It’s not every day you see names like Robbie McEwen, Jonathon Cantwell and Luke Durbridge in a local criterium race. It’s especially exciting when you add one of the world’s fastest men on two wheels to that list of top class racers. The cycling community could barely believe their eyes when Peter Sagan was mooted to be entering a local crit race in Australia, in November?
You had to feel for those local racers who signed up early with aspirations to take a step on the podium only to find that the reigning green jersey winner would be right alongside them. The shock on their faces would have been priceless as the start list began to look more like the roster for the Criterium du Dauphine rather than the Criterium of Noosa!
It reminded me of a time when I was racing on the Gold Coast a few years back and Robbie McEwen turned up on the start line at the Pimpama Crits. I have never seen anyone take out the A Grade so easily and I’m pretty sure he was only going at half pace when he won by a few lengths.
That was back in Robbie’s racing days. It must be said that he looks no different to when he was racing, though nowadays he is a retired legend and a sprint coach at GreenEdge Cycling. The three-time Green Jersey winner may well be in good shape but he does have to contend with the current Australian Champion Luke Durbridge and the reigning Points Classification winner Peter Sagan.
Durbridge’s best chance of a win is via a breakaway but if it comes down to a sprint it will be McEwen and Sagan. New school verses old school. Game on!
Many sprinters are cut from the same cloth. Ride hard, celebrate harder. My early memories of the Tour de France are of Robbie doing wheelies on the Champs Elysees. Nowadays, it’s Sagan skylarking down the hallowed avenue.
The local racers looked on in awe as the big guns stole their thunder during introductions to the roaring crowd on a beautiful ‘Sunny Coast’ evening. It was the off-season for the pros so you never know; the local boys might be in with a chance.
Sagan travelled Down Under for a bit of R and R after a long season on the pro circuit. What better way to escape than learning to surf on one of the best surf coasts in the world. Until today, Peter Sagan would have been completely anonymous on the coast but his natural charisma ensured that he will now be remembered in this neck of the woods. Some of you may remember that this is not Peter’s first time to Australia. He actually raced his first Pro Tour event at the Tour Down Under in 2010.
The thing about interviews with the Slovak is, a lot gets lost in translation – a trait that in Australia seems to render Europeans as instantly likeable! Five minutes before his introduction at the start line, Peter was cruising down busy Hastings Street for the most part unrecognised. Now, after his interview, the 20,000 spectators know exactly who he is!
Despite his larrikin reputation, he is actually a quietly spoken guy with a degree of modesty. Perhaps it was a lack of comprehension of Matt Keenan’s questions but it seemed that he was quite bemused by all the attention – strange given he’s in his fourth year as a professional. He already has an impressive race record with stage and points classification wins at the Tour of California, Paris-Nice, Tour of Switzerland and of course the Tour de France.
But the infamous ‘podium girl bottom pinch’ on the dais at the Tour of Flanders is what really cemented his party-boy image. It’s an incident for which he later apologised, stating that it was joke and a bit of fun.
Something he doesn’t apologise for is the fact that he performs some of the most elaborate celebration salutes and post race wheelies since, well, Robbie McEwen! This may also have something to do with his party-boy persona. Entertaining? Definitely! The crowds love him no matter where in the world he is.
Back to the race. This ebbed and flowed with various attacks including some from the big names, but there was nothing from Sagan. A break from Luke Durbridge looked dangerous but was eventually brought back, then Robbie went on the attack and looked to be getting away in a group of three.
On the tight and short circuit, Robbie was looking good and it appeared that it might stick. So, the only man for the job jumped on the front of the peloton and put the hammer down. In an impressive show of power, it took Peter only half a lap to drag the peloton back into the race and nullify Robbie’s advantage. The race was back on with only half a dozen laps to go.
The crowd pushed against the fence as the race was now shaping up to be a showdown between McEwen and Sagan.
There could of course be a last ditch attempt at a break by time trial specialist and current Australian Road Race Champion Luke Durbridge but with five Tour de France Green Jersey’s worth of experience in the peloton, I couldn’t see this happening.
By the bell lap the peloton was still together and we had a bunch sprint on our hands.
As they rounded the final sweeping bend there was no sign of the lime green Cannondale jersey. It was ‘old timer’ Robbie hitting the line first with Leigh Howard and Jonathan Cantwell in tow.
Robbie took the chequered flag, much to the embarrassment of the GreenEdge boys who sheepishly acknowledged that they had been beaten by their coach!
Robbie was proud to win the title once more but deferred the acclamation, saying he had picked an easy battle with the current professionals not in ‘race shape’.
Not to be outdone and in appreciation of the crowd support, Peter, who had finished in the pack, delighted the crowd with a lengthy wheelie down the back straight and was later joined by Robbie down the main straight. The fact that Peter didn’t feature in the final sprint didn’t seem to matter; their favourite son was a welcome winner and to see world class athletes up close and personal was a real thrill. They may have raced a decade apart but the people of Noosa were treated to a spectacle of criterium racing by two of the true champions of international cycling. It’s great to see the baton has been handed on and there are still colourful characters in cycling.