Road

Kirsipuu takes sprint, race lead at Jayco Herald Sun Tour

Proving that age is just a number, 40-year-old Estonian Jann Kirsipuu of the Malaysian team LeTua took the opening stage of Australia's Jayco Herald Sun Tour Monday in Ballarat. A four-time Tour de France stage winner, Kirsipuu out-sprinted Garmin-Slipstream’s Chris Sutton to take the stage win and the first leader’s jersey of the tour. Pre-race predictions proved correct, as strong crosswinds split the peloton just 30km into the 149km stage, with 41 riders making the selection.

Sulzberger’s crash a blow to Fly V Australia

By Neal Rogers

2009 Jayco Herald Sun Tour - Stage 1: Kirsipuu isn't doing too poorly for a retiree.

2009 Jayco Herald Sun Tour – Stage 1: Kirsipuu isn’t doing too poorly for a retiree.

Photo: Jayco Herald Sun Tour

Proving that age is just a number, 40-year-old Estonian Jann Kirsipuu of the Malaysian team LeTua took the opening stage of Australia’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour Monday in Ballarat.

A four-time Tour de France stage winner, Kirsipuu out-sprinted Garmin-Slipstream’s Chris Sutton to take the stage win and the first leader’s jersey of the tour.

Pre-race predictions proved correct, as strong crosswinds split the peloton just 30km into the 149km stage, with 41 riders making the selection.

Kirsipuu, who retired at the end of the 2006 season after a long career with AG2R and Crédit Agricole only to return this year, was the only LeTua rider to make the day’s select group.

“I can tell you I was really suffering to make that group,” Kirsipuu said. “I wasn’t thinking at 30km into the race that I might win the stage. I was thinking that I might be dropped.”

That split proved to be the decisive moment — not just of the stage, but of the six-day race — as the front group finished more than 18 minutes ahead of the main peloton.

And while Kirsipuu was all smiles at the finish, the opening stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour was a rollercoaster of fortune and misfortune for the two strongest teams in the race, Garmin-Slipstream and Fly V Australia.

For Garmin, the stage saw the only ProTour team in the race put six of its seven riders in the key split, with only Trent Lowe missing after being caught up in a crash, and also take the KOM jersey with young stagiaire Alex Howes, who took first and second on the day’s two climbs. However, the team came up short for the stage win, as a textbook lead-out by Brad Wiggins ended up being a perfect setup for Kirsipuu, with Sutton finishing second, as he did Sunday in the preface criterium behind Fly V Australia’s Jonathan Cantwell.

For Fly V Australia, the team put four riders in the front group — Cantwell, Ben Day, Phil Zajicek and Darren Rolfe — but lost recent Tour of Tasmania rider Bernie Sulzberger to injury after the strongman tangled with a Tour TV
camera motor bike and fell heavily, crashing out of the race.

The crash happened at the front of the field just 20km into the stage, with Fly V controlling the pace. In a split second the situation went “pear shaped,” as the Aussies say, with three Fly V riders off the back — Benjamin King and David Kemp dropped back for Sulzberger — and one of the strongest men in the peloton ultimately out of the race with deep scrapes and cuts to his left side.

Adding insult to injury, Cantwell’s intermediate sprint time bonuses of six and three seconds left him one second short of the overall race lead.

2009 Jayco Herald Sun Tour - Stage 1: Garmin-Slipstream's Chris Sutton riding through the caravan.

2009 Jayco Herald Sun Tour – Stage 1: Garmin-Slipstream’s Chris Sutton riding through the caravan.

Photo: Neal Rogers

Other teams with heavy representation in the front group included Drapac Porsche, with five men and Bissell, also with five men — Ben Jacques-Maynes, Frank Pipp, Jeremy Vennell, Omer Kem and Paul Mach.

With the majority of top riders in the front group and the chasing peloton losing morale behind, the gap between the two groups steadily increased throughout the stage, from 2:54 at 50km to 5:40 at 84km to 18 at the finish.

“The day was windy, up and down, with an early split in the crosswinds,” said Garmin’s Brad Wiggins. “Once the group was established, we just kind of rolled through most of the day. It was so windy towards the end it was very difficult for lone riders or breaks to go. We had six guys, which made it easy to control.”

While Garmin’s Svein Tuft did the majority of heavy lifting at the front, Wiggins looked out for Sutton. In the final twisting kilometers, marked by strong headwinds, Wiggins took to the front and blew the front group apart; so strong was his lead-out, he finished the stage fourth.

“We timed the lead-out almost to perfection, but we still got beat by an old man,” Wiggins said. “Jann is just class. You never really lose that class. He never really stopped cycling. He’s great with finishes like that. “

Kirsipuu narrowly missed the final crash of the day, just 200 meters from the finish when Drapac Porsche rider Zac Dempster, who was sitting on the Estonian’s wheel, hit a traffic cone set up to protect riders from parallel train tracks. Sutton said he was so focused on the sprint that he never even heard the crash.

“I was sitting on Wiggo and he just nailed it with about 600 out and swung out with 200 to go,” Sutton said. “I looked back and only saw Kirsipuu on my wheel. I started my sprint, but he got the better of me. I didn’t hear the crash or anything. Wiggins was going that strong, he put it as close to the cones as he could. Even I was struggling.”

Kirsipuu was quick to admit that he used the Garmin train to his advantage.

“I am used to being alone, even when I was on the big teams, I often didn’t have someone to help me in the sprints. I’m quite used to it,” Kirsipuu said. “Today was a little bit of experience to be in the right place in the right time. I saw the Garmin guys were leading out really strong, with Bradley Wiggins in the final. It was just a question of keeping Chris Sutton’s wheel.”

Part of being in the right place at the right time including bumping Cantwell off Sutton’s wheel; Cantwell finished the stage third, behind Sutton and in front of Wiggins. Cantwell will wear the green points jersey on stage 2 after finishing in the points in all three sprints contested Monday.

While Kirsipuu retired from the pro ranks at the end of the 2006 season, he continued competing in Estonia during 2007 and 2008 and won several national titles before returning as a professional this year. Earlier in 2009 the big Estonian sprinter won a pair of stages at the FBD Insurance Ras, racing with Norway Giant Veoila, and he came to Australia as a guest rider with LeTua.

Disappointed as he was, Sutton said there was no shame in being beaten by a rider with a pedigree like Kirsipuu.

“Look at what he’s done in the past, at the Tour de France. He’s beaten some of the world’s best bike riders,” Sutton said. “Now I’m up against him racing. Even though he’s been out of the sport a few years, it doesn’t really mean anything, he’s still been training, and he’s come here to win stages, and he’s won a stage. He’s still classy as a bike rider. He’s one guy I’ve always looked up to.”

Kirsipuu said his biggest motivation to compete at 40 years old comes from racing in countries he hasn’t visited before.

“This year I’ve raced in Cameroon, Morocco and Japan,” he said. “The plan is to go to China this year, and maybe I’ll continue next year too.”

As for defending his race lead, Kirsipuu said it’s not a viable option for him or for his team.

“Forget if my team could defend the jersey, I know I couldn’t,” he said. “There are still three hard stages coming. I don’t think about the race lead. It’s just a bonus. I know I’m not able to follow the strongest riders. For a small team like this, it’s great just to win a stage.”

For both Garmin and Fly V Australia, a stage win would have been a plus, but both teams are eyeing the bigger prize — overall victory — and hoping for better luck along the way.

Photo Gallery