Sixty-three starters took to the startline under blue skies and sunny conditions for the 102km race that was made up of 10 x 10.2km circuits. It’s was always going to be a race of attrition, with the infamous Mt. Bunninyong climb taking it out of your legs lap by lap.
I came to Buninyong as one of the pre-race favourites. It can be a difficult position to be in because you can put extra pressure on yourself and if you don’t come up with the win — or if you happen to have a bad day — then it can be difficult mentally.
Luckily for me I have been in this position a few times before and I deal with it a lot better than I use to. It’s nice to know that people notice your performances and think you are capable of winning. But I am also much more confident in my own abilities and I don’t get too worked up about what everyone else is saying. Being in the game for some time I’ve learnt to understand most bike races aren’t going to pan out exactly how you think.
I came into the race feeling strong and in good form straight off of the Bay Crits where I had many good results.
I had come to Buninyong to race for the gold. I was confident with where I was at but I also knew it was going to be a super difficult task to take on the likes of Orica-AIS as I only had one other teammate in the race, Beth Duryea. During the season Beth is our team physio/super soigneur but she was in good condition and happy to help me for as long as she could be at the front of the race.
The race got off to a very relaxed start as we all rolled around together for the first lap with no-one willing to attempt a move off the front. This soon changed when Lisa Jacobs (VIS) attacked on the second time up the climb.
We were happy to let Jacobs go off the front solo and she built up a lead quickly. Back in the peloton the pace remained calm and relaxed for a few more laps — the calm before the storm. Bridie O’Donnell (Total Rush) went in pursuit of Jacobs on the backside of the course on lap 4 as Jacobs continued to put time into the peloton.
My former team Orica-AIS sprung into action a short time later. Being the dominant team in the race it was a waiting game to see what they would do and how they would play their cards.
The gap to Jacobs had grown to almost four minutes and with O’Donnell riding across it was time for the Orica girls to take charge.
Jessie Maclean was the first cab off of the rank for the team and this finally caused a reaction from the peloton. Maclean managed to make contact with O’Donnell and they worked together to chase the lone leader.
With an Orica-AIS rider up the road some of the other pre-race favourites started to get nervous — we all knew that any Orica-AIS rider at the front of the race would be supported by their teammates and the team would only follow moves in the bunch.
Katrin Garfoot, Miranda Griffith (Vanderkitten), Jo Hogan and Taryn Heather (Bigla) started to apply pressure at the front of the peloton as they didn’t want to risk an Orica-AIS rider having too much of a gap and be unable to bring them back.
This was great for me and coming into the race I was hoping the biggest non-Orica favourites would race this way. I sat back in the group, watched them work and continued to save my energy while they used theirs.
The racing really heated up on lap 6 of 10 as Shara Gillow (Orica-AIS) launched an attack as we came through the start/finish. She’d been hoping to jump across to join her teammate Maclean but she was quickly marked.
This move by Gillow caused the peloton to reduce in size and with the race approaching the business end it was becoming much more difficult to break free.
By the time the peloton had reached the top of the climb for the sixth time Maclean and O’Donnell were back in the group and only Jacobs remained off the front.
Orica-AIS continued their aggressive racing — their ambition was to always have a rider on the attack, leaving everyone else with the responsibility of chasing.
Sure enough the next attack came, this time by reigning champion Gracie Elvin who put in a strong and well-timed move over the top of the climb to gain a gap over the peloton. This was a dangerous move — Elvin is clearly someone you don’t want to give too much space too.
She managed to make it across to Jacobs on the following lap up the climb but behind her the action was really picking up.
There were a few attacks and strong turns of pace by the likes of Garfoot, Hogan and Griffiths but every move was marked closely. On the second part of the climb Griffiths dug deep and put in a strong attack, managing to break free and gain a small advantage. The Vanderkitten rider remained in no-man’s-land for half a lap, stuck between the peloton and the two riders at the front, and was eventually caught by the chasing peloton.
I was biding my time, still feeling good and marking the moves that I needed to but still trying to take advantage of other riders chasing. When Miranda went away, I was a little bit boxed in but watching closely to see how she was going. She is a strong climber and would be hard to bring back if we gave her too much advantage so late in the race.
I was also at the point where I didn’t quite want to show my cards but I needed to make a move soon. Luckily Miranda struggled on the backside of the course and I was happier to have her back in the peloton and not have to worry about chasing her up the next climb.
With two laps to go Jacobs and Elvin had a 40-second gap over a group of 12 of us, including all the pre-race favourites. At the front Elvin had lost Jacobs on the climb but charged on solo. Garfoot attacked on the second part of the climb and then it was my turn to come out and play. I picked up the pace and covered Garfoot’s move. She was able to cover but the remainder of the group behind us lost contact.
