NRS Tour of Murray

A race for the sprinters, the Tour of Murray River consisted of seven stages over six days of racing. With flat terrain, the racing was likely to mostly finish with bunch sprints and this year, had only one double staged day, featuring a criterium in the morning and a road race in the afternoon.

Lining up for the Avanti Racing Team were Tom Robinson, Jack Beckinsale, Aaron Donnelly, Mitch Lovelock-Fay, Scott Law, Neil van der Ploeg, Anthony Giacappo and myself.

The first day saw some great success for Avanti with the boys leading me out perfectly to set me up for the win and see Neil van der Ploeg hold on for second place also. I was leading the Green and Yellow Jersey’s as well, so it was a job well done on stage one.

Unfortunately though, not everything went to plan, with teammate Anthony Giacappo suffering a hamstring injury. It had inflamed early on in the stage, forcing him to retire from the Tour. It was sad to see him leave so soon, but we kept our focus as best we could with five days still to go.

Joining the team on Tour was our Owner and Director of the Avanti Racing Team, Andrew (ACJ), masseur Nunny, Sports scientist Tim and the handy-man Neil.

For our team, it’s pretty nice to know we’re supported after each stage, by receiving a massage, having your bike serviced and cleaned, plus a team dinner cooked once all the recovery and unpacking is done. We spent two nights at each place, travelling a short distance to some stages, which wasn’t too bad at all in the big team bus.

I was feeling great, in my first yellow jersey leading an NRS tour, and I had the ultimate support from my teammates.

Self-belief and motivation were at an all time high after stage one and during stage two, there was no-way I was going to loose the yellow jersey!
It was a tough criterium race, 33km and the main field were strung out for most of the race. I was riding very good position, an important skill to master when racing in a bunch of 150 riders, and it was set for a bunch sprint finish.

A messy last lap was hectic but the boys did a great job to keep me at the front, sprinting early from the bottom corner to place third. A slight jump of my gears with 100m to go derailed my sprint, loosing some ground, but a podium place was enough to hold onto the yellow and green jersey’s going into stage three.

Racing your bike is one area to focus on, but there is plenty more to it and for me, studying the race booklet and course is one of those other things.
Along with weather conditions, I like to listen to the information given from ACJ at team meetings and really understand how the elements are going to affect us in the race itself. Specific notes on our stems help us to remember when the next sprint is or what directional turn is coming up so we can prepare for it in advanced. 

A good example is of stage three; when the winds were a lot higher than what we’d previously experienced and some open crosswind roads split the bunch apart.

An aggressive approach to the first intermediate time bonus sprint from other teams resulted in a 17-man breakaway group establishing itself off the front and riding away.

I was joined by Scott Law and Neil van der Ploeg, but Team Budget had five riders so we where outnumbered.

A very tactical last 20km’s resulted in a number of small attacks going clear off the front, but some very hard and determined chasing from Scott and Neil inside the final kilometers saw an opportunity for another stage win.

I wasn’t going to let them down either, overpowering the remaining breakaway companions and getting the job done for the team. It was one of my best wins to-date. It was a terrific team performance by the whole team, I couldn’t have done it without the boys!

We survived another day in yellow, the hard work paying off and some well-earned recovery in the evening.

Going into stage four, even more opportunities to split the bunch presented itself, as the winds were to be even stronger and the roads much harder to shelter on.

Winning the first time bonus sprint at the 47km mark and collecting another three seconds on my nearest rival Jesse Kerrison was a massive gain for us, this tour is always decided on a few seconds so our aim to win that was achieved.

It wasn’t long before the pace increased and the main field split into pieces. Our select front group saw five of us represented and everything was going to plan.

With 10km’s to go, the boys took up the pace making with Team Budget in an attempt to bring back the solo leader on the road. The boys were making progress comfortably before confusion circled around the small bunch and riders began attacking each other. I didn’t know what was going on, there were still 7km’s to race, right?

Funnily enough, only a few members of the breakaway group knew about a last minute decision change to the finish location, which was moved back to the 5km mark due to a bush fire.

In the middle of the bunch, I was preparing for what I thought was five kilometres to go, but after crossing a white line across the road, I realised it was the new finishing line and the race was over. To say I was confused is an understatement.

