Never stop believing in victory. That’s the message delivered by Cameron Meyer in the final moments of the 2021 Australian road cycling championships. Here’s an overview of some highlights of the #RoadNats.
If you were there, you can tell me a lot more. But from the comfort of my lounge (and, sometimes, my office chair), it looked pretty cool. The #RoadNats – as they’ve annoyingly become known, as this title robs the event of the championship prestige it deserves – were contested in February this year.
A different timeslot, same course, and plenty of intrigue.
In 2021 the nationals were a showcase of our sport and an opportunity for AusCycling to stand up and shout: ‘Hey, look at me! This sport is beautiful.’
There may have been a few big names missing but all the riders who did compete put on a great show. The #RoadNats lure us in and give us a jolt: racing is on again, let’s settle into the rhythm of the season…
Okay, this year, it doesn’t flow quite like we’re used to. There’s no onwards-to-the-TDU dance, and it may be some time before we see the green and gold jerseys on display in competition (even if there is ‘The Warnie’ next weekend and again it’ll be on SBS).
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
To those pro riders who are now packing and preparing for the magical mystery trip to their respective bases in Europe: all the best, safe travels, be strong… don’t cough, etc.
To those with expectations of Olympic competition: fingers crossed for the miracle the IOC is still planning to pull off – and thanks for giving us the chance to see you in action before the bigger rendezvous you’ve been dreaming of for many years already.
To the race organisers and broadcast crew: bravo on making it all happen and bringing the action to our screens.
And to guys like Jean-Pierre Ronco, who diligently sent images day-after-day, allowing us to examine the details of the racing, thank you sincerely for your professionalism and commitment. Cyclists and fans and sponsors alike owe you more gratitude than you receive.
SBS: The Cycling Network
I hope that the ratings for SBS’s broadcast provide good figures because the large cast of riders put on a display that was captivating, courageous and complete. The images, shown at prime time on the main channel of the national broadcaster, reminded us of what it’s like to see elite cyclists in action.
It was fun. The racing was compelling, the commentary informative, and the images evoked memories of what the RoadNats were like in The Before Time.
There seemed to be a carnival atmosphere, albeit the typically subdued one of the COVID era. For a few hours at least, we forgot about the virus and the changes that began being imposed around a year ago because of the pandemic.
We watched riders of all shapes and sizes – with a wide range of ages, with or without team allegiances – do what they could to eke out of bit of cycling glory.
It might be an OIympic year, again. (Or it might not be… we’ll wait to see if the IOC can pull off their ambitious plans.) But in 2021 the RoadNats were more than an audition for selection. Rather, there was racing for gold medals and a chance for one generation to emerge on the opening day of the championships and show us the depth that exists for young cycling talent in Australia.
Then, on the final day, a couple of seasoned veterans demonstrated that clever tactics and good team support are still a huge asset in a sport that is as random as road cycling can be.
Youth vs Experience
It could be argued that the elite TT winners – two 20-year-olds who got their starts in cycling thanks to the junior clinic at the famous Brunswick Cycling Club, Sarah Gigante and Luke Plapp – were the strongest in their respective fields on Sunday.
They would finish seventh and 17th, respectively, in their road races but those results don’t accurately explain their contributions to the contest.
Gigante was isolated against the force of four from Team BikeExchange in the first race on Sunday. Try as she did, on every single ascent of Mount Buningyong, Gigante could only bite little chunks of time off the advantage amassed by Sarah Roy and her very early attack in the women’s road race.
Up and down the hill nine times they went in the women’s contest (for a total race distance of 104.4km), and each time Gigante danced to the front of the chase group. Each time she was shadowed by others. Each time it was Grace Brown who effectively told her, ‘Yes Sarah, we know you’re strong, but we’re not going to help you chase.’
Up ahead was Roy and we watched her tap away for a few hours. She pedalled with power and persistence, but the omnipresent threat of cramp and/or fatigue never made her bid for a breakaway win a formality. At any moment, it seemed, she could have surrendered to the pain of a sustained effort and the peloton would have snuffed out her moment in the spotlight without hesitation.
It’s because of the sheer fragility of racing in a season when racing is relatively rare that we really didn’t know who would triumph.
Roy looked solid but would it last?
Meanwhile, the young star of the peloton, Gigante, never conceded. But on her own, on such a course, after the week she’d already had… it was too much.
For Gigante to have triumphed, it would have taken more than her freakish physiology. Quite simply, she needed support and she didn’t have it.
If Roy faltered, her team-mate – the eventual runner-up, Grace Brown – would have been there to take up the slack. And, of course, there were more Team BikeExchange recruits in the mix too with Lucy Kennedy also ready, willing and able.
Gigante was the strongest in the peloton, at least that’s how it seemed, but she wasn’t going to win yesterday.
It was Roy’s destiny to pull off a coup. The cramp never came. Her persistence overcame the pain. Her solid advantage of over four minutes dwindled rapidly at the end, but still she won by over a minute and we could enjoy a remarkable ride that finished at midday.
