NASHIK, India (VN) – India made history Friday by hosting its first-ever international road race, with Italian up-and-comer Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale) kicking to victory ahead of pre-race favorite Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) in wild ride across the rugged hill country of Maharashtra.
McEwen punctured on the final lap of six circuits and had to finish the 175.5km race riding the bike of RadioShack teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, but the Aussie didn’t take anything away from Viviani’s win, who bolted up the opposite side of the road to relegate McEwen to second with Tyler Day rounding out the podium for his South African Bonitas team.
“I punctured with 5km to go and I had to chase back on, I only sort of got back on with two-and-a-half K to go. Instead of going for a wheel-change, which would have taken longer, I just took a teammate’s bike. It really doesn’t fit me properly, but I took it anyway because it was the fastest solution,” McEwen said at the line. “Having said that, Viviani did a great race and so did his team, so he deserves to win.”
Viviani’s win confirms his rising-star status among Italy’s newest generation of sprinters. In his rookie year last season, Viviani won four races, including memorial events for both Marco Pantani and Frank Vadenbroucke.
Viviani, who turned 22 last week, posted a pair of top-5s racing in Australia before winning the Italian calendar opener at the GP Costa degli Etruschi last weekend.
Liquigas and RadioShack collaborated to reel in a five-man breakaway that included American Joe Eldridge from Team Type 1 with less than two laps to go. McEwen opened up a long sprint with 200 meters to go and Viviani burst up the left side of the road to pip him at the line.
“To win ahead of such a big rider like McEwen means a lot to me,” Viviani said. “It’s a big adventure to come racing in India. I’ve had a great start to the season, with the win here and last week in Italy. It’s already my second win of the season, so I am very happy here in India.”
McEwen and Viviani were the hot favorites for victory among the 100-rider field starting the Tour de Nashik, the first of a pair of one-day races this weekend that’s part of an ambitious, multi-year plan to create India’s first major international stage race.
While circuit races and criteriums have been held previously held in India, including events in Delhi and Mumbai as well as with last year’s Commonwealth Games, Friday’s 1.1 UCI-rated race marked the first true international road race in Indian cycling history.
The race opened on a 113km out-and-back route across the spectacular hill country of Maharashtra in what was the first time a real road race has been held on open roads in India.
Despite a few hiccups with crowd and traffic control that went along with India’s first-ever rolling road closure, race organizers pulled off the race without any major mishaps. Stray cows didn’t walk onto the race course and excitable fans were kept back with a strong police presence.
The race concluded with a fast sprint down the 2km finishing straight and riders for the most part gave the race positive reviews.
“It was very interesting, they did a great job to set up a good course to keep it open, free of hazards and safe,” McEwen said. “Everybody’s biggest concern was would the race be totally closed and would we be competing with cars, people and cows, but no, it was very good, I was impressed.”
Breakaway makes it tough
A five-man breakaway made it tough on the sprinters, forcing Liquigas and RadioShack to collaborate to make sure the dangerous move was snuffed out before the final lap on the closing, 8km circuit.
Sneaking into the break was Team Type 1’s Eldridge, who traveled more than 24 hours from Georgia to arrive in India barely 24 hours before the race began. It was hardly ideal preparation for Eldridge’s season debut, but he made the most it.
“I am a sprinter, but I just found myself in the breakaway today,” Eldridge said. “I was following a guy up the road, then all of a sudden, there were five of us up the road, and once you’re up there, there’s no looking back, you’ve just got to go for it.”
Eldridge lost contact with the leader’s coming up the day’s main climb up a 7km, third-category hump with about 100km to go. The remaining four held a three-minute lead coming in for six laps on the 8km circuit, putting the pressure on RadioShack and Liquigas to chase down the move. Muradjan Halmuratov (Uzbekistan) was the final dangler caught just before the final lap to go.
First-year pro Day of the South African Bonitas team was the surprise third man on the podium behind the top European pros. Day couldn’t believe he was bumping shoulders with the former green winner jersey of the Tour de France.
“We wanted to get someone in the breakaway so we didn’t have to do the pace in the first part of the race. Then I got a perfect lead-out. The last lap was just so hectic, but I was on Robbie McEwen’s wheel in the last 500m. Geez, that guy’s flying. I almost got past him in the sprint, so it’s a good third,” Day said. “It’s a huge success for us. We came here to do good so we hope to win on Sunday.”
The podium is a boon for Bonitas, which will be heading home next week for the inaugural edition of the Tour of South Africa.
Racing in India continues Sunday with the 104km Tour de Mumbai II. The race will consist of 12 laps on an 8.6km circuit right in bustling downtown of Mumbai. Watch for McEwen to try to even the score with Viviani.