The 88km queen stage from Santa Teresa to Alice Springs promised to be a fast and exciting outing. The pan-flat course and the recent rain were expected to combine to make the overall stage time quite fast. With ‘Highway to Hell’ pumping out of the PA system at 7:30 in the morning I have to admit that I was pretty amped as we set out from the small community and headed toward Alice Springs.
The pace was steady from the start with Andrew Hall looking like he had to make up for missing stage 1 by sitting on the front for most of the morning which resulted in an average speed of over 30kph for the first hour. At this speed, the group was strung out and riding in firm sandy wheel ruts provided a few exciting moments.
Michael Crosbie suffered one such incident and being only 30 seconds behind my Swell-Specialized team mate Lewi, Shaun was quick to lift the pace and make him work to get back on; a test Crosbie passed with flying colours (and a little help from Kyle Ward). Our plan going into this stage was to ride fairly defensively to allow me to recover from the huge effort I had to put in yesterday. Shaun had been doing a great job of keeping me protected, but an opportunity to distance himself from third place was one we had to exploit.
With the front group back together again through the first feedzone at 41km, the pace felt like it was dropping slightly. When we eventually hit the main Santa Teresa road, which is a super wide graded red dirt highway, the bunch consisted of Shaun Lewis, Andrew Hall, Michael Crosbie, Tim “Bomber” Bennett, James Downing, myself and Canberra youngster Ben Marshall!
I was pretty stoked to see Ben make the front group, he has been riding solid all week and went into today’s stage in seventh place on GC, but making the selective front group was a big step. A short while later Tim Bennett rode up beside me to inform us that his closest rivals on GC had been dropped. This meant that there was an opportunity for Tim and Ben to move up on the overall so we organised ourselves and started rolling through. It is fun when this happens in a stage race; Tim is a good friend and he has been a bit of a mentor to me through some stage races in recent years so it was great to be able to pull some turns for him. Recognising at this point, that Ben might be tempted to get excited and could easily put himself in trouble, I took a moment to mention to him that he should only roll through if he felt strong enough. I need not have bothered; he had the bit between his teeth and proceeded to smash out some of the most solid turns (an awesome effort mate!).
With about 10km to go, we came to a fence that required a dismount. Shaun was through first, then me, Hally and Tim. I was about to look around to see if everyone was there, I heard Tim say “go go go”. There was a gap back to Crosbie and the others so we were off again. For the next 5 minutes we were pinning full-bore down a bumpy, sandy fire road in a 4-man versus 3-man team pursuit. This was possibly the last chance to split the group before a sprint finish so Tim, Shaun, Hally and I chopped off against Crosbie, Downing and Ben.
Fair play to the lads chasing, they eventually managed to shut us down. We knew we were getting close to the finish so Shaun and I started whacking the group in a hope of getting one of us away, but each time it was shut down by Hally (not sure where he got the energy from after riding on the front for most of the day!).
From this point on, it should have been a fast and furious run in to the finish with a deserving winner crossing the line after the longest stage of the event. Unfortunately due to a reported incident of the course marking being tampered with, we all went the wrong way. It was a very disappointing way to finish the stage with a tour around the streets of southern Alice Springs and a call to the race director to get directions to the finish line.
It is a tricky situation, but Rapid Ascent have done a good job of trying to make-right the results but effectively the time gains we had worked hard for on the day has been nullified. I’m sure there will be some motivated riders going to sleep tonight thinking of getting their frustrations out on the time trial course of stage 5!
All photos :: CHLOE GERAGHTY