Displaying the character that led him to Olympic and World Championship victories, Dutchman Bart Brentjens left his Crocodile Trophy rivals in awe by winning a third consecutive stage of Australia's Outback Classic on Saturday.
It was the method of Sir Bart's victory, a display of true courage that saw the great man haul back a deficit of five minutes after suffering an early puncture, that had fellow competitors reaching for superlatives.
Slovenia's four-time Race Across America winner Jure Robic perhaps summed it up best when he said he was "a better man for having met Bart Brentjens at the Crocodile Trophy". "He is a man of class, a man of pure character," Robic said.
Brentjen's desire to win the race was there for all to see on Saturday, when he punctured shortly before the first checkpoint. A split in a tyre sidewall, caused by one of many sharp rocks on the course, cost the four-time Olympian close to five minutes.
What happened next will become part of Crocodile Trophy folklore. Brentjens stepped on the gas and rode past two small pelotons of riders, before catching the front group containing race leader Urs Huber. "He was like a motorbike," said laconic Australian Isaac Tonello after Brentjens blew past the chase groups.
Realising his goal of winning the Trophy was on the line, Brentjens had no choice but to give his all. "I have it 100 percent to go to them," Brentjens said at stage end. "You don't know in that situation how fast they are going so you have to give it absolutely everything and ride to your limit."
Brentjens shows true courage
As in previous years, the 100km out-and-back stage to Chillagoe caught most of the protagonists by surprise. It is a stage that seems relatively easy in the race book, but the dangers are in the fine print.
"What seems to be a flat stage and easy stage it wasn't at all, it was pretty rough," Brentjens said. "These kind of conditions, if this is a good road, then I don't know what's a rough road."
Brentjens caught the lead group of Huber, Robic, Belgian Mike Mulkins and Australian Josh Prete shortly before the turnaround point. From there, he proceeded to do much of the work, driving into a headwind over the final 50km, with Huber apparently less than eager to help out.
"I think he wasn't happy with what I did yesterday, I caught him out in the sprint," Brentjens revealed of a developing on-course feud. "He gave me some water in the stage, and he thought he could win but I was thinking a little bit different so he didn't do any work today. It's a race and there's a good fight, so yeah it'll be exciting the next couple of days."
Huber finished the stage with a bloodied nose, literally and figuratively. The Swiss mountain man, for the first time in this race, appeared less than comfortable in the blistering heat and dust of Australia's Outback.
"I think the temperature was really high and yeah that was the greatest challenge today," Huber admitted after being out-sprinted by Brentjens at the finish. "Brentjens is better in sprint than me, I hope in the next stages there are mountains again and that is my strength."
Prete bows out of GC contention
The Chillagoe stage also brought a sudden end to the dream run of Australia's Josh Prete, who, up until the turnaround point, had been the suprise performer in the 2009 Crocodile Trophy.
The Tropical Tableland Discovery Team cyclist ripped a gaping hole in a tyre, and without the necessary tools in his kitbag, was left by the side of the road to wonder what might have been on a stage that suited his rapidly developing talent.
Prete worked for close to an hour to repair the problem, but his efforts proved largely futile as he drifted down the general classification and limped home in blistering heat with a deficit of close to two hours. "I ended up with about six punctures," a disillusioned Prete said as he rolled towards the finish. "Maybe now I can try for a stage win, that would be great."
Prete's Tropical Tableland Discovery team-mate Steve Rankine was the best placed of the Australians, crossing the line in fifth as the lead in the teams classification was handed back to the Coopers Dream Team.
"I think they're a class above me to be honest with you, but it doesn't mean that I'm not going to fight," the Cape York local said. "I'm fifth today and getting stronger and stronger."
The reality of what lies ahead is three consecutive days of long, hard grind. The Chillagoe-Mount Mulgrave stage, the Mount Mulgrave Laura stage and the Laura-Cooktown stage are likely to offer Huber few opportunities and with his ability to ride in sand, Brentjens, who is now one minute and 52 seconds down on general classification holds the aces.
Worst day ever for serious Pleyer
Describing stage five as "my worst day ever on the bike," Austria's Lisa Pleyer came to a dramatic realisation today of what the Crocodile Trophy is really all about.
The second placed rider in the women's category endured a competitive early duel with Australian Abby McLennan's Rattle & Hum teammates, then battled through 100km of suffering on an unrelenting, stony and blistering hot outback road.
"The hills, they just went forever, up and down," Pleyer said. "From tomorrow, I will change my plan, I will ride my own race and not try to go with anyone else. This was meant to be fun."
Dutch cyclist Monique Zeldenrust further extended the margin over her rivals and the noted sand galloper is likely to come into her own over the next two stages, that are likely to feature technical and sandy terrain.
"My feet are burning, and when you're climbing your feet they really hurt," Zeldenrust said. "I think that the next days are heavy and I think I can now do it easier over the next couple of stages."
Sunday's 137km stage from Chillagoe to Mount Mulgrave is well respected by those who have endured it previously. It will feature a crossing of the Mitchell River where large crocodiles are known to lurk during Australia's wet season. Fortunately for the riders it is the dry season and the crossing is expected to be trouble free.
For full results and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.