GUMI, South Korea (VN) — It did not take long for the two Australian cycling teams to lock horns — and wheels — at the Tour de Korea.
The anticipation of Orica-GreenEdge sprinting sensation Caleb Ewan facing off with Drapac superstar Wouter Wippert for eight days in the predominantly sprinter-friendly stage race permeated the pre-race press conference on Saturday.
The day started bizarrely when heavy traffic inadvertently veered onto the 189.1km route from Busan to Gumi inside the first 50km. A three-man break with a lead of six and a half minutes was forced to stop while traffic was cleared off the course. Once racing resumed, the break was allowed to reclaim its advantage.
Australia’s WorldTour and Pro-Continental teams quickly picked up the pace to begin their assault toward the finish to set up a bunch sprint for Ewan and Wippert.
However, with 200 meters remaining and the two squads frantically jockeying for position, a collision sent Orica riders Ewan and Mitch Docker to the pavement, leaving a slight hole for Wippert to slip through for an uncontested opening-stage win.
“I’m really happy with the win,” Wippert told VeloNews. “Everyone was looking forward to the battle between me and Ewan and I was also looking forward to that, and he went down in the last 200 meters and I don’t like that and that’s why I didn’t put my hands in the air.
“It’s a win but I don’t like crashes at all, but especially not in the sprint.”
According to race officials, the crash was not caught on camera. But Wippert told VeloNews how it went down.
“With 3K to go, Orica-GreenEdge took the lead and it was a really solid pace, so [Drapac teammate Graeme Brown] and I decided to just set on Ewan, which was actually perfect.
“When Brownie took off, they came to the right and mixed it up and they went down. I could just pass on the right.
“Basically, we just got closed in and Brownie tried to get out and they crashed. It’s not cool crashing in the final 200 meters, but it’s a sprint and sometimes shit happens.”
GreenEdge rider Adam Blythe had a different perspective on how the collision occurred.
“We were on the left side of the road and I was just coming toward the end of my turn,” Blythe said to VeloNews.
“I looked over my shoulder and I saw Brownie starting to move so I was like, right, I’m going to move off and might as well box them in, so I moved across the road.
“Mitch was on the right-hand side of my wheel as I went to the right and Brownie came up and had nowhere to go and gave Mitch a little elbow and sent him back into my wheel and he went down.
“I don’t think Brownie meant to knock anyone off, but where was he going because Wouter wasn’t on his wheel?”
Brown claims he was simply protecting his patch and trying to avoid being sent into the barriers.
“From my perspective, Adam Blythe saw me and started moving right with his team following him,” said the 36-year-old veteran. “It was either ride through or be run into the barricades, so I decided to hold the line.”
Both Ewan and Docker immediately boarded the team bus after the stage and left for the hotel without speaking with the media.
According to a tweet from Orica teammate Leigh Howard, both riders are okay.
The New Zealand-registered Avanti Racing Team was also caught in the fray. Sprinters Anthony Giacoppo, Patrick Bevin and Neil van der Ploeg all went down, with Bevin coming off worst of the lot with a battered and bruised knee. All three are expected to start Monday’s 174.4km second stage from Gumi to Muju.
“It was just a traditional finish,” said Avanti sports director Andrew Christie-Johnston. “The teams started to add a bit more firepower in the front and on day one there is a lot of fresh riders and crazy stuff started to happen in the finish and unfortunately all three of our sprinters got caught behind the crash.
“I was too far back in the team car to see what happened, but it sounded like Drapac had a coming together with Orica and Orica came off second best. Like I said, I didn’t see it and all I could see were the results and Orica had three down and we had four and we went from being in a reasonable position to having no chance at the sprint at all.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.