Simon Gerrans out-duelled fellow Tour de France stars Cadel Evans and Richie Porte in a perfect finish to the Australian road cycling championships.
The withering final sprint from Gerrans capped a pulsating men’s elite road race on Sunday at Buninyong, near Ballarat.
It was undoubtedly the best racing since the nationals were revamped in 1999 and one of the greatest days in Australian cycling history.
The last day of the nationals featured a record crowd of 23,000, perfect weather and world-class racing.
“When you look at the depth of the field today and you look at these two guys standing by my side, this could be any race, anywhere around the world,” Gerrans said.
“So it really shows the strength of Australian cycling now.
“I’m not going to rank this win and compare it to my others – every single win is special in its own way.
“To win in front of an Australian crowd like this, for an Australian WorldTour team, obviously it’s very, very special.”
Gerrans won his second national road race title in three years, capping a superb team effort from Orica-GreenEDGE.
The race came down to the star trio and Gerrans’ teammate Cameron Meyer, who rode brilliantly on the last of 18 laps over the hilly Buninyong circuit to finish fourth.
The result also showed Gerrans, Evans and Porte have strong form ahead of Adelaide’s Tour Down Under from January 19-26, where they will again be three of the main drawcards for the first WorldTour race of the season.
Evans and Porte rode superbly despite having the weight of numbers against them.
The pair bided their time as the powerful Orica-GreenEDGE team withstood a strong challenge from new ProContinental squad Drapac.
Evans (BMC) was riding by himself and Porte (Sky) only had new teammate Nathan Earle with him.
Evans also had to cope with a mechanical problem on lap 16.
Such a strong ride at the start of the season is also an encouraging sign for Evans, who will miss the Tour this year and concentrate on the May Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy).
Other then finishing third in last year’s Giro, Evans has often struggled with illness and form since his historic 2011 Tour win.
He will head into the January 19-26 Tour Down Under, the first WorldTour race of the season, knowing his form is right where it should be.
“What I really came here for was to get a good stepping stone into Tour Down Under and the WorldTour season,” he said.
“So to be there in the end with a chance for the win was really more than I had expected.”
This was the first time Evans has raced at the road nationals since 2005 and the fans’ reaction to his appearance again underlined his lofty status in Australian sport.
After keeping a low profile through his pre-season training, Evans sparked a Twitter stir on Saturday with media comments about the status of national titles.
“My objective as a professional is to get World Tour points other than the jersey, it (the nationals road race) doesn’t count for that much,” he said.
But as soon as he arrived on Sunday morning, it was clear Evans was the crowd favourite and he duly delivered with a superb ride.
“The public … the weather, the town, I say thank you,” he said.
“It was a fantastic experience.”
Evans is a competitive beast and he was not satisfied with second.
But in the same breath, he acknowledged it was an ideal start to his season.
“It’s a jersey or nothing for me, as far as I am concerned,” he said.
“When I say ‘nothing’, it’s gone better than I expected.
“But here on my own every move I made there was one or two GreenEDGE or Drapac behind me, closing the gap behind me every move I went.
“I just couldn’t accelerate any more (at the finish), I exhausted myself too much early on.”
Orica-GreenEDGE and Drapac featured strongly in a breakaway group of 17 that formed early and stayed away for more than half the race.
With two laps left and the front group dwindling, Orica-GreenEDGE shut the break down so they could set up Gerrans.
It came down to a select group of about 20 at the start of the last lap.
Meyer made the first decisive attack and this sparked fierce reactions from Gerrans, Evans and Porte.
Inside the last 2km Porte tried a long-range sprint, but he lacked the strength to stay clear.
Gerrans unleashed his fearsome finishing kick on the home straight and no-one could go with him.
“When Simon went he kicked like a mule,” Porte said.
“I’m happy to be on the podium and full credit to Simon – when he attacked on the last climb, he showed he was head and shoulders the strongest rider in the race.”