• The city skyline provided the backdrop for the first Ride melbourne event. (Kathryn Watt - Watt Shotz Photography)Source: Kathryn Watt - Watt Shotz Photography
Kirsten Wild and Sam Bennett proved the best of the sprinters at the 116.6km Towards Zero Race Melbourne criterium.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
26 Jan 2017 - 4:57 PM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2017 - 6:35 AM

The inaugural Race Towards Zero Race Melbourne was a qualified success in its first outing in the Australia calendar with the partnering event for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race drawing good crowd support as it delivered exciting racing between some of the top riders in the world.

An early start in poor weather for the women’s race and a big gap between the finish of the women’s and the start of the men’s may have kept crowd numbers down in the early part of the day, but it soon built up as the men’s race progressed.

Speaking to Cycling Central, race director Scott Sunderland was enthusiastic about the race and its future prospects.

“I couldn’t be happier, what started as grey clouds in the morning has turned into bright sunshine coming out and so have the crowds,” Sunderland said.

“The women’s race was fantastic, the women were very positive about the event, even more positive with the equal prize money.”

The day began with a victory in the women’s event by Kirsten Wild (Cylance), one of the best in the world in the sprints, going head to head with the Australia’s best sprinter in Chloe Hosking (Ale Cipollini) with barely a millimetre separating the two in the throw to the line.

Wild has had a hugely successful sojourn in Australia, taking three wins out of four sprint stages across the Santos Women’s Tour and now the Race Melbourne Criterium.

Her path may be a blueprint for other top riders in the WorldTour to start their season in Australia.

“It was really exciting, Chloe was coming hard from the back and I pushed my wheel in front and hoped for the photo finish,” Wild said.

“We directly looked at each other, ‘is it you, is it me?’ and we both didn’t know.

“With the good weather, we do some races and a lot of fun together with the team, for me it feels like a holiday… but it’s not.

“For me, it doesn’t take much effort to go training in nice weather with nice people. So far I’ve really enjoyed it, I’ve been away from home for almost four weeks now, normally 10 days is the max.”

In the men’s race, it was again the big stars attracting attention as Chris Froome (Team Sky) excited the crowd with an attack from two laps to go through the start/finish area, injuring announcer Matt Keenan’s vocal chords as he roared above the crowd noise.

“What a great show to see a rider like Chris Froome to not sit on and instead have a crack,” Sunderland said. “Even in a crit he wasn’t willing to lay down and instead had a go, which was great from a rider of his stature.”

Eventual winner Sam Bennet (Bora-Hansgrohe) reaped the rewards of a solid start to the season in Australia with a win over the formerly unbeatable Caleb Ewan.

“It’s great to get a win under my belt early in the season,” Bennett said. “I want to thank BORA-Hansgrohe for the nice race programme, and having us here and their great support, and also to the teammates.

“The guys did a great job today supporting me. They kept me well protected all day and set me up perfectly for the finish.”

Sunderland confirmed that the race would be an ongoing fixture of the Australian calendar, though it won’t fall on Australia Day 2018 with a new format and scheduling changes planned.

“It is Australia Day this year but it won’t be next year, it’s more about it being the Thursday before the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race,” Sunderland said.

“We’ll be here, probably won’t be at the same time slot next year, you’ll see us in the evening bigger and better.”

The Race Towards Zero Race Melbourne is going to be an interesting one to watch grow and develop. Participation and crowd engagement was positive and the circuit format is one of the better ways to draw a crowd to the city events.

The test will be to grow it from here and make it a staple of the Australian racing season.