Safety first, the officials made the right call, it just wasn’t conveyed through the bunch as well as it could have been.  On the positive, we all finished safely, I retained the yellow and green jersey’s and picked up a handy 3 extra bonus seconds on the overall general classification.

If stage five could have been a demonstration of how to control the lead whilst in yellow, I’d have given us a high score. The problem was, that demonstration only lasted for the first 101 out of the 104km race with a freak crash seeing my bike slide away from underneath me on the wet, sharp right-hander.

Speed may have been a factor but it was the greasy wet road for sure, presumably inside the last 3km, meaning I’d get bunch time. My chain was off and I dint have time to think. My teammate Aaron gave me his bike and I chased down the leaders as best I could, losing 7 seconds to my rivals.

All of this inside the final ‘3km’ of the stage. It was crazy, disappointing and unfortunate. A decision to award me bunch time was overturned by a protest from Team Budget who said the corner was at 3.2km to go and not 3km. It was annoying to hear that Budget had argued the point and the commissaries ruling had been changed.

You would think rider etiquette would apply to the yellow jersey who’d crashed inside the last few kilometers, and there had been a break of 10 riders up the road anyway. Obviously not.

A lead now cut down to five seconds, it was game on for stage six!

I was feeling good, slight grazes affecting very little of my body and my legs were going very well. Only two days remained and it was another day we’d try and let a breakaway go in the hope of them winning the stage and taking away any time bonuses on offer.

Both Jesse and I missed out on the first time bonuses up for grabs and when the break established, and I knew our day was going to plan.
The boys were riding well, committed to our yellow jersey defense and approaching the last few kilometers, I was relieved to get through the stage in one piece.

I made sure I was out of trouble, winning the bunch sprint home behind the 10 breakaway riders who took the line honors. One day was all that was left and we still retained the yellow and green jerseys that we’d worn since day one.

One of the many joys about cycling is that it is so unpredictable and anything can happen. Sometimes, it can fall in your favor when you least expect it, and other times, it can bite you hard. The final day of racing was set to be a cracker with my lead only five seconds to Jesse and six seconds to Rapha in third. There were six seconds up for grabs as bonus for winning the stage, which meant I had to finish outside the top four and for Jesse or Rapha to take line honors and win overall.

In similar style to the most successful win of my career, the result was exactly that. In Janurary at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic, I went into the final day second place overall.

If Caleb Ewan won the final stage and I had placed outside top three, he would have won overall. If the yellow jersey wearer Zak Dempster had placed second, he would retain his jersey. For me to win, I needed to beat Zak and make sure Caleb only beat me by one position. It was unpredictable, but when I was drag racing Zak to the finish line, behind Caleb who had won the stage, there was no way I was going to finish any other place other than second!!! I won the Bay Crits in what was a historic finish, the top three leaders of the series fighting it out on the final sprint finish, it was awesome and I will never forget it.

I wish that scenario didn’t repeat itself on the final day of the Tour of Murray, because to start my second half of the season with another overall win, would be a pretty solid result. 

Unfortunately for me, the boys did everything right throughout the race and on the final lap, it was just a shame to see my chain jump off the front chain ring and lose momentum to see the race slip out of my hands before me. I avoided a collision with the gutter and a tree, whilst veering sideways trying to put my chain back on.

I found out when I crossed the line that Jesse had won the stage, enough to win the yellow jersey. I probably would have got bunch time, but because I kept it upright, I finished in the ’10 second’ group and dropped to third overall.

It was very heart breaking to see a certain overall victory and a potential final stage victory slip through my hands like it did. I couldn’t do anything to change it. I was so disappointed for my teammates who hadn’t skipped a beat all week and all day. I was devastated, but controlled it quite well.

To be a champion, it’s not all about winning. It may have been a very unfortunate end to what was a successful tour, but wearing the yellow and green jersey’s from start to finish (well, 300m before the finish to be precise), plus two stage wins and a third placing is something to hold our heads high about and go into the next race with a lot of confidence.

I didn’t need anymore fuel to add to my fire, but all I can say is, BRING ON THE TOUR OF GREAT SOUTH COAST!

Photo credits: Neil Walker - Avnti Racing Team, Staff member


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