The new Irish Pro Continental team – Aqua Blue Sport – had a successful debut race today as Conor Dunne won the King of the Mountains classification at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Melbourne.
In scorching temperatures the Irishman infiltrated a day-long breakaway and sealed the victory on the numerous hill top primes dotted across the course.
Aqua Blue Sport lined up with a seven-man squad made of Dunne, Leigh Howard, Larry Warbasse, Calvin Watson, Aaron Gate, Peter Koning and Michel Kreder with the aim of bringing the race to life.
Dunne broke away from the peloton as soon as race director Scott Sunderland dropped the start flag and the Irish international was soon joined at the front by Alex Porter of Kordamentha-Australia, Katusha-Alpecin rider Ángel Vicioso and Gazprom-RusVelo pro Kirill Sveshnikov. The quartet worked well together on the rolling course and soon built an advantage of 10.30.
Behind, the peloton at times looked like they were enjoying a casual Sunday club run, reaching speeds of just 25 kilometres per hour over the first 30kms. Soon the World Tour team of race favourite BMC’s Richie Porte and Australian team Orica-Scott along with help from Bora-Hansgrohe began working to bring the race to the break.
Despite the gathering menace of the peloton, Dunne set about his master plan, taking second at the first intermediate sprint. Porter’s focus was fixed on the sprint points jersey, and Dunne shifted focus to the KOM jersey.
Despite these battles for the points on offer, the breakaway again began to work on maintaining their distance from the favourites behind. The quartet worked well together, sharing the work as they sped towards Geelong. The main bunch chipped away at the lead though and brought it back to a less alarming five minutes.
Dunne’s first opportunity to shine came on the slopes of the first KOM at picturesque Bells Beach, where he took maximum points. Again the peloton’s big names organised their squads and then stabilised their chase at four minutes.
The chasers in the peloton were joined by Dimension Data as other prospective victors showed their hand. In an apparent show of force BMC’s Damiano Caruso launched a kamikaze spurt of effort with 65km of the race to ride. This upset the rhythm of the peloton and provoked the first selection.
Soon the lead group saw their ample lead reduced to a slender 1:40 minutes. Caruso’s effort brought about a 20-man group of chasers but soon the peloton regrouped as those that missed the sort-out chased hard.
As the peloton began the climb of the Challambra Crescent hill for the first time, Bora’s driving hard for Jay McCarthy launched a concerted effort and brought the lead back to just 40 seconds. As the break fell apart, Dunne managed to hang on to take the KOM points.
Dunne and Porter then continued with their effort as the peloton fractured and broke as favourites and hopefuls launched salvos off the front. One of those efforts came from Aqua Blue Sport rider Calvin Watson who attempted to bridge across to Dunne at the front. Watson’s mammoth effort got him across to the break and he began working with Dunne and Porter.
With two laps to go the peloton were still 1.07 behind despite their efforts. Challambra Crescent took its toll on the leaders and on its second passage it destroyed the hopes of the breakaway. Dunne and Watson returned to the fold with the Irish rider assured of a KOM victory.
Sebastián Henao of Team Sky then sprinted clear on the climb with Cannondale Drapac’s Michael Woods joining him. Luke Durbridge of Orica-Scott and Rohan Dennis of Porte’s BMC bridged across to make a four-man leading break.
They didn’t succeed and again they were brought back. Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and in-form Nathan Haas of Dimension Data also launched a huge attack with 10km left – again counting for nothing.
Richie Porte tried a spirited burst and Tour De France champ Chris Froome also looked to try his luck but to no avail. The race had very little shape as the favourites traded blow after blow but no one could snap the cord and succeed. The most dangerous move was from a spirited Cameron Meyer who launched a do or die blitz with 800 metres to go.
As he neared the finish line his heart broke as the remaining bunch swamped him with Sunweb rider Nikias Arndt launching a powerful sprint to take the victory.
But Aqua Blue Sport man Dunne received a heroes welcome as he took possession of the KOM jersey on the podium, his teammates cheering from the crowd.
Dunne said afterwards: “It was an amazing day. The plan was to get me into the break and take it from there. I couldn’t get over the amount of Irish fans on the roads – they gave me a huge boost. To take a jersey from our first race is fantastic and I just want to thank all the fans at home and here for their support. Now we’ll refocus and head to the Herald Sun Tour.”
Also delighted was Aqua Blue Sport owner Rick Delaney, who said: “The guys today worked so so hard, they refused to follow and wanted to make a difference and certainly did that. I couldn’t be happier or more proud. Podium for KOM. Just the perfect start. All the support from the fans has been great and we are now looking forward to the races to come.”