It was a turbulent start of the 10-day mountain bike stage race in Australia: a mudslide caused by heavy rain forced the riders to divert from the original track. Last year's winner Urs Huber coped well with the restart and the additional kilometres and got the stage win today ahead of his strongest opponent, Bart Brentjens.
More than 75 athletes from 16 different countries, including the complete podium of last year's event, kicked off the Crocodile Trophy in Cairns today at 9.30am. Organisers were challenged by the torrential rain that fell over the past few days. Due to a mudslide, the first stage, which was scheduled to run from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands through a rainforest, had to be diverted after 25km and restarted.
The Swiss rider Huber, Crocodile Trophy overall winner in 2009, dealt with the sudden changes on the day, completing the remaining 65km after the restart in 2:35.11 hours and won by 4:32 ahead of last year's second placed Brentjens.
"It was extremely difficult. The terrain was very slippery and muddy and was constantly slightly uphill. It always felt like getting stuck," said Huber. "I'm very glad and happy about the time gap that I was able to gain today."
After leading the race together with Brentjens prior to the restart, he was able to shake off his fiercest competitor only during the long final climb. "I didn't eat enough during the pause in racing. My brother did give me a bar and there was fruit at the depot, but towards the end I became extremely hungry and ran out of energy," said Brentjens, a Dutch rider for the Trek Brentjens Mountainbike Racing Team.
Canadian Cory Wallance used the involuntary break after 15 race and 10 neutralised kilomentres for a power nap – and was successful with this tactic: third place for the 26-year-old Canadian, who was still feeling the effects of racing the 24-hour Solo World Championships in Canberra nine days ago.
Australians finishing strong
The fastest woman of the day was Australian Abby McLennan. "It seems so much longer and harder than last year’s race", said McClennan. "The climbs never seemed to end. It was just up up up."
This year, Abby McClennan and husband Scott have teamed up with local "cop" Brendan Skerke to race the Croc as Team Rattle N Hum. Skerke had a tough stage, but had expected it.
"I knew this stage would be my Achilles heel of the race, but I’m learning from it and am looking forward to the next nine days."
The second fastest woman was Cairns-local Lesley Sutton. This year, the first-ever all female team is challenging the race. It's called Team She Spoke Cycle Wear and includes Sharman Parr, Lauretta Howarth and Maree Roberts.
The fastest Australian male rider to cross the finish line today was Hans Dielacher from the Gold Coast, ahead of Roger Cull from Sydney. Both were happy about the day's cloud cover and moderate temperatures out on the track.
The fastest team was Rietmu-Delfin from Estonia with places five through seven for Allan Oras, Indrek Kelk and Jaan Kirsipuu, who was thrilled about riding through the beautiful scenery of the rainforest. The latter secured a stage win in the master category 2 (M2). Raf De Bakker crossed the finish line overall in 11th place and as the fastest Master Category 1 (M1).
Austrians face tough luck
Philipp Ludescher (Team Mc Sabotage) was the fastest Austrian. The elite road rider arrived at Lake Tinaroo in eighth place half an hour behind the stage winner. Despite two chain failures, the rider from Vorarlberg was enthusiastic about his first ever mountain bike race. "I took the detour and the restart on the chin. That's part of the adventure of a Croc Trophy. And I'm a pro in fixing chains now. Without the malfunctions I would have been fifth. I'll be able to build on that tomorrow."
Team rider Rene Haselbacher was also persecuted by mechanical failures and lost more than an hour. "Apparently that's part of mountain biking," the rider from Burgenland said calmly while giving the impression that he was enjoying the impressive scenery of Northern Queensland.
Another elite road racer, Christoph Sokoll, was riddled with mechanical troubles, "About 25km before the finish, a screw on my pedal broke and I didn't have any foothold on the steep downhill sections," said the Volksbank Corratec pro. "The 'Oesterreich-Rundfahrt' (race around the borders of Austria) is like a kids' party compared to this," he said, summing up the day's ride.
The stage finish at Lake Tinaroo, however, made up for all the trouble and strains. It's called the jewel in the crown of the Atherton Tablelands for a reason: the lake and its surroundings are home to more than 300 bird species, including rainbow lorikeets, kingfishers and kookabarras. And the good old Croc-Tradition is to sleep in tents which lets those animals get up close.