JAAN Kirsipuu retired from professional cycling three years ago aged 37 and seemingly satisfied with being regarded as one of Estonia's most successful athletes. After being a national champion eight years running, wearing the yellow jersey for six days in the 1999 Tour de France and winning four stages in the world's most famous bike race, bowing out seemed perfectly reasonable.
Yesterday, a couple of months after turning 40 and in the unlikely setting of Ballarat, Kirsipuu was the surprise winner of the first stage of this year's Herald Sun tour.
In victory, which came after 149 kilometres of racing, he proved that the staying power that made him so successful a decade ago is still there. To win Kirsipuu had to hold off the best sprinter in the best team entered in the race, Chris Sutton of ProTour outfit Garmin-Slipstream, who is 15 years his junior.
In a short-lived retirement, Kirsipuu became manager of a Latvian cycling team, but the itch for competing had not been entirely scratched. At the beginning of this year he took up with a Norwegian outfit, then moved to Malaysian team LeTua, which has a UCI Continental licence and for which he won yesterday.
The motivation for a comeback, explained Kirsipuu, was a desire to explore corners of the world he had not seen. In under 12 months he has raced in Cameroon, Morocco and Japan. Competing in Australia again, which he visited in 2006 to ride the Tour Down Under, was another wish.
Kirsipuu said he feared his day was over just 30 kilometres into yesterday's stage when he was struggling in the wind, yet he managed to join the 41 riders that made a race-defining break around the same time. Unlike Sutton, who was surrounded by five teammates in the sprint to the finish, Kirsipuu had no allies nearby, but after patiently sitting on the wheel of the promising Australian sprinter the Estonian pounced in the last 100 metres.
''Nobody rushed at me to chase the breakaway, they know my situation - I'm not in my big years any more, so it's a surprise for them also,'' he said.
Jonathan Cantwell (Fly V Australia) was third and after a strong performance in the sprints yesterday is just one second behind Kirsipuu in the general classification. ''I'm kind of glad we don't have the yellow jersey on our shoulders for tomorrow because it's a lot of pressure and there are so many more days to go,'' Cantwell said.
The major split in the peloton during yesterday's stage means half the riders are already out of contention to win the race overall. Australian Richie Porte (Jayco Australian National) and British road champion Kristian House (Rapha Condor) surprisingly missed the critical break and finished with the second bunch of cyclists 18 minutes behind the race leaders.
Bernard Sulzberger's tour ended sourly in a blow for his Fly V team after he required hospitalisation for lacerations following a crash.