Press Release: Geelong teenager, Leigh Howard, delivered as promised today to win the final stage of the Tour of Japan. It was the third stage win for Howard and, with his team mate Jack Bobridge winning two stages, gave Team AIS victory in five of the seven stages.
Howard’s performance today also saw him snatch the points classification from Kazakhstan’s Valentin Iglinskiy. He went into the stage trailing the Kazakh by nine points and while the focus was on winning the stage, the Australians were also keen to put Howard back in the blue jersey.
Today’s 112.7km stage began in Tokyo and rode out to the Oi Wharf precinct where the riders contested 14 laps of a dead flat seven kilometre circuit. Team AIS had a man in every escape attempt with Bobridge eventually breaking away with a ten man break that gained a little over a minute on the field. He collected time bonuses with wins in the first two intermediate sprints before Kazakhstan and Japan joined forces to chase back the break.
"It was a bit hard because there was a sprint (third intermediate) for the points jersey coming up and I punctured a lap before it," said Howard. "Trav (Travis Meyer) waited for me and we chased to get back on and then I had to sprint straight away."
Despite the mishap Howard claimed the five points to set up the stage finish to decide the jersey.
"There were four or five laps to go after that and the boys just got on the front and did an awesome job, exactly as we planned," said Howard of his team mates efforts to set him up for the stage win.
"The plan was to have a go for the points jersey and see how it went but the major goal was the stage win," said Team Director, Brian Stephen praising his young team for their tactics and tenacity. "The boys just kept upping the pace in the final laps to keep it together for Leigh and 500 metres to go we still have four riders up the front.
"Trav did a lot of the work then handed over to Jack before Glenn O’Shea did the last lead out to launch Howard home," Stephens explained. "Michael Matthews sat behind Howard to protect his back and earlier Adam Semple put in the work to chase down any threats.
Howard won comfortably in a time of 2hr16min25sec to add to an impressive list of 2009 achievements which include being crowned omnium World Champion and scoring two silver medals on the track at the World Championships in Poland in March.
Howard was tipped as favourite to win the final stage after he netted victory in the two previous sprinter’s stages.
"I suppose they were looking to me but Jack was in the breakaway and if that had stayed away he probably would have won so that took the pressure off us for most of the race," said Howard. "It’s been a good week and I’m happy with how it went especially as this is an elite race rather than an U23 event."
Howard’s win pushed his final points classification tally to 60, six ahead of Iglinskiy while Bobridge moved to third on 40 points ahead of fourth ranked Matthews on 36 points.
"I’m really happy with the performances of everyone on the team this week," said Stephens. "We did as well as we could without a really specialist climber which you need to win this Tour."
The young Australian line up placed second on the teams classification, 5min50sec behind the Kazakhstan National Team.
Overall race honours went to Spaniard Sergio Bellon Pardilla (Carmiooro – A Style) who finished 1min51sec ahead of Korean National Team rider Hyo Suk Gongwith Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Fofonov third at 2min12sec. Bobridge was the best placed of the Australian on the general classification in seventh place at 4min37sec while Matthews placed ninth at 5min11sec and Meyer tenth at 7min29sec to give the Australians three in the final top ten.
The riders will fly back to the Cycling Australia/AIS High Performance base in Varese tomorrow and will contest two one day races in Italy ahead of the International Thuringen U23 Tour in Germany that runs from 7 to 13 June.
Source: Cycling Australia