The man commonly referred to humorously as ‘JC Driver’ for the locomotive-like style he employs while leading his IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness sprint train or simply driving off the front of the field, literally rode off with his first UCI hors catégorie win of his career at the Tour of Hainan (2.HC) on Sunday.
The 31-year-old Wellington native proudly zipped up the second of his two New Zealand national champion road race jerseys as he coasted across the finish ahead of the surging peloton he so easily soloed off the front of for the win.
Although two riders attempted to join Cooper and crash the party inside 10 kilometres, they were simply not physically enough equipped to contend with the Kiwi freight train once he turned the screws and the engine started steaming forward.
Tour of Hainan
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Cooper coasts to win Stage 9 of Tour of Hainan
“People don’t let Joe Cooper ride off the front,” said Australian teammate Neil van der Ploeg, who crashed out on the opening stage while Cooper was driving alone off the front of the field. “He just does it.”
While the day’s ‘most active rider’ was not able to finish the job on the short 88.3km circuit, the final stage was not an issue for the former Oceania (2014) and New Zealand time trial champion (2013).
“It’s been a hard week, we’ve lost three guys and we wanted that top step on the podium with the sprinters and unfortunately they couldn’t deliver,” said Cooper, who also won his second ‘most active rider’ award of the race after taking the first honour on the opening stage in Wanning as well.
“I had to come out today and sort of just go about my work, and pretty happy with that,” he continued. “I thought those two guys that came across would spoil the day, but they didn’t have too much left so I just kept on riding.”
It was an auspicious start for the Australian-registered UCI Continental team during the first four days of the 12th edition of the Tour of Hainan last week.
Despite losing secondary lead-out van der Ploeg due to a mid-stage crash, world track champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Michael Freiberg posted an immediate podium result on the opening stage behind eventual five-straight stage winner Jakub Mareczko (Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia) in second and Jon Aberasturi (Team UKYO) in first.
From their, Aussie sprinter No. 2, Anthony Giacoppo (AUS), posted back-to-back podiums on the third and fourth stages right before the wheels came off. Both Freiberg and Giacoppo hit the deck during a nasty Stage 5 spill. Giacoppo copped an immediate disqualification for ‘towing’ back to the peloton and although Freiberg limped to the finish, he would ultimately withdraw the following day.
“We were down to four riders with four stages to go,” team director and co-owner Andrew Christie-Johnston told Eurosport. “We didn’t really know what we could get out of the tour to be honest after losing all our sprinters, but we turned it around with a stage win, something the sprinters didn’t quite achieve, and to come out with the KOM jersey and also fourth on a stage since is a bloody impressive job.”
According to Christie-Johnston, who has sent the likes of Richie Porte, Nathan Haas, Nathan Earle, Patrick Bevin, Will Clarke, Jack Haig, Ben O’Connor, Chris Hamilton, Steele von Hoff and Campbell Flakemore to the WorldTour, Cooper was slotted to be next in line when a crash during an Australian National Road Series (NRS) race in 2014 resulted in a broken pelvis and seemingly took him out of favour with WorldTour recruiters.
In a show of Cooper’s resilience, he slowly remounted the bike — broken bum and all — and finished that race in Toowoomba before taking the next two months to recover. When he came back, he had already amassed so many points from victories earlier that season, he was still able to become the first New Zealander to claim the overall NRS title — the first of two for the reigning series champion.
“The WorldTour is missing out with Joe, and it’s been the most frustrating thing for me,” admitted Christie-Johnston. “I’ve had Joe for a while now and he came close to the WorldTour a few yeas ago. But whether or not he is physically riding for a team at the highest level or not, he is 100 percent WorldTour strong.
“When I saw him go at the end of the stage, I thought they are going to find it really difficult to bring that guy back,” he continued. “He does this time and time again. People give him 10 metres and it takes a lot of effort to try and bring him back.”
Even Tour of Hainan KOM winner Sam Crome was left in awe of his teammate’s smashing performance.
“I’m just speechless,” Crome told Eurosport. “That guy ‘JC Driver’ is just an animal. When he is on a day like that today, he’s one of the strongest men in the world for sure.”
Earlier in the 153.8-kilometre day from Lingshui to Wanning Xinglong, the recent two-stage winner and race runner-up at the Tour of China I played a pivotal role in piloting Crome to an additional five points on the first KOM of the day (Cat. 3) to wrap up the mountains classification jersey.
“The KOM was all pretty close and I decided with 5k to go before the climb I would go up the road and soak up the points and lessen the fight back in the peloton — and that worked,” Cooper explained to Eurosport. “I’m pretty stoked with the whole day and the great teamwork … we had a plan and we sort of stuck to it.”
But according to Crome, there was no plan. Just Cooper’s iron will.
“It wasn’t really a plan early on,” explained Crome. “He just put everyone to the sword and rode away. It was hard in the [peloton] and he put like 40 seconds into us. That just put my mind at ease a bit, because I knew it would be even harder for [Patrick] Schelling, [Benjamin] Prades and [Vitaliy] Buts to get the points.
“Luckily I was able to get the two seconds and wrap it up on the road,” he continued. “We were just trying to look for time bonuses to move [Robbie Hucker up on general classification], but then at the end, holy hell, that is just incredible.
“For two guys to ride across and [Joe] hit ‘em again, that just sums him up.”
Whether or not it was part of a grander strategy to keep Crome in the polka-dot jersey, the 2017 New Zealand Cycle Classic champion is elated with the day’s results and is keen to keep the momentum rolling.
“This is the icing on my whole season,” he said. “To win an HC race in the New Zealand champs jersey that's just such a special thing for me. I've worked hard all year and this being my best season to date, hopefully I'm not done yet.”
For full stage and race results for the 2017 Tour of Hainan click here.
Tour of Hainan
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