KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — While the pre-race focus at Three Days of De Panne centered around European riders such as Lieuwe Westra, Stijn Devolder and Sylvain Chavanel, after Tuesday’s demanding stage, upstart Australian team GreenEdge has two very real prospects for overall victory in Svein Tuft and Luke Durbridge.
Both Tuft and Durbridge finished Tuesday with the front group of 50, more than six minutes ahead of the rest of the field. The result was all the more impressive for Durbridge, considering that it was the 20-year-old phenom’s first ever day of racing in Belgium.
Wednesday’s field sprint into Koksijde went sideways for both GreenEdge riders — they were held up by a back-of–the-pack crash, caused by riders’ wheels slotting into parallel train tracks. Fortunately for the team, the crash occurred within the final 3km, so they were not docked the 45 seconds lost.
Thursday brings a double day of racing, with a short, fast, flat and windy 112km stage in the morning and a flat-but-windy, 14.7km out-and-back time trial in the afternoon.
In Tuft and Durbridge, GreenEdge has two of the strongest time trialists in the race. Both men are the national time trial champions of their respective nations, Canada and Australia, and Durbridge won the world U23 TT championship in 2011.
In January, Durbridge beat out specialists Cameron Meyer and Michael Rogers to win the Australian national TT title, and earlier this month Tuft uncorked a fourth-place finish in the final time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing 16 seconds behind winner Fabian Cancellara over a 9.3km course.
Asked point blank, prior to Wednesday’s stage, if he’d come to De Panne to win the overall, Tuft answered earnestly, “Yes.”
“With Durbridge and myself making the final move, that was the whole point,” Tuft said. “That’s the best way to go about it — to take the overall in the final TT is the easiest way to roll a stage race. We came here to win it, and we’re fortunate today, in that guys that missed out on the sprint [Tuesday], like [André] Greipel and [Francesco] Chicchi, are going to take control, and then again on Thursday morning. It’s never easy here, but [Tuesday] was the key.”
Tuft said his form is good, and if anything, he expects he will ride a better time trial on Thursday than he did at Tirreno.
“I really put myself in the hurt locker by the end of Tirreno,” he said. “I’m not even close to that right now, as far as being that smashed. Before Tirreno we did pre-TTT training, then I was riding the front [defending the race lead], plus it was just a really hard tour, and I was still able to roll a good time trial at the end.”
Durbridge downplayed his own chances, telling VeloNews he’s here both to help Tuft, and for the experience.
“Svein is obviously in really handy form, and for me there’s no pressure,” Durbridge said. “I’m not expecting much. I’ve come here to have good first race of season, I’m not coming here being unrealistic, expecting that I’m going to win. I think Svein is in good form, he’s shown that at the Tirreno TT. If we can keep us both up there we will have two threats for the TT, and if not, I’m going to give the time trial 100 percent, and see how it goes. This will be the first big gauge for me in an international TT, so it will be good to have a look.”
Tuft, however, did not downplay the prospect of Durbridge winning the overall Thursday afternoon. In addition to riders like Westra and Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM), and Jesse Sergent (RadioShack), Tuft said Durbridge is one of the biggest threats for the victory.
“This kid is a freak,” Tuft said. “You watch. He will rip a good one. This kid is a phenom and he is definitely the real future of the sport — a lot of these young guys coming out of the Aussie track program, they are just phenoms. That yesterday was his first race in Belgium, and he made the front group, you can’t downplay that. It was all the big joke with the team, this is a crazy race to start out as your first pro race in Belgium, there he goes and makes the front group on a difficult day.”
Durbridge was modest about his impressive debut racing in the cutthroat, cobbled Belgian roads, saying, ““It was a bit tricky, a different style of racing. I didn’t ride in that good of position, but I managed to stay up there. I did a bit of chasing… the last two circuits it was like a classic, with 12 climbs, it was a bit of a shock to the system. But I’ve been training well, and when you’ve got guys here that tell you what to expect, you’re not so naïve that you don’t’ know what to expect. We had a chat before the stage, and it worked out all right.”