While Sarah Roy savoured being the oldest elite winner of the 2021 championships, the men’s field rolled onto the circuit in Buningyong. And then, at lunchtime on a Sunday, it was showtime! Again.
Meyer’s remarkable title defence
For four hours and 39 minutes we watched and wondered. Who would it be?
The men’s event is always an exciting contest. It traditionally lives up to the hype and expectation of an early-season battle of the best. In 2021, not everyone could be there. It may have been a field compromised by COVID and the associated travel restrictions, but the contest was compelling to the very, very end!
With a lap to go, if you picked Cameron Meyer for the win, take a bow… your nomination may have been obvious, for he is one of the most gifted riders of his generation, but it seemed he’d be outclassed by the new generation of stars to emerge from the national track cycling program.
Meyer has shown his glorious pedalling action and stunning power over and over and over again in races on road and track for years. We know what he’s capable of. We know he’s good and should never be discounted…
Still, before the veteran pulled off his stunning coup – thanks largely to the efforts of his BikeExchange team-mate, fellow West Australian Luke Durbridge – there were multiple displays of grit by the young generation.
Again, the winner of the TT seemed like he was one of the strongest in the road race. Again, a 20-year-old from Brunswick would light up the screen and show himself on SBS. Again, we were reminded that Luke Plapp is destined to become a cycling superstar. Again, we got to see the glorious, efficient pedalling action from a young Aussie who has Olympic aspirations on the track and pro contract offers from a range of WorldTour teams.
Again, the BikeExchange team spoiled the hopes of others.
The Plapp attack with 64km to go was only one example of the impressive riding by the Aussie team pursuit boys. It came after hours of watching the pointy-toed powerful pedalling brilliance of Sam Welsford who had gone in an ambitious early move. Doomed as it was, it was still great to watch. And even though a course like that in Buningyong doesn’t suit a rider with Welsford’s stature, his rivals didn’t dare take a chance and give him any advantage.
It’s not a high mountain pass but racing up that hill takes its toll. The men covered 185.6km, 16 laps of the course, 16 ascents of that hill… and Welsford would eventually succumb but not until he’d given Plapp, his team pursuit colleague, strong support and a few huge turns of pace before the 20-year-old set off on his impressive solo bid.
Settle in, it seemed, once Plapp had scampered. We’re going to watch this one through to the end… that’s what I was thinking. And so, I put the kettle on and got a cuppa ready for the finale.
By the time I was back in front of the tellie, the script had changed. Plapp’s attack wouldn’t make it to the end. He was caught by a group containing another from the pursuit squad, Kelland O’Brien, and the InForm TMX Make team seemed assured of success.
Repeating the gesture by Welsford, Plapp pushed the pace until O’Brien could take charge.
There were others in the mix and mentions are due for everyone in the top order of the result sheet. There’s a list of names that deserve greater attention: Meyer, of course, but also Kell O’Brien, Scott Bowden, Nick White, Jesse Ewart, James Whelan… and then the likes of RoadNats regulars Mark O’Brien, Tim Roe and Chris Harper.
Each of these riders added something to the contest on Sunday afternoon. But the man who changed the order of the podium was, for me, the rider of the championships: Luke Durbridge.
Durbo, the magician…!
In the time trial on Wednesday, the defending TT champion got beaten by the upstart in the elite ranks: Plapp first, ‘Durbo’ second… such is life. The experienced West Australian has won national titles before. He’s won world titles too, and he has been the star of the abbreviated ‘Summer of Cycling’.
Luke Durbridge lost the TT, but he never stopped racing, and he sacrificed himself completely in both the criterium on Friday and road race on Sunday to ensure that a team-mate earned the gold medal. The first beneficiary was Kaden Groves in the crit, and then Meyer in the road race.
The result tells us Meyer is the champion, but there were other winners in the elite men’s road race.
Kelland O’Brien won the hearts of everyone who watched the race. He was cool, calm, composed, and in control throughout the race. He marked moves with ease, climbed with panache, and eventually attacked with brute force. It seemed certain that the gold medal was his.
It wasn’t easy but he had opened up The Winning Gap on that long drag to the finish line. He knew it wasn’t a formality. He knew he had to keep pushing. He knew they were chasing. He knew Durbo was on a mission. He knew he had timed it well. He knows he’s got staying power. He knows he did everything right… but then came the final 50 metres.
Kelland O’Brien almost had the gold medal around his neck but Durbo destroyed himself and delivered Cam Meyer to the line for an unlikely sprint.
The defending champion got there first. And TV viewers around Australia stared at the screen gobsmacked.
How did that happen?!
What a race. What a finish. It was a stunning triumph that even surprised the bloke who pulled it off.
“Somehow we just pulled off a miracle,” he said, moments after singing the praise of Durbo the magician. “I thought we were gone and buried. I have no idea how to explain that.”
It was a win for the ages, one that offers inspiration for anyone who believes they’ve been beaten. Never stop believing. Miracles can happen.
– By Rob Arnold