The great Dutchman Bart Brentjens today recorded his second Crocodile Trophy stage victory after outsprinting Swiss marathon specialist Urs Huber to the finish line of a gruelling 157 kilometre Outback marathon from Irvinebank to Chillagoe.
Brentjens was forced to call upon all of his energy reserves during the longest stage of Australia's Outback classic, after puncturing at the 20 kilometre mark and riding himself back into the lead group.
In the end pure class shone through as Brentjens and Huber stepped on the gas, leaving in their wake the big talking Jure Robic, who had designs on winning the Chillagoe stage for the fourth time.
"It actually was a really long day on the bike, from the beginning it was really rough, lots of stones on the descent, pretty technical," Brentjens said. "I had a flat tyre after I think 20k, so I changed my tyre and then I came back, but still it was a long way to Chillagoe."
Taking into account time bonuses, Brentjens managed to peg back the margin between himself and Huber on the general classification to 1 minute and 57 seconds.
Brentjens will scan the race road book tonight, searching for technical sections to attack Huber over coming days, but may have to wait until the sandy Mount Mulgrave-Laura stage in three day's time for a serious assault on the race lead.
"Today at the end it was not technical enough to make a difference so we had to sprint for the victory," Brentjens said. "Hopefully there will be some more technical parts later in the race."
Fortunately, the Europeans were treated to unseasonally cool weather on today's journey to Chillagoe and it suited Huber, the overall race leader, who achieved his major objective.
"I think it was the longest day and not really much hills, so my object was to stay with Bart, in the sprint he was better," Huber said. "In the first part with up and downhills I was stronger I think and then he had a flat tyre. It was too long to go alone, so I slowed down and waited for him to join the group."
Despite promising to be with the leaders at the business end of today's stage, Slovenian Jure Robic was unable to produce the pure power when it mattered most. When the race ventured onto an old disused railway cutting near Mount Garnett, Robic was left with the difficult decision of whether to ride alone or wait for the next group that contained Australia's up and coming talent Josh Prete.
Testament to the bravery of the Slovenian military man, Robic soldiered on alone all the way to the finish and even made up time on Brentjens and Huber over the final 57 kilometres of mostly dirt road to Chillagoe.
"I'm satisfied with my performance because I go really well in the climbs," Robic said. "With such great riders as Bart Brentjens and Huber, I couldn't follow them in the downhills."
But the four-time solo winner of the Race Across America is yet to give up on his Crocodile Trophy ambitions, continuing a love affair with the race he describes as "the most beautiful race in the world".
"It's still a long race and I will search for my next chance in the other stages," Robic said.
Australia's Rankine plagued by bad luck
Considered one of the serious threats for today's stage given his grinding ability on a parcours that clearly suited his attributes, Australian Steve Rankine of the Tropical Tableland Discovery Team could only wonder what might have been on a day when just about everything that could go wrong, went wrong.
The 28-year-old former professional triathlete couldn't remember a day during his career when he had to call upon more mental toughness after suffering three flat tyres and crashing in grand fashion with the Crocodile Trophy media team rolling on the action.
Rankine and team leader Josh Prete were with the lead group when he suffered the first of three punctures.
"My legs were feeling great, I was climbing with the leaders and we were out miles ahead, I was helping my teammate Josh (Prete)," Rankine said.
Then came the spectacular crash as Rankine lost his front wheel at a dry creek crossing and finished up buried in the sand.
"By far, I can't remember how many times I've had to dig deep, as an eventful race it would be definitely on the top," Rankine recalled of his epic day in the saddle. I just seemed to able to find things were I couldn't find it you know and every time I fell off and got knocked down I got back up. I was mentally tough and that's what really counted today."
Rankine's mental toughness and willingness to fight on were well rewarded. The Tropical Tableland Discovery Team managed to hold off a resurgent Coopers Dream Team to maintain the lead in the teams category. Rankine's teammates Josh Prete (6th overall) and Isaac Tonello (10th) have also performed well above expectation against the visiting Europeans.
Zeldenrust feeling the heat, but still on top
Dutch cyclist Monique Zeldenrust admitted today to feeling the effects of the blistering outback sun, but it appears to have had little impact on what has so far been an unblemished performance in the 2009 Crocodile Trophy.
One of the best credentialed female cyclists to compete in the event during it's history, Zeldenrust has established a commanding lead in the General Classification and with a buffer of well over 40 minutes, only needs to avoid illness, major crashes or flat tyres to score a race victory.
"My feet are burning and my knees are sore it was a long day," Zeldenrust said at the end of today's 157 kilometres stage.
But the Netherlands mountainbiker is cautious about what lies ahead.
"It's still a long way to go, it is only half way, we will see," Zeldenrust said. "There's a long way to go I'm happy that I'm here now and that I'm the first one in.
Austria's Lisa Pleyer holds onto second on the G.C. following a solid performance during today's stage, while Australia's Abby McLennan of the Rattle & Hum team lost more than a half an hour to the race leader.
"It was a really tough day today," McLennan admitted. "I wasn't feeling well to begin with and then I crashed, hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow."
Tomorrow will be the closest the Crocodile Trophy comes to having a rest day, with riders embarking on a 100 kilometre out and back rolling stage from Chillagoe. In previous years this has suited the pure time trialists in the field, given the G.C. contenders will most likely take is easy ahead of the brutal stage to Mount Mulgrave on Sunday.
For a complete report with results and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.