The Sam Miranda Tour of King Valley was held over the weekend in northern Victoria as part of the Subaru National Road Series (NRS).
Looping around the vineyards, wineries and punchy hills of the region, the Tour has a unique atmosphere that was on display over the three days of racing as the peloton tackled a time trial, tough dirt sections, gravel climb reminiscent of Strade Bianche (called 'Strade Nero') before punchy climbs on the final stage concluded the race.
The women's event was the first in the National Road Series since Battle on the Border in early June, where all but one stage was called off due to flooding so not everybody came in with top form after the long layoff.
Series leader Kate Perry (Specialized) was expected to be the one to beat, especially with a first stage test against the clock where she has been very strong, underlined by her finishing 4th in the nationals.
However, it was the new rider on the scene, 37 year-old surgeon Lisen Hockings who dealt best with the windy conditions and patchy rain to take the race lead by eight seconds over Perry with plenty of other contenders lurking within striking distance.
The Saturday saw the iconic 'Strade Nero' assault the peloton. The muddy potholes and ruts of the dirt roads caused plenty of problems but the strongest riders stayed together for the most part, which had the effect of neutralising the race after the time bonuses at the sprint and Queen of the Mountain (QOM) points had been contested.
Hockings and her Holden team-mates defended her lead well at those points and it was all-together coming into the flat, technical finish.
High5 Dreamteam's Rebecca Wiasak was first through the final two corners and held off the riders behind to take the win with her team-mate Kendelle Hodges coming through in second for an impressive 1-2. Kristy Glover of Bikebug-NextGen was next over the line for third.
The win moved Wiasak up to second overall, just 6 seconds shy of Hockings' lead, setting up a nail-biting final stage with Perry, Lucy Kennedy (High5 Dreamteam) and Ruth Corset (Rush Women's Cycling) tied 18 seconds in arrears.
With the hills, there was potential for the race to again result in a bunch sprint or be a more selective affair and it turned out to be the latter. The early sprint point was won by Wiasak to move her within a second of the lead and made it clear that Holden had to drop the world champion individual pursuiter on the climbs to win the race.
The strong climbers fought it out for the QOM time bonuses and there was some drama as Hockings nearly crashed sprinting for the top of the first climb but a speedy wheel change and chase back on with experienced team-mate Miranda Griffiths limited the damage.
With Ruth Corset and Lucy Kennedy splitting the biggest time bonuses both became very real threats to the lead of Hockings and on the final climb they created a gap over the summit and pushed the pace to try and make it the remaining 15 kilometres to the flat finish.
Hockings managed to valiantly chase back on to the lead group but with the time bonuses gained out on course, she was equal in the virtual standings with last year's NRS series winner Ruth Corset and it was clear that the race would be decided by time bonuses in the final sprint.
With the energy expended by the favorites marking each other Kate McIlroy (Specialized), the New Zealand triathlete, surprised to cross the line first with Queensland Academy of Sport youngster Jessica Pratt following her over the line. Lisen Hockings managed to edge out Ruth Corset in the sprint securing the overall title by the slim margin of two seconds.
"It was an interesting race with the virtual lead changing on the road," said Hockings. "It was a great race and the Holden girls really laid it all on the line today so I’m immensely relieved to have managed to hold it together on the finish line."
"I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet, it’s my third Subaru National Road Series race so it’s really exciting and I’m in a bit of disbelief because so much of today was based on the sprint and QOM points today so it’s really exciting."
"It was really interesting racing and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
High5 Dreamteam won most of the rest of the classifications in the race with QOM winner Lucy Kennedy, Rebecca Wiasak in the sprints classification and the whole team on the podium for the teams award.
Junior national champion Madeleine Fasnacht (Tasmania Institute of Sport) showed that she'll be in good form for junior worlds with a performance alongside the best female riders in Australia to take fifth overall and the young rider's jersey.
The Men's Tour
The first stage time trial saw New Zealand powerhouse Joe Cooper (Avanti IsoWhey Sports) obliterate the nine kilometre course in ten minutes ten seconds for an average speed of 53.5 kilometres over the distance.
With 24 seconds between him and his nearest challenger, Alex Porter (SASI) it was clear that it would take an almighty effort to overcome the classy New Zealander, especially with the support of his Avanti team, who had also won the previous two rounds of the NRS.
The 'Strade Nero' dirt and gravel climb stage saw Cooper having to come back from punctures on two separate occasions to rejoin the front group. With the racing hot throughout the day and riders falling off the back of the peloton, the pace was high and it was only a concerted joint effort between SASI and State of Matter/MAAP that managed to bring back Alex Porter (punctured) and Jesse Kerrison (dropped on climb) into contention for the win.
With the sprint finish, fast man Kerrison was favoured to take the win, but it was the retiring Pat Shaw (Avanti IsoWhey Sports) who emerged from behind, as Kerrison went wide on the final corner, to take the win. Kerrison almost clawed him back late but finished second with Ryan Christensen (Oliver's Real Food Racing) sprinting to third.
The race wasn't as tight for the general classification in the mens as the womens coming into the final stage and it instead saw a ding-dong battle for the minor podium positions and the King of the Mountains jersey between Pat Shaw and Ben Hill (Attaque Team Gusto) who attacked on all the categorised climbs to try and grab the bonus seconds and the mountains points.
Joe Cooper hit out on the final climb to crest the summit first and looked like he might try and press on for the win but he was caught by the chasers, who were then subsequently absorbed into the main bunch and it became apparent that the hills hadn't been enough to deter a bunch sprint.
On the final run into the line, the Subaru NSWIS riders lined to deliver their fast man, Scott Law, into the final corner with only 100 metres left to go and he came around with enough pace to hold off Pat Shaw for the win, with Shaw capping off an impressive all-around race with 2nd on the stage and the sprints jersey.
Cooper handily held onto his lead to win by 25 seconds over Alex Porter who also claimed the young rider's jersey with Ben Hill vaulting into third after racking up the bonus seconds out on course. Cooper spoke after the race about defending the jersey.
"With the way the points system is and the time bonuses you’ve always got to be a bit conscious of the guys who are close to you on general classification," said Cooper. "Just to make sure they’re not the ones collecting those bonus seconds, but I managed to pick up some seconds too, so if in doubt, go get some yourself!"
No stranger to being a contender for the win in the NRS, the former New Zealand and Oceanias time trial champion spoke about the nature of the course and where it sits.
"With the wind and the climbs, this is definitely one of my favourite stages on the Subaru National Road Series calendar."
It was a continuation of the strong performances that are expected from the Avanti IsoWhey Sports team, who have now won all three rounds of the NRS this season. There were strong performances by other teams as well however, and the likes of Mobius Futures Racing (2nd on teams classification), Subaru NSWIS, SASI, Oliver's Real Food Racing and State of Matter will no doubt be satisfied with their showing.