• The road starts to get steep on Stage 2 of the Tour of Bright (Con Chronis/Cycling Victoria)Source: Con Chronis/Cycling Victoria
High mountains, a stunning location and a bit of star power made the 2016 edition of the Tour of Bright a memorable one. In very tight finishes atop Mt Hotham it was Chris Harper and Lucy Kennedy who just emerged the winners of the elite mens and womens races respectively.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

5 Dec 2016 - 2:12 PM  UPDATED 5 Dec 2016 - 5:21 PM

The Tour route has undergone few changes to its formula in recent years with the winner being expected to hold their own in the opening stage 13.5 kilometres time trial and then go on to conquer the ascents of Tawonga Gap and the monster climb of Mt Hotham.

It attracts a variety of riders, probably the most diverse bunch that goes to a Victorian Road Series event. The women’s field was the star-studded one, with Tour of Flanders winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-AIS), Valentina Scandolara (Cylance, moving to WM3 Fortitude next season) as well as Aussie riders fans don’t get to see locally often enough, like Peta Mullens and Kimberley Wells (Colavita-Bianchi). They get pitted against the cream of the National Road Series (NRS) crop, which is clearly a thrill for the local riders.

Shannon Malseed (Holden) got off to a flying start in the time trial where she finished 2nd behind her teammate and NRS overall champion Lisen Hockings, beating out van Vleuten in 3rd, who has two Dutch national time trial titles to her name and was fifth in this year’s worlds championships.

“It makes for a really cool interesting race,” said Malseed, 21. “Having those girls here attracts a lot of people to the event and you see more and more women here each year because you have the likes of Valentina, Annemiek  and Kimberley here. Plus they are really fun to race against and great to catch up with. They’re racing in their off-season and they’re still smashing it, I’d hate to see them in full form!”

For the men, there wasn’t quite the glamour of the overseas stars, but with a rider like Ben Dyball (Mobius Future Racing) just coming off a Tour of Tasmania win and Steele Von Hoff (One Pro Cycling) building form there was no shortage of those riders looking to show that they were preparing well for nationals in January. Chris Harper (Swisse Wellness) indicated that it would no stroll in the park though for Dyball, with a strong performance relegating the skinny New South Welshman to 2nd in the time trial.  

Stage 2 was a hilltop finish atop Tawonga Gap, a 7.5 kilometre climb averaging six per cent. The beauty of a race like the Tour of Bright is that the crowd is made up of people that are competing in other grades, are supporting friends or relatives or have an intimate knowledge of cycling. It brings a level of appreciation of the pain you go through to be the first to the top.

In the men’s race, it was a day for the break after a fierce struggle in the opening 25 kilometres between the main teams to get riders in the move. The peloton then gave the riders just a bit too much slack, despite the efforts of the 4-man Swisse Welness team who burnt their riders to try and keep Harper in the lead. Indeed Harper set a furious pace up the climb when he reached it, smashing the record time for the climb, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul Troy Herfoss from the breakaway, who took the win.

Herfoss, a professional motorcyclist who has competed from superbikes to dirt racing, showed that he can even do a top job when he’s the engine for a bike, overtaking an unlucky Cyrus Monk (Pat’s Veg) who punctured within grasp of victory to take the win himself.

“I had some thought of trying to go for the win this weekend,” said Herfoss, “but when I rolled into Bright I saw Ben Dyball and those thoughts went away. Cycling’s my passion and about two months ago I was a bit overweight and I committed to the Tour of Bright.”

“It was some of the hardest months of training that I’ve ever done. You don’t always reap the benefits so I’m super happy to take the win here.”  

The women’s race saw a similar situation of a break getting a long leash, with Grace Brown (Holden) and Lucy Bechtel (Specialized) going into the bottom of the final ascent with just shy of two minutes advantage. That wasn’t to last as behind in the peleton it was the pair of Lucy Kennedy (High5 Dreamteam) and Lisen Hockings who burst out of the pack with no one even close to following the pair.

It was a renewed friendly rivalry from the NRS, where Kennedy finished just behind Hockings in the overall standings on the season after going head to head in a number of races. Catching the breakaway, Kennedy waited before launching again, having just enough punch to drop Hockings and solo her way to the line.

“I guess the move I made was stronger than I thought,” said Kennedy. “I thought I might need to go a few more times to split it up, but I’m not complaining.”

“I love coming to Bright, I almost wasn’t going to come this year but then I heard that Annemiek and Valentina were here… I thought I’d be missing out and it was a no-brainer in the end.”

The final stage left it all to play for as Harper and Hockings held the leader’s jerseys for the legendary ascent of Mt Hotham. For those not familiar with the climb, it is 30.8 kilometres at 4.2%, but the average gradient hardly tells the story as a false flat section of nine kilometres and a few descents belie the difficulty of the steep climbing sections that the riders have to tackle.

In both the mens and womens a remarkably similar scenario played out, with early breakaways on the flat lead in to the climb brought back to the fold before talented climbers who were a little bit down on the general classification launched attacks and were allowed to build their advantage on the false flat section as those vying for overall honours marked each other.

Kate Perry (Specialized) and Matt Ross (Pat’s Veg) were good enough to make the most of those moves and held on to take memorable wins on the bald, rocky summit of Mt Hotham. The overall tour victory wasn’t entirely out of their grasp either, with both in the virtual lead at points during the climb.

For the womens it was another ding-dong battle between Hockings and Kennedy, with the latter just able to crack the Holden rider and despite the support of teammate Malseed, Kennedy did enough to win the race overall.

“I really enjoy the race, I’m really glad I came,” said Kennedy. “There’s a few months between the end of the NRS and nationals and it’s good to have a strong hit out in between. I’m looking forward to nationals now, hopefully I can do well there.”

Chris Harper had a tougher time of things in the mens after discovering that his bike had a cracked frame and having to ride one he was less familiar with for the final stage. Ben Dyball took full advantage to attack the race leader hard, and he managed to drop Harper in the closing stages. Despite maintaining the gap into the finish, it wasn’t quite enough for the Mobius rider to take the overall win, with Harper hanging on by just four seconds when the time was added up.

“It’s a race I’ve always enjoyed in the past,” said Harper. I’ve always had the thought in the back of my mind of trying to come back and win it, so to do it is a dream come true. Coming to Bright is really nice, even for those who just come here to support the race. All the locals know the event and when you go out dinner and talk to them it’s all about how the race went and you don’t get that at many events.”

With hundreds riders spread out across ten grades, there was a party atmosphere at the final presentation hosted by chief sponsor Bright Brewery. It was a rare opportunity to see sixty year old Masters riders grace the same podium as a rider like Annemiek van Vleuten, who only months ago was on her way to the top step in Rio. Coupled with the fantastic atmosphere of Bright township and you get an idea of why it holds a special place on the Australian calendar.