4) 15 Chris Carr (Vic) Balance /Carnegie CC (2) 16 Adriano Bafi (Ita) Fitzroy Cycles (2)