The MEPT – Crocodile Trophy proofed that it still has a bite – long gone are the 200km stages across the Outback Highways, but nowadays the stage plan holds a few surprises for its riders every year. Today’s fourth-longest stage offered the most meters of climbing in one day this year – the Dutch road cycling legend and master racer Erik Dekker keeps his Amateur leader jersey, taking out the third position overall behind the Canadian elite racers Andrew L’Esperance and Leandre Bouchard, who increases his lead in the general classification considerably. Elite woman Haley Smith admits a special kind of motivation to race hard each day.

On today’s Croc menu for stage 3 was a 100km marathon from Lake Tinaroo to Tepon Equestrian Park near Herberton on the Atherton Tablelands. What puts the “standard” marathon distance in perspective is the elevation profile of today’s stage: with 2,600m of climbing by far the most metres of climbing in one day at this year’s event. Just another day in the saddle at the hardest mountain bike stage race in the world – “You better be well rested for this one”, was the organisers brief for the international rider field last night.

The first 20km was relatively flat terrain and a lead group of three riders formed quickly: Leandre Bouchard and Andrew L’Esperance from Canada pulled turns together with none other than Erik Dekker, four-time Tour de France stage winner and household name in the Netherlands when it comes to cycling. The three riders worked up an incredible lead, but the two Canadians attacked and dropped Dekker at the 30km mark when the technical climbs peppered with brutally steep climbs kicked in and took a massive gap of more than 22 minutes into the finish.

Erik Dekker rode the remaining stage by himself and unfortunately crashed with just a few kilometres to go. “I crashed on the asphalt, on the bridge. There was a bit of a gap in the bridge and I crashed there. I was riding by myself, I hadn’t even been in a hurry or anything”, he recounted the scary moments. About the race the 47-year old said that he had known that it would be hard, but hadn’t expected how steep ramps were going to be just from looking at the elevation profiles. The amateur leader was in good spirits he was joking that maybe he only perceived the climbs to be that tough.

“Anyone who finishes today, power to them”

One who’s statements resonated with Dekker’s sentiments about the conditions, was today’s second-placed, Andrew L’Esperance, “Today was a very challenging course – anyone who finishes today without any injury and still pedalling… power to them, it’s awesome!”

For him the race had started off well as he had been able to get a gap by the first creek crossing. “I just rode steady and I figured Leandre would make it back up to me and he did together with Erik Dekker.” L’Esperance recounted that the three had worked really well until the climbs. A later attack against the overall leader Bouchard wasn’t successful and the pair then finished right behind each other: Bouchard took out stage 3 and defended his leader jersey with 4h50:58.2, just one tenth of a second ahead of L’Esperance.

In the general classification, L’Esperance stays on the wheel of Bouchard, maintaining the gap of 1:29.5 minutes. Together they lead by a margin of more than half an hour after today’s stage ahead of Erik Dekker (NED) and by 1h11:41.1 to the third GC Elite Rider, Anton Sintsov from Russia.

Racing, but still enjoying what Australia has to offer

L’Esperance also said that he was able to take in the Australian scenery, even though he was racing, “It’s a beautiful place! Even though we’re racing, we definitely took some time to look around today. Once we got on top of those mountain tops we were like, wow, this is beautiful! Yesterday, actually, we saw some kangaroos, or maybe big wallabies, they were following us in the woods, that was cool.

About the remaining race L’Esperance said, “I can’t believe it’s still five more days! Hopefully my legs can still do it, because I’ve been smashing it today for sure.”

Haley Smith – lone Elite Woman on a mission

Haley Smith, the only elite woman in this year’s event said that she was surprised how good she felt after day 2 given that she had never done anything like this before, “I’ve never done a marathon, let alone a marathon stage race. So I’m pleasantly surprised with how I’m riding so far and how my legs are feeling. But I’ve had some really good men to ride with and it’s been a very cohesive group to ride with. It’s been good, I’ve had a lot of guys to encourage me along.”

As a short-distance cross-country rider who is used to punchy races the MEPT – Crocodile Trophy had been on the cards since a several-week long training camp earlier this year together with her partner Andrew L’Esperance. “When we got home we kind of had the bug for long riding. We were wondering if there was a race the fits in with our season that we could try. This ended up working out, because it is just after the World Championship, so we jumped on it.”

Smith also admitted that she had a special kind of motivation to race hard, because she had made a deal with partner and fellow racer L’Esperance, “Well, I love Disneyworld. It’s somewhere I’ve gone since I was a little girl. And we made a deal that if we win enough prize money we would go to Disneyworld in Florida. It’s totally illogical, but it’s been a fun motivation for us.”

Tomorrow’s fourth stage is a 122km marathon with 1450vm, leaving the rocky and rough Outback behind, heading for the tropical Skybury Coffee Plantation near Mareeba.