Before too long we joined Elvin at the top of the climb after Jacobs had been swallowed up by the peloton further down the climb. Garfoot attacked once again over the top, hoping to catch Elvin and I off-guard with heavy legs but I was able to respond quickly and covered the move, with Elvin in tow.
I was happy with the move and wanted to make it work all the way through to the finish. But Elvin and Garfoot weren’t interested in helping me to the line. They both rolled through with short and soft turns for the most part and I was the only one that seemed really interested in pushing the move.
Behind us Jo Hogan and Miranda Griffiths had missed the move and they were leading a hard chase to catch the three of us at the head of the field. They caught us just as we reached the descent.
Amanda Spratt (Orica-AIS), a crafty attacker, continued the team’s aggressive riding and launched a move shortly before crossing the line with one lap to go. Spratt was trying to repeat her 2012 victory here at Buninyong but the rest of us weren’t about to let her ride away and claim the title that easily.
The final lap was make-or-break time. The pace had to be hard and aggressive to whittle down what remained of the select chase group if someone was to ride away solo for the win.
Spratt was holding a slim advantage at the front but it would be close if she would be able to reach the top of the final climb without getting caught. Hogan attacked at the base of the climb and I quickly covered the move. Garfoot went next before the left-hand turn on to Mt. Buninyong Rd but again it was left to me to cover the attack. I knew my time was running out and I had to make my move soon.
I tried one last hard attack on the final part of the climb but I just wasn’t able to go clear. I did continue to apply the pressure all the way to the top hoping to crack a few more girls instead of just sitting up. The move did catch Spratt just before we crested the top though, leaving only seven riders in the front group.
Orica-AIS still had two riders in that lead group and knew they needed a move to go solo if they wanted to win the race. Gillow and Spratt attacked one-two from the front group but I was determined not to let them go without me.
On the back straight before turning down the final ascent there was a lull in the pace. I could see Lauren Kitchen (Hitech Products) and Gracie Elvin not too far behind and I tried to tell the girls that the sprinters were coming. They seemed more worried about making it to the finish with the front group than trying to make a move to avoid Elvin and Kitchen being able to regain contact with the front group after being dropped on the climb.
This wasn’t good news for most of us girls at the front. Elvin and Kitchen are fast finishers and ones you don’t want to take to the line if you’re not confident in your sprinting abilities.
Gillow attacked once more just before the top of the final descent. I covered the move and together we opened a very slim advantage. As soon as I saw this I tried to take advantage of the gap but Gillow wouldn’t work with me — maybe she didn’t back herself in the final sprint against me and knew she had two other girls behind her to back her up.
Despite that we managed to hold our advantage all the way to the final left-hand turn on to the home straight with 3km remaining. But it was Amanda Spratt who chased us down and it was left to a group of nine girls in the race for gold.
It became a game of cat and mouse with Gillow at the head of the group as the rest of us shuffled for position for the final sprint. Katrin Garfoot and I were reduced to putting on our brakes as the finish approached — each of us wanted to be behind the other in the final sprint.
Gillow wound up the pace at the front and the sprint opened up with 300m to go as Elvin, Kitchen and Garfoot fought each other down the right-hand side in a drag-raced to the line. The rest of us couldn’t match their speed.
It was Elvin who was the fastest in the end to cap off a superb and hard-fought ride to take back-to-back titles — the first female to do so since Kathy Watt in the early 1990s.
For me personally I was disappointed not to be able to take the win and just miss out on the podium in 4th but there were many positives I was able to walk away with. I did everything right and raced the way I planned to, I was patient and made the moves when it counted. But coming in as a favourite certainly has its disadvantages: everyone wanted to mark me but didn’t seem to want to work with me. But that’s bike racing.
Credit to Orica-AIS — they used their strength and backed each other up and it was an impressive win by Gracie, being active in the race, getting dropped and then making it back and being able to sprint to the win.
I enjoyed the challenge and it gives me confidence for the season to know that I’m stepping up as a rider and learning to hold back and use my energy when it counts. Hopefully that will result in bigger and better results.
With the nationals done and dusted I’m off to California on Friday to join my Specialized-Lululemon teams mates at our first training camp. I’m super-excited to meet them all — we have some fun activities planned, lots of hard training and hanging out with our fabulous sponsors.
Then the season really begins. I will race the Ladies Tour of Qatar and then it’s on to Europe to pull out my winter woolies and tackle the Spring Classics, my favourite races of the season.