Dutchman Bart Brentjens yesterday claimed his fifth consecutive Crocodile Trophy stage against a backdrop of searing heat, serious crashes and remarkable feats of endurance.
With the mercury hovering above 45°C for most of the day, competitors struggled to reach the finish of the 151km journey from Mount Mulgrave to Laura.
Conditions were at the absolute extreme of what riders could tolerate on a day when they also had to negotiate stony trails, deep corrugations and sand patches on the Outback roads of Australia's Cape York.
At the end of five agonising hours in the saddle, Brentjens finally managed to shake race leader Urs Huber, Belgian Mike Mulkens and Slovenia's Jure Robic in a sprint finish. In the process he gained only a handful of seconds on time bonuses, with opportunities running out to haul in the race lead, which stands at one minute and one second.
"That was long and hot. It wasn't as good as it was supposed to be on the road book – pretty rough terrain, rough gravel, some loose parts, loose sand and the heat, the heat kills you every day," an exhausted Brentjens said. "Urs, he was pushing the hammer down really hard from the river crossing, he already spent a lot of energy and I was on his wheel."
Brentjens was looking to today's stage from Laura to Cooktown to possibly launch an attack on the overall race leader, who continues to hang on in the toughest of circumstances.
"Definitely if there will be a chance I will do it, but today it was hot and I know from yesterday, I blew up before the finish," Brentjens said. "I try to make a good attack maybe tomorrow or the day after."
Huber appears to be feeling more confident by the day, knowing the profile over the next two stages includes numerous hills, where the Swiss mountain man is most at home.
"I think today was the last flat stage so Brentjens has won five seconds again," Huber said. "So I still have one minute in front overall and the next two days are with more mountains so I think that's good for me."
Disaster strikes for Australia's Prete
Stage seven of the Crocodile Trophy turned into a disaster for Australia's Tropical Tableland Discovery Team after their leader, teenager Josh Prete, crashed heavily at the crossing of the Palmer River and snapped his right collarbone.
Up until that point, the burgeoning Australian talent was riding with the race leaders, but his Crocodile Trophy campaign went to hell crossing the very same river which his grandfather once mined for gold.
"Just going into the Palmer River it was really sandy and dusty, and there was about four guys in front of me," Prete said. "I couldn't see anything and just went straight down onto my collarbone and I think someone hit me from behind."
Prete was treated on scene by race doctor Alexandra Reimann before being transported to Cooktown hospital. He returned to the Crocodile Trophy camp site yesterday evening to view X-rays of the injury with Doctor Reimann and fellow competitor Dr Andrew Graham, an orthopaedic surgeon. The prognosis is that the injured collarbone will require surgery.
"I'm happy that I exceeded my expectations in this race, but unhappy that I didn't finish," a disappointed Prete said. "I wanted to have one really good stage, but I'll have to come back next year."
Zeldenrust wins women's sprint
The women's race ended in a sprint finish after the group containing the three race leaders stayed intact over the 151km journey.
Eager to place her stamp of authority on the race at the end of it's most difficult stage, Dutch race leader Monique Zeldenrust outsprinted her rivals Abby McLennan and Lisa Pleyer to maintain her absolute stranglehold on the race.
"I know the other girls wanted to win today, but I really wanted to win this stage too," a determined Zeldenrust said. McLennan, who continues to gather strength, placed second, with Pleyer third.
Tomorrow's stage from Laura to Cooktown will be another difficult challenge. The race will pass through crocodile country in Lakefield National Park before riders battle a stiff headwind into Cooktown and finish atop Grassy Hill, where views over the Pacific Ocean await.
For full results and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.