Swiss mountain biker Urs Huber took a glorious win in the 2009 Crocodile Trophy's Queen stage from Laura to Cooktown and in the process, further extended his race lead over Dutchman Bart Brentjens by 25 seconds after stage 8 Tuesday.
The performance from the World Marathon Championship bronze medallist oozed class, on a day when the physical and mental capabilities of every rider remaining in the race were tested to the limit over a hellish 140-kilometre journey.
Conditions along the much feared Battle Camp Road between Laura and Cooktown proved to be far worse than predicted, with a 50-kilometre section of deep corrugations and sand, sapping all available energy from even the fittest and strongest of protagonists.
In the end, Huber, Brentjens and veteran Czech Milan Spolc prevailed as the race ventured headlong into the South-East tradewinds along the coast near Cooktown.
Timing his move to perfection, Huber launched an attack at the base of the steep one-kilometre climb to the summit of Cooktown's Grassy Hill, where he held his bike aloft to celebrate a glorious stage victory.
"It's very nice place, and I knew that the last kilometre today was good for me, so I concentrated on this," Huber said as he peered out across the Pacific Ocean. "Bart pushed very hard in the corrugations after depot 2. I had to fight to make contact with him."
Huber took 20 seconds out of Brentjens on the climb and earned a further five seconds in time bonuses to extend his margin in the general classification to one minute and 26 seconds. Mike Mulkens of Belgium finished the stage in third after Spolc faded towards the finish.
The Swiss cyclist knows Brentjens will need to find something special on tomorrow's mountainous and technical stage from Cooktown to Ayton to rope in his main rival. But he also knows not to underestimate the class of the former Olympic and World Champion, who will attack in an instant if the right opportunity presents itself.
"I will fight with all I can," Huber said. "Tomorrow is good for me with steep climbs and good downhill. I think it's a good stage for me."
Huber wins the queen stage
Ever the strategist, Brentjens again turned to studying his race book in the evening following today's stage, searching for likely points along the technical zig-zag track to launch an attack. At the same time, he was trying to recover from today's pounding, which was one of the most brutal he has dealt with in a long and celebrated career.
"When the corrugations started, they never ended it was more than 30, 40 k's loose sand and corrugation, it was terrible to ride," a weary Brentjens said. "I tried to get away from Urs Huber once, it was a good attack but he came back."
Brentjens is certain of one thing for tomorrow's stage nine, in which the general classification will be decided. He will attack Huber, the only question is when and where.
"I think definitely I'm going to make an attack. I will do it," Brentjens affirmed. "I don't know, he's strong and he survives every day, I didn't expect he would be as strong as he is so far. Tomorrow it's another stage, another chance, so yeah let's get it on."
Steve Rankine and Isaac Tonello, both of the Tropical Tableland Discovery Team, were the highest placed Australians today in ninth and 10th. The pair are now both situated in the top 10 overall, with Tonello rating this as one of his toughest Crocodile Trophy outings.
"I don't know how to describe how rough it was, corrugations a foot deep sometimes, seems like it went on for fifty k's, tough, tough, real tough," Tonello said. "It's a true Crocodile Trophy stage, way more brutal than last year."
Pleyer breaks through for a victory
After eight stages, the beaming smile of Austria's Lisa Pleyer, last seen before the start of the Crocodile Trophy, finally returned this evening.
Pleyer managed to hang onto the peloton containing women's race leader Monique Zeldenrust and Australia's Abby McLennan, then hung with Zeldenrust on the climb of Grassy Hill, to claim the Trophy's Queen Stage.
"Today was the first time that I can honestly say at this race that I enjoyed myself," Pleyer said. "It was like a real race today, the riders swapping turns, it was so good to win here too."
McLennan and her Rattle & Hum team suffered numerous technical problems today with brake failure followed by flat tyres and minor crashes.
For full results and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.