Fayetteville, Arkansas - Rui Oliveira came oh-so-close to stealing away his first victory of the season Friday from a seasoned veteran at the Joe Martin Stage Race.
The first-year Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team rider was edged out by former WorldTour racer Sebastian Haedo (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) in a photo finish at the end of the 176-kilometer race that started and finished in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Haedo, 33, earned his third career stage win in as many years at the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour event while denying one from the 20-year-old from Portugal who is racing in the United States for the first time.
Oliveira said the result - Axeon Hagens Berman's second runner-up finish Friday after Chris Lawless took second at Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux in Belgium hours before - left him with mixed feelings.
"On one side, I am happy for being there at the finish. It means I am in good condition," he said. "But on the other side, to lose by centimeters is very frustrating. I was so very close to my first UCI victory."
Axeon Hagens Sport Director Jeff Louder called it a "tremendous" result for the track specialist who missed half of the 2016 season after breaking his femur.
"It is always heart-breaking to be so close," Louder said. "But at the same time, Rui was not even walking that long ago. So to turn around and be on the podium of a UCI race is really great moving forward."
After the day's breakaway was swept up in the final 10 kilometers, Oliveira said he got in position for a finish that the team had surveyed by car Thursday night.
"I was going to lead out Ricey (Michael Rice), but the finish was really confusing in the last kilometer because there were so many corners," he said. "Suddenly there was a gap of three guys and I was one of them. I was wondering if I should wait or stay there. I think I made the right decision to be in the first group. When the first guy launched his sprint, I launched mine too. I gained a few meters on him and was thinking maybe I could win. I was giving everything I could to try to win, and the line was coming, coming, coming. But in the last five meters, I came up just short."
Rice, who finished seventh and in the same time as the stage winner, said the long uphill drag to the finish line certainly suited him. The 21-year-old Australian won his first race of the season last Sunday at the San Dimas Stage Race.
"Rui and I were both well-positioned and then the last 500 meters, I got a bit lost in the chaos of the race," he said. "That is just the way racing goes. You can't win every time. The boys worked well in the final and we have two more opportunities the next two days. Plus, the morale has been good."
Heading into Saturday's 176-km road race, Stage 1 winner Adam De Vos (Rally Cycling) is still in the race lead, but tied on time with Gavin Mannion (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team) and Robert Britton (also of Rally Cycling).
Oliveira is best-placed overall for Axeon Hagens Berman, in 14th place, 24 seconds back. He was originally listed as sitting in 18th place, 27 seconds behind. But several hours after the race, the finish times of more than 70 riders who crossed the line after Rice were revised. Officials determined that enough of gap opened up ahead of Mannion, who finished eighth, to add three seconds to those riders' times. The change also put Oliveira only 10 seconds out of the lead in the "best young rider" classification.
Louder said the finish of Saturday's race - which is different than last year's Stage 3 - provides an opportunity for the pure sprinters.
"It is on big, straight roads right into town," he said. "It is a real bunch sprint type of finale. So it will be interesting. It will be the big boys sprinting, for sure."
Header photo of Rui Oliveira by Catherine Fegan-Kim/Cotton Sox Photography.