Local hopes that star Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan of the Australian Orica-Scott team would continue his winning spree in the Towards Zero Race Melbourne event were scuppered by Irish flyer on the rise Sam Bennett of the German BORA-hansgrohe team.
Bennett won the 116.6km race, made up of 22 laps of the 5.3km Albert Park circuit, beating Dutchman Danny Van Poppel from Team Sky, Australian Scott Sunderland of IsoWhey Sports and Belgian Edward Theuns of Trek-Segafredo in a bunch sprint.
Ewan, who won four stages of the Santos Tour Down Under that finished in Adelaide last Sunday, had to settle for fifth place.
“I’m extremely happy. To get the first win of the season is really nice and takes a little bit of pressure off,” said Bennett and then also thanked his teammates.
“They did a fantastic job and got me out of trouble in the last corners. I kind of lost a wheel and they sort of managed to get me in a great position [for the sprint finish]. It was a great day.”
Bennett, who raced the Santos Tour Down Under sprints strongly despite being unable to beat an in-form Ewan, said it helped that his team did not expend excessive energy in Thursday’s race.
“We kind of relaxed and let the race happen. We didn’t take control or force it. And if it came back to a sprint we were going to try to do something,” said Bennett, but still recognising Ewan’s class. “He was just a little bit unlucky. You see how fast he is. He is incredibly fast.”
Bennett, 26, now has his sights set on Sunday’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
“I would really like to do a result there. But I’ll just take it one step at a time,” he said.
Thursday’s Towards Zero Race Melbourne men’s race boasted a stellar international field. Its 124 starters represented 19 teams – 13 from the UCI WorldTour, four Pro Continental teams, an Australian national selection and the domestic Continental ranked IsoWhey Sports squad.
Among the stars were two of the biggest grand tour names in Britain’s three time Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Team Sky), racing for the first time this season, and Colombian Esteban Chaves (ORICA-SCOTT) who last year placed second in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Vuelta a España and last Sunday finished second overall in the Santos Tour Down Under.
They rode comfortably throughout the race on a circuit that was not suited to their climbing strengths. Froome even tested his legs, chasing down two attackers with two laps to go.
The race featured two main breakaways, both of them strong in numbers and finally caught.
The first break of 15 formed on lap 3 and lasted for 30km until lap 6. It still got to contest the first of three intermediate sprints on lap 5 with Dutchman Bert Jan Linderman (Lotto-Jumbo) beating the Australian pair of Calvin Watson (Aqua Blue Sport) and Lucas Hamilton (Australia).
The second break of 16 riders formed on lap 7. It included Czechoslovakia’s Petr Vakoc (QuickStep-Floors), New Zealand’s Aaron Gate (Aqua Blue Sport) and Colombian Sergio Henao (Sky) who placed first, second and third respectively in the second sprint on lap 10.
The break dropped to 15 riders but stayed away, despite the chase led by the Lotto-Jumbo and UnitedHealthCare teams seeing their lead whittled down from 55 seconds to 40s by lap 12.
That advantage was still enough for them to contend for the third intermediate sprint on lap 15 in which Vakoc won from Great Britain’s James Shaw (Lotto-Soudal) and Gate, the outcome ensuring that Vakoc, with two intermediate sprint wins, won the sprinters competition.
Soon after the third sprint, the peloton’s chase ramped up with IsoWhey Sports joining in with UnitedHealthCare and Sunweb in the effort; as did ORICA-SCOTT later.
The peloton’s chase was timed to perfection and it caught the leaders on lap 20.
Some riders made attempts to upset the apple cart, such as the move that Froome reeled in and another bid by Dane Lars Bak (Lotto-Soudal). But it was for nought on a course so flat and so fast.