Words: Kelvin Rundle
When January rolls around eyes turn to Buninyong, Victoria for super Sunday and the Australian National Road Championships.
Across the ditch in the Art Deco Capital of the World, Napier and taking in the spectacular wine country that is Hawkes Bay is the smaller but just as gruelling New Zealand Road Championships.
With the #RoxsoltAttaquer team assembled on both sides of the ditch this is the story of Nationals Weekend.
For Abby Sneddon and Rylee McMullen this would be their first attempt at their respective National titles. Abby would tackle Buninyong as her teammate, Rylee, took on New Zealand's best.
The opportunity to benchmark against the countries' best represents a rare opportunity for amateurs who fit training around work to race against European based Pros, many of whom have represented their country at World Championships and Olympics.
Make no mistake, the courses for Nationals are brutal and the attrition rate is high. Just making it past halfway, let alone finishing often places you in an elite group of less than 40 fellow riders, the best of the best, the cream rises to the top.
For Josephine Meldgaard, Ruby Livingstone and Sharlotte Lucas, all three have been here before: "Where do I sit? Can I improve on last year? Will lady luck let me reach the podium?"
That’s the problem with Nationals. It is the premium day, cruel enough on its own but made all the more difficult by being placed just a few days after season start and the New Year. There's no thoughts about simply making the finish, every rider is hungry to beat the best and finish at the top, or at least on the podium.
Again, amateurs racing professionals for the prized title and elusive national jersey.
For Lydia Rippon, this is daunting. A year ago even walking was hard. Glandular Fever had rolled into Chronic Fatigue. Even dreaming about cycling was tiring. Over a year and not being able to turn the pedals, just as you signed with a new team and made the transition from juniors to elite.
Coming back is hard. The weight of expectation of not letting down family and friends, the "what ifs?", the not knowing where you're at form-wise. The comeback is a nerve wracking combination of the debut and the hunger all rolled into one.
Things kicked off on Wednesday evening in a hot and windy Ballarat. On paper the hotdog criterium circuit doesn’t look like much but the off-camber bottom corner into that hill with the wind and the heat sucks the life out of you. The race took its toll with only 27 out of the 42 starters finishing.
With the constant attacks the elastic snapped with Jess Allen (Orica Scott) riding away for a solo win from the chase group and the bunch sprinting for 12th. A relieved Abby rolled across the line in the bunch taking 23rd.
Friday was warm but the wind was low as Rylee rolled off the start line for the Time Trial in New Zealand. The course was only 20km but with two significant climbs and conducted on open roads with no escort vehicle this is a tough course to get around with speed.
Her debut resulted in 3rd, just a mere 14 seconds away from 1st in the Women’s U23 and a top-10 in the Elite. The unknown rider in her first championships was now known. First Impression made.
For Sharlotte the wind had collected it thoughts and made its presence felt adding resistance to the first climb. In spite of the elements she finished 4th place. Just off the podium, denied for another year to rub shoulders with the professional riders on the steps. How can success be so bitter?
The Big Loop and The Little Loops
The road course for New Zealand starts with a big (50km) loop out into wine country from Napier. It’s a tough loop on open roads (no road closure). The race can’t be won on the big loop, it can only be lost.
Let the break go, don’t panic, let the pro riders close the gap, control the race and be patient for the little loops. The little loop has two big (steep) but short climbs, there's a party on the first and a feedzone on the second. The race is being shown live on the big screens around Napier and streamed on the net.
Attack after attack, splits and rejoins on and after each climb. 5 times around the little loop and then one flat loop before the finish. 4th again for Sharlotte. Initial disappointment. Success is a cruel mistress. The hunger continues.
The bunch sprint runs for 5th. Lydia takes 8th in the kick. Enough for 3rd in the Women’s U23. What a comeback. We finish in New Zealand with two 3rds and two 4ths and everyone is motivated by the results.
It’s hot, steamy and early in Buninyong. 10 laps of a course that is either uphill or downhill. It took pro rider Chloe Hosking (Ale) 5 times to finish this race. It’s a day of yo-yo, dropped on the climbs as the pros launch attack after attack, and chase back on for the descents.
Praying for the formula of this race to begin. Wanting the early break to be establish and for the pelo to sit up and wait for lap 7. It isn’t to be. It seems for 2017 that new race rules are in place. After 6 laps for Abby the elastic snaps and so comes the company of being a DNF along with 26 other starters. Not today, but the hunger for the season ahead is there.