Urs Huber was ready to win his third consecutive Crocodile Trophy. He only needed to follow his biggest competitor Jeroen Boelen, but in the marathon stage over 189km Huber broke. Like most of the riders today, he also punctured, but, crucially, ran out of energy in the hot outback of Queensland.
Some of the vehicles with drinks and energy gels had got stuck in the Mitchell river and needed to be pulled across by others. It was a stage full of unexpected challenges and turns of events for all. In the end, Jeroen Boelen (Milka-Trek-Bart Brentjens Mountain Bike Team) won the stage to Mt Mulgrave and took the leader’s jersey from the Swiss champion.
“This is cycling. This kind of riding makes my day,” said Austrian René Haselbacher after his ride through the desert. “This here is like the feeling you have when you finish Paris-Roubaix. If you asked me now, I would just consider to start racing again.” The retired road professional said all that despite puncturing when he was riding in the lead. Not all riders shared Hasi’s opinion in the finish. Australian Brad Davies flatted five times and lost his leader’s jersey in the Masters category. “What am I doing here? Where were the cars with our drinks and food?,” exclaimed a furious Kevin Hulsmans.
Some support vehicles had become stuck with a flooded engine at the deep Mitchell river, halfway through the race. The river was too deep to cross for most of them. After breakneck manoeuvres including getting them towed across the river that also carried a strong current and swapping drinks and food among them, it took them a long time to catch up to the fast lead groups. However, for some riders the misery had started earlier already, after 15km. At the front, a group of 22 riders formed after a speedy start, among them Belgians Jan Verboven and Bruno Naessens crashed soon after the start in a sandy section.
As the race progressed in the hot midday heat, the front group became smaller and smaller, not helped by a crash (Michal Lanik), a broken chain (Steve Petre), punctures (Brad Davies), sun stroke (Chang Min Park), but mainly because of a strong attack at the 30km mark by Austrians René Haselbacher and Josef Benedseder, as well as Belgian Kevin Hulsmans. In the back, Jeroen Boelen - Huber’s challenger for the GC and four minutes behind the Swiss rider at the start - saw his chance at the first crossing of the Mitchell river after 50km. All riders had to walk through the river that carried a high current, but Boelen was the only one who managed to stay on the bike. And he was gone, chasing the front trio ahead of him. Boelen succeeded to bridge the one minute gap and from then the cohesion in the front was perfect. A chasing Huber couldn’t get close.
“But then we had to stop at a closed cattle gate,” explains Boelen. “Instead of climbing over it, we decided to open it, but that didn’t go as expected. We lost some time and Huber was there again. This could have been my chance to take back minutes to Huber as he was alone, and I was with three others for the remaining 150 kilometers.”
With Huber back, riders looking at each other and the pace slowing down, other riders returned to the front. It felt like the race had started all over again. And it did when once again Haselbacher, Hulsmans and Benedseder went away, this time with Christoph Sokoll. Hulsmans and Haselbacher both punctured, and with only the two Austrian team-mates, Sokoll-Benedseder, at the front, Huber and Boelen made the race harder in the background. “I had already given up on gaining time back on Huber,” said Boelen, “but I just hoped for a third stage win and Huber looked like he wanted the same.”
Boelen and Huber went harder and harder. Together with Mike Mulkens they arrived at the front, dropped Sokoll and then, suddenly… Huber had to stop, some 60km from the finish.
“I had already had a flat tyre after 15 minutes in the race,” commented Huber. “The whole season I had no punctures at all and I did a lot of races. I put some air in it and the tube held and looked to hold up with the sealing liquid in my tube. After two hours, however, it lost air again. I inflated the tyre again as I didn’t dare to change the tube. Otherwise I would have lost the group with Boelen. In the end, however, I really had to change my tube and Jeroen was gone.”
Boelen said: “Immediately, I thought that this was again my chance to take back some time. Of course Urs Huber would have been able to come back, but in that case he would have lost a lot of energy in the chasing job. And is it unfair? I also had two punctures earlier in the race, but I was apparently luckier.”
Huber didn’t come back again. Boelen was strong in the front group and didn’t seem to struggle with the heat – “where is that rain?” begged so many riders after the finish – dropping Mulkens and also, with 10km to the finish, Benedseder as well.
“I tried to follow and help Jeroen Boelen as much as I could as I thought I could take the stage win, while he would be happy with the time bonus, but Jeroen was too strong. In the end I was more like a fifth wheel on the car for him,” said a disappointed Benedseder. “Huber followed at a five-minute distance; I understood very well that Boelen could not wait for me.”
Boelen was flying in the final 10km (averaging 31 km/h for the whole day over 189km) – and both Benedseder and Huber lost five minutes.
“With my flat tyre I only lost two minutes, I guess,” explained Huber, the big loser of the day. “But the last two (of five) feed zones were not in place and that was a big problem for me as I had no bottles or sugars with me. I had not enough energy for the last two hours of the race. It was a long way to the finish for me, but that’s racing. I hope I can still get out of this situation over the next four days.”
After chilling out at the creek of Mt Mulgrave Station and the bush camping overnight, the seventh stage goes from Mt Mulgrave to Laura. Laura is a small settlement with 80 residents, mainly aboriginals. After two days in the middle of nowhere, the race finishes again in a town and everyone is looking forward to a small piece of civilisation.