It took only the one terrible climb to Mount Baldy at the beginning of the stage that made the difference and Swiss marathon champion Urs Huber needed only 30 minutes to ride away from the others.
For the rest of the stage, some 70 lonesome kilometers, he was able to keep and even to increase his advantage. After another day in the rain, he finished with a four minute lead ahead of Dutch rider Jeroen Boelen, Bart Brentjens’ protégé.
At the finish line it was clear that a very bad night was going to lie ahead for the riders as it didn’t stop raining onto their small tents. With wind gusts hitting the Croc Trophy camp, news reached riders that it had been the wettest October day in 47 years for North Queensland.
It was not those torrential downpours from Cairns anymore, but it still rained. Heavily. In fact, it never stopped the entire day. “Very unusual for October and the dry season,” even the locals admitted. The wet red clay from Tully Gorge National Park was responsible for most of the 90 competitors, especially the two handbikers, arriving as red devils at the finish line. Fortunately, at least the temperature was favourable and right after the start a nice climb that increased heart rates and body temperatures was waiting for the riders.
“I had watched the roadbook yesterday and had seen that it was a stage that I could win,” explained Huber. “On paper I am the strongest climber of all, but every year you have new competitors. Yesterday already in the neutralized stage I was surprised to see how well the Milka rider [Jeroen Boelen] and one of the Koreans did.”
The two-time Crocodile Trophy winner attacked and was gone. In no time he gained a one minute advantage to a quartet consisting of two Dutch riders – Huub Duijn and Jeroen Boelen – Belgian Mike Mulkens and Austrian Wolfgang Krenn. The other Austrian, Josef Benedseder, tried to follow the four but blew up. Kevin Hulsmans did not even try to do so. His “diesel needed some time to warm up,” as he jokingly admitted. Tom Boonen’s former lieutenant climbed very cleverly and consistently and hoped to come back on the descent, but the verdict after the descent and after 35km of racing was a different one.
The solo effort of Huber gave the Swiss rider a two-minute advantage over the three chasers: Boelen, Krenn and Mulkens. At seven minutes: team-mates Hulsmans and Duijn, Geeni Yong Choi from Korea, the Austrian riders Sokoll and Benedseder and the surprising Aussie rider Mark Griffin, best Australian rider but also battling for a position at that stage as best Master 1 rider in this 17th Crocodile Trophy. That’s why, behind Griffin’s back, about one minute behind, other Australian Masters organized the chase. Ashley Hayat, Brad Davies, Justin Morris and Arnott Graeme got the help from Chang Min Park and at the last feed zone, 35 km from the finish, just when the group Griffin-Hulsmans stopped to take some drinks and food, they passed them all, without taking fuel.
In the mean time at the front some beaten bodies appeared. Not Huber, though, who was powering towards the finish and was even increasing his lead to two minutes. On the contrary – it was the chasing group who litterally exploded. Jeroen Boelen explaine, “Urs was far too strong for us. In that long flat part, following Mount Baldy, we were a group of three, which was our advantage, but still I felt already that Mulkens and Krenn spared some forces. However, when I accelerated at 30km from the finish, I realised that they could not follow me anymore. From then on I had to chase on my own. The three minute gap became a four minute gap but I should not complain. In mountain bike racing this is nothing. One bad luck moment on Huber and we could be starting all over again. That’s why I really kept on fighting till the end.”
After three hours and 16 minutes in the pouring rain Huber reached Koombaloomba. The overall victory is still far away, but now already it is clear that nobody can beat him on those steep and uphill sections.
“It looks good, but the race is not over yet,” said Huber, who can change his national champion jersey now for another red Crocodile Trophy jersey. “What I did today is impossible to repeat every day and I really need to increase that four minute lead to race more comfortably. We will see.”
With Bart Brentjens still in the race, the situation could have been different. The sick Milka-Trek team owner did not start yesterday because of high fever. “I thought about Bart a lot today”, said team-mate and number two in the GC Jeroen Boelen. “Uphill we both cannot follow Huber but we could have helped each other a lot the other 70km. We could have been able to ride two teeth faster.”
Wolfgang Krenn from Austria finished third and was happy with the unexpected result. “What should I complain about? Huber is hors category and I only had to pass on that acceleration of the Milka guy. It’s far too early to dream of the final podium, but I will go for it. But please, can you give us some better weather?”