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2nd Doherty Hotel's Launceston International Classic - NE
Tasmania, Australia, December 27, 2003
McEwen goes one better
2002 runner-up takes Launceston in perfect finishing move
By John Stevenson in Launceston
On a perfect Tasmanian summer evening with clear skies and temperatures slowly falling from the mid-twenties, Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) took out the $20,000 Launceston International Criterium Saturday with a perfectly-timed move that echoed last year's win by Hilton Clarke. But it looked for a while as though McEwen and other stars including Baden Cooke (FdJeux.com), Stuart O'Grady (Credit Agricole), Luke Roberts (Comnet-Senges) and Michael Rogers (Quick.Step-Davitamon) were going to be left behind by a trio of local riders that powered a break of six until the very last lap.
The 72-kilometre race started with a series of attacks and breaks as riders tested each others' legs and their own. Robbie McEwen made some of the early running, taking off the front in the fourth lap with TIS-Cyclingnews rider Matt Goss in tow. McEwen has been racking up huge distances in training and seems to be trying to recreate the stunning early-season form he had in 2002 when he won Tour Down Under stages and the Australian championships. That form carried him through numerous successes in 2002, culminating in a Tour de France green jersey.
At this stage, though, McEwen was just testing his legs - and seeing who else was interested in coming along for the ride. McEwen and Goss were soon absorbed, and subsequent breakaway attempts involved British rider Russell Downing - who with his team-mates was active throughout therace and did much to animate a great show for the estimated 15,000 spectators - then Stuart O'Grady and Sean Sullivan took off.
With 20 laps to go, Sullivan and O'Grady were joined by Russell Downing and Kristian House and the four built a 15 second gap before FdJeux.com led the chase and the escapees sat up.
A few unsuccessful breaks followed before the attack that shaped the race. With about ten laps to go, a TIS-Cyclingnews trio of Karl Menzies Caleb Manion, and Darren Young got away, accompanied by Dean Downing (UK team), Jonathan Clarke (SBR) and Brad McGee (FdJeux.com). It was not a completely complementary grouping, but with Menzies and Manion driving the pace in the hope of delivering Young to the line fresh enough to take a sprint finish, the other three had no option but to work enough to stay in contact.
The six gradually extended their lead, eventually gapping over 30 seconds on the bunch before Stuart O'Grady kicked it up a couple of gears and led a no-messing chase. O'Grady instantly ripped the field in two, taking 14 riders whose roll-call reads like a who's who of top Australian cycling - with a few not-too-shabby overseas riders for good measure. Matt White (US Postal) provided main support to O'Grady's chase - not surprising as the two will be team-mates at Cofidis in a few day's time. Robbie McEwen wasn't going to let anything get away from him, and he was there, as were Baden Cooke, Luke Roberts, Russell Downing, Kierin Page (UK team), Micheal Rogers, Jame Carney, Jeremy Hunt (UK team), Mark Jamieson (TIS-Cyclingnews)
As the thoroughly revved-up crowd yelled their lungs out for the Tasmanian trio in the lead break, the chasing 15 came howling after them like a swarm of avenging dark angels and from Cyclingnews' vantage point in the neutral support car between the two groups the plight of the six looked hopeless.
Astonishingly though, the front bunch redoubled their efforts and as we pulled over to let the chasers pass, it seemed the 15 plodded up the course's single hill instead of charging after the leaders as they had on the bottom straight. Could they stay away to the end? If the chasers continued to look at each other and wander around the road, as they were still doing with three to go, the leaders might well stay that way.
That's certainly what the crowd wanted, but everyone had reckoned without Luke Roberts. In a show of the pursuiting power that contributed to Australia's world championship gold in the team event at Stuttgart, Roberts got on the front and in mighty last-lap surge he towed the chasers almost single-handedly up to the lead group.
With half a lap to go the jockeying for position started and Robbie McEwen treated the crowd to a display of the sheer speed and positioning that has put him twice on the podium in the Tour green jersey contest. With a left and a right hand turn before the finish straight, McEwen knew that he had to treat the first bend as if it were the line. Diving under the whole group, McEwen threw his bike into the left-hander in a perfectly controlled sprint turn, exiting so fast he needed and used the whole road as his run-out zone.
O'Grady tried to challenge, but there was no stopping the man from the Gold Coast as he flew through the final turn and powered to the line. Russell Downing and Keiran Page of the British team took second and third places.
Ten thousand dollars richer, McEwen described those closing moments to the press throng after the prize presentation on the steps of Launceston's Doherty international Hotel. "I was watching Baden Cooke and Mark Renshaw," said McEwen. "I tried to time my run into that headwind straight towards the second-last corner… I wanted to hit that in front and start my sprint from the corner and that's exactly how it went. I got into that corner first... used every inch of road available, hit the last corner going flat out and then it's only a short jump from there to the line. I just gave it everything from the last corner. I had a quick look behind and saw I had a nice little gap. It worked out perfectly."
It was obvious that McEwen had rehearsed this finish. "I learned my lesson from last year," he said, referring to his second place in the inaugural Launceston criterium. "You've got to be first into the last corner. I decided to be first into the second-last corner too."
"It's a nice way to finish off the season, in front of a good crowd here in Tassie, and it's been a fantastic race. I think it's been an exciting race too, everything just came back together in the last lap. I'm rapt to finish off my year like this!"
McEwen acknowledged Luke Roberts' effort that brought the race back together for the finale, saying, "if you don't do anything the race is lost, so you gotta try something. We sort of had an unspoken agreement that we'd ride and keep working towards the end, and it worked out perfectly for me."
Images by Shane Goss/licoricegallery.com
Images by Gerard Knapp/Cyclingnews
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Lotto-Domo 2 Russell Downing (GBr) 3 Keiran Page (GBr) 4 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Fdjeux.com/NSWIS 5 Stuart O'Grady (Aus) Credit Agricole 6 Nathan Clarke (Aus) 7 Brad McGee (Aus) Fdjeux.com 8 David Pell (Aus) 9 Dean Downing (GBr) 10 Leigh De Luca (Aus) 11 Sean Sullivan (Aus) 12 Stephen Cummings 13 Simon Pearce (Aus) 14 Robert Tighello (Aus) 15 Michael Rogers (Aus) Quick.Step-Davitamon 16 Mark Jamieson (Aus) TIS-Cyclingnews 17 Jeremy Hunt (GBr) 18 Baden Cooke (Aus) Fdjeux.com 19 Chris Sutton (Aus) Fdjeux.com/NSWIS 20 Caleb Manion (Aus) TIS-Cyclingnews