Gippsland was an overwhelming success for Team Budget Forklifts with the Overall Win, Team Classification and Sprint Classification and a Stage Win being shared out amongst our tight knit team. Not to mention a further two riders in the top ten and multiple podium spots on individual stages. It was the sort of result that makes all the sacrifices, the long days of training, time away from friends and family and the time off work, seem worthwhile.
This year’s tour, the ninth edition of the race kicked off on Wednesday on Phillip Island with a morning criterium. This was followed by an afternoon circuit race on the famous Phillip Island GP Circuit. After a bit of time off the bike over winter and some pretty cold weather in my home townof Christchurch, I was feeling a bit underdone and low on time spent riding at intensity coming into the tour. It was no surprise then that the fast and furious thirty lap opening criterium came as quite a shock to the system. Held on a short but relatively straight forward 1.4km circuit that finished along waterfront, the bunch stayed together the whole way, although a couple of crashes on the closing laps wrecked a bit of havoc. Unfortunately I wasn’t much use to my team in this stage, although our team sprinter Jesse seemingly didn’t need a lot of assistance, picking up a sprint prime and then narrowly losing the stage by mere milimeters in a photo finish to Anthony Giacoppo.
The Phillip Island GP venue was an amazing place to race, with awesome vistas and a home straight that seemingly dropped off into the Tasman Sea. Unfortunately the racing itself wasn’t very inspiring and I couldn’t help but think that the venue would be better suited to an Individual or Team Time Trial in future editions of the tour. The combination of a lightning fast road surface and wide open flowing corners made for an easy 67km bunch ride, with the peloton comfortably rolling along at high speeds with zero chance of anyone escaping off the front. Jesse again won the first prime after a long team leadout, but we lost our way a bit in the messy and hectic race finish and Jesse ended up fifth. Russell Gill won the stage after a fantastic job by his Euride team to lead him out.
Phillip Island GP Circuit
Thursday’s Stage Three was the first road stage of the tour, held on some awesome rolling roads from Leongatha to Yinnar. It was also perhaps the defining stage of the event with the winner coming from a break that finished with an almost two minute advantage over the main peloton. To my surprise I had great legs in this stage and after keeping it pretty low key in the opening stages I bridged across to a strong group soon after the first KOM climb of the day. This group in turn caught the leading trio on the road and the winning move of ten was formed.
Present were three riders from Budget Forklifts – Jack Anderson, Blair Windsor and myself, along with two from Genesys – Nathan Earle and Jai Crawford, two from Search to Retain – Oliver Kent-Spark and Eric Sheppard, two from Euride – Alex Edmondson and Harry Carpenter as well as AlexMorgan from VIS. Outnumbered, and uncharacteristically disadvantaged, the Genesys pair sat on the move and this inspired me to attack off the front solo with around twenty kilometres to run. My advantage hovered at around twenty to thirty seconds but ultimately a steep, short climb in the final five kilometres proved my undoing, breaking my rhythm and seeing my rejoined by the chasing group soon after. Morgan also had a dangerous hit out in the final kilometres but he too was caught, in sight of the line as the sprint opened up. In the final dash to the line, the London Olympian Edmondson had too much speed for us all, winning comfortably over Jack while behind, I still had enough gas in the tank to take third and some precious bonus seconds for GC. This group of ten were now firmly the top ten overall, with Edmonson inheriting the yellow jersey.
The first of two stages on Friday, Stage Four was a 30 lap criterium in Sale around a fast and rectangular 1.2km circuit. The wind was the major feature of the stage with strong crosswinds putting the field hard against the gutter and barriers on the long front and back straights. There were several decent break away attempts during the stage including a strong solo move by my team mate Luck Ockerby in the final laps, but in the end it was another frantic bunch finish. Jack, Jesse and I were held up and came close to touching down as a rider from the Euride team overcooked a corner right in front of us. Luckily the event was without consequence as we were awarded bunch time, although it meant Jesse was unable to contest the finish, won again by Giacoppo. On the positive side however, Jesse had again managed to collect points in the early sprint prime, adding to his lead in the Green Jersey competition.
