Australian cyclist Damien Howson leads at Herald Sun Tour

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australian cyclist Damien Howson took the lead in the Herald Sun Tour after winning the grueling opening Falls Creek stage on Thursday, leaving three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome in sixth place.

Howson leads Orica-Scott teammate Esteban Chaves and Froome by more than a minute. It was the first professional win for Howson, the 2013 under-23 world time-trial champion.

The stage had been billed as a duel between Froome and Chaves, the two best climbers in the field.

But Howson and Froome's Team Sky teammate Kenny Elissonde broke clear of the main group midway up the 29-kilometer climb to the finish at Falls Creek that highlighted the 174-kilometer opening stage from Wangaratta.

Once they caught leader Steve Lampier of Britain, the pair continued building a lead. Howson then attacked inside the last three kilometers and won by 32 seconds.

Lampier's Australian teammate Jai Hindley also had a strong opening day, catching and then passing Elissonde for second place.

Elissonde finished third at 47 seconds, while Australian Michael Storer was fourth and Chaves was fifth at a minute and 10 seconds.

Froome was a second further back in the sixth spot.

Howson leads Hindley overall by 38 seconds and Elissonde is third at 53 seconds.

The Tour concludes Sunday with a hilly last stage at Kinglake north of Melbourne.

"Team Sky are one of the world's strongest teams, so I guarantee they are going to throw everything they have (at us)," Howson said. "There's still a lot of tough stages to come, but I also have a very strong team behind me."