Czech cyclist Ondrej Fojtik effectively achieved his life’s dream today, winning the Crocodile Trophy in the most emphatic fashion possible, with a victory in the penultimate stage from Cooktown to Ayton on the edge of Australia’s world heritage listed Daintree Rainforest.
Under siege from VIG+ Racing teammate Martin Horak who attacked again today as the race ventured past the famous “Lions Den Hotel” near Cooktown, Fojtik was forced to prove once and for all that he was the best rider of the 2008 Outback Classic.
The backdrop for the contest could not have been more captivating. The 124-kilometre journey with 1900 metres of elevation included steep mountain climbs, technical descents and even crocodile inhabited river crossings.
In second place on the general classification (GC) heading into today’s stage, five minutes behind Fojtik, Horak won no friends within his Czech team that rallied to support the race leader in his great moment of need. Tomorrow’s final stage to the rainforest-fringed beach at Cape Tribulation will not be timed, meaning the leader on GC after today only needs to finish tomorrow to win the race.
Nicknamed “The Ivanator” by his rivals, Czech strongman Ivan Rybarik pulled huge turns to reel in his renegade teammate Horak, assisted also by Tomas Trunschka and Fojtik himself, who had more reason than anyone to chase down the move.
At one stage Horak’s lead stretched to more than two minutes, but the combined efforts of Trunschka, Rybarik and Fojtik saw the margin reduced greatly by the time the leaders reached the second feed zone.
When the moment of truth came as the race ventured upward on a 20-percent gradient to the legendary CREB Track, Fojtik lifted to another level. The Czech, who had twice finished second at the Crocodile Trophy in 2004 and 2007, decided it was time to stamp his authority on the race and earn his own rightful place on the list of Crocodile Trophy Champions.
“I am happy that I win the stage and get the boomerang (awarded to the stage winner) because I think it was the most difficult stage of the Crocodile and for me it’s great satisfaction,” Fojtik said. “It was most important that I had Ivan and Tomas Trunschka to help today and I thank them so much, for me their help was the real highlight.”
The day wasn’t so kind for third-placed Belgian Nic Vermeulen, who exploded on one of the steeper climbs as the race ventured onto the technically challenging “Zig-Zag Track”, which took riders over a spectacular river crossing at the Roaring Meg.
Vermeulen’s loss was the gain of Australia’s Craig Gordon, who, provided he crosses the finish line in Cape Tribulation tomorrow, will end his race in fourth place on the GC.
"That was an awesome day, loved it,” Gordon said. “It was quite tactical, one of the Czech guys (Horak) went off the front, Ondrej and a few other guys were working to pull him back. We caught him (Horak) before the first big climb. Nicolas, on one of the pinches, he just blew and as soon as he dropped off the back, Ondrej just threw it in the gutter and he was gone.”
Just as he did last year, Fojtik rode solo to the finish line to win the epic Cooktown-Ayton stage of the Crocodile Trophy, but not only that, this time the polite Czech lived up to the promise he made last year in the village of Ayton, when he said “I will come back to win this great race.”
Again, it was an all-Czech podium result today as Fojtik was joined by VIG+ racing teammates Trunschka in second place and Horak third.
In the women’s event Belgian Karen Steurs (Ride For The Stars) put her foot to the floor today, despite already being 15 minutes ahead of Australia’s Joanne Bennett going into the stage.
Retiring at the end of the race, Steurs was comfortable in the knowledge, the pain experienced during her past six years on the road is almost over.
“The beginning was easy in the group, then it became hilly and I found my own tempo, went great,” Steurs said. “Last time of suffering. Six years I have been cycling and now, the end. “
Steurs brought back memories of another of the Crocodile Trophy’s winners, Christophe Stevens, by declaring her immediate retirement when the race reaches Cape Tribulation tomorrow.
“I am only biking for fun now, this is very satisfying.”
There was also jubilation at the back end of the race as five Belgian bikers, Bert Apers, Gunter Selleslagh, Rudi Donckers, Bart Vancayzeele and Patrick Mijlemans crossed the finish line together in last place after spending more than nine hours suffering on course.
Watching his wristwatch closely was British cyclist Phil Smith (actually an Australian resident but nonetheless claiming ultimate underdog status), who retains a firm grip on last place in the GC with a margin of more than 30 minutes.
The local rider from the Tropical capital of Cairns, who trained hard to meet his objective of finishing the Crocodile Trophy now has only one major mountain range between himself and his ultimate goal - the beach at Cape Tribulation where the rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.
“There’s still 40 (kilometres) to go and there’s still some gnarly hills along the way and for me it’s not over until we get to the beach, we still have to get over these hills,” he said. “It’s been a year of training specifically for the race, just to finish it. Great ride, I’ve really enjoyed it.”