Marked as potentially the hardest stage of the tour by our team in the pre-tour meeting, the afternoon’s Stage Five was a 98km rolling road race from Sale to Licola. Featuring two hard categorised climbs in the final thirty kilometres of the stage as well as several hard cross wind sections, the strong climbing outfit of Genesys were expected to be the aggressors of the stage and they did not disappoint. After seemingly taking up the role of the yellow jersey team, controlling the front of the race all day, Genesys softened the field over the first climb with a hard tempo before setting Nathan Earle loose in a textbook attack up the final climb.
Team Budget Forklifts however were up to task. In an impressive display of team strength and strategy, we settled into our own tempo, cresting the final climb with six of our riders still present and Earle within sight. By this stage in the race, the skies had opened up, rain was falling and temperatures were plummeting. After a wet and cold descent off the climb, I found myself in a group of five with Earle just in front. Jack was there with me and the pair of us was doing the majority of the work to bring back the leader. It wasn’t the ideal situation dragging the other riders to thefinish so Jack decided to attack up a sharp climb as we entered five kilometres to go. In a dramatic finish and with Morgan from VIS for company, Jack caught and passed Earle as the finish line came into sight, winning the stage and taking the yellow jersey in the process. I finished close behind, having been caught by a larger group that contained most of my team mates, ten seconds down on the stage.
It was an epic stage and our whole team was rightly buzzing. The mood slightly soured that evening however as the manager of another team had only now, following the stage, decided to dispute the decision to award Jack and I bunch time in the morning criterium. The results did not change however, Jack remained in yellow and our team now had the big task of defending his jersey with three stages remaining.
Saturday was another double stage day, kicking off with what was definitely the most technically demanding criterium of the tour. The 1.2km “Figure 8 course” in Lakes Entrance possibly had more time spent cornering than pedalling. With three riders in the top ten, plus Jesse in the green jersey, combined with another two riders in the top twenty, we managed to have our entire team in the front quarter of the grid as we went through the standard NRS criterium call up process. This proved invaluable as it enabled our entire team to control the race from the front, for the duration of the race. The front is the easiest place to ride in such a technical event and our team held position perfectly, despite the efforts of an opposition team captain who tried his best to make a nuisance of himself and upset our rhythm. In the end it was Giacoppo from Genesys who snuck through for the win but more importantly for us Jack was close behind in sixth place having conceded none of his advantage.
Stage Seven in the afternoon was the final road stage of the tour. It was rolling 70km course from Lakes Entrance to Metung with two categorised climbs and moderate winds. In combination with some tired legs in the peloton, it promised to be a tough stage. Jack went into the stage with only a six second advantage over Earle, so the time bonuses on offer for the first sprint, the second climb as well as at the finish were very important. Again our team rode from the front, controlling the race until the first sprint which Jesse again won, although Earle managed to take third and claw backa single second. From here we were happy to see a breakaway of non-contenders slip off the front and absorb the remaining bonus seconds. Fellow kiwi Joe Cooper won the stage from such a group, while behind Jack neutralised a strong attack by Earle up the final climb and we all finished in the reduced peloton together.
And so it was onto the final stage, another 30 lap criterium, this time in Traralgon on a tough 1.35km hotdog circuit that featured a nasty wee climb on the front straight and long downhill rear straight. With a five second deficit to Jack and no time bonuses on offer apart from at the stage finish, Earle needed to either win the stage or ride away from Jack to win the tour. Again our team controlled the front brilliantly, riding a solid tempo and only expending effort to chase riders who would threaten Jack’s lead. As expected, the race finished in a bunch sprint, won by Edmondson of Euride, his second stage win of the tour. Earle was impressive to finish second, but Jack was close behind, despite being on the receiving end of a nasty chop by Giacoppo through the final corner. End result, Jack won the tour by a single second.
It was an obviously thrilling outcome to the Tour of Gippsland for Team Budget Forklifts, one that showcased both the class of our team leader Jack Anderson and the strength of our team as a whole. It was nice to repay the support of our amazing array of sponsors and the result will no doubt give us a lot of confidence heading into the second half of the NRS Series.
Now back in New Zealand, I won’t be staying home for long. Next week I’m off to the Tour of the Great South Coast, with the Tour of the Murray River soon after. While the travel has become a bit tedious, there are certainly much worse places to travel too and I’m really looking forward toa couple of days off in my favourite city of Melbourne in between the races.