It was a day out in the sun for women’s cycling, both literally and figuratively as the women’s peloton revelled in the live coverage to deliver a great spectacle on the roads around Geelong. One told through the athletes that delivered the entertainment.
The result was unexpected but clearly deserved as van Vleuten delivered a win for Orica-Scott in the third edition of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
Out-sprinting her four breakaway companions, van Vleuten took a win that will be as memorable for her remarkable comeback story over the past few months, as for the exciting manner in which she took it.
The Dutchwomen was part of a group of four that formed over the top of the Hyland Rd climb, chasing the escapee Emma Pooley (Holden) who had attacked solo on the previous ascent. Cooperating well with her companions in the chase group, Mayuko Hagiwara (Wiggle High5), Ruth Winder (UnitedHealthcare) and Lucy Kennedy (High5 Dreamteam), they hunted down Pooley before the finish line and then fought it out in the sprint.
The catch was made with just under three kilometres left, at that stage van Vleuten was confident of the win but wary of surprises from the other riders.
“I knew I was the fastest of the group,” said van Vleuten, “but with that comes the pressure and you don’t want anyone to surprise you. Emma Pooley wanted to be in the last wheel and I wanted to be there so they can’t surprise me. I went pretty early (in the sprint) but I felt I could do that in this group.
“It’s nice to show that I’m ready for the season. For the team, it’s a big important race and so I’m impressed with the organisation, the TV coverage and all the fans out along the course, a lot of people I see out here and I would love to come back next year.”
When asked by a journalist whether this win had erased the memories associated with her crash at the Olympic Games, van Vleuten was animated in her response.
“No I don’t agree because for me it was one of the best races in my life and I don’t every want to forget about it, only the ending maybe and even then, that’s cycling. This year I’m really inspired by riding so well in Rio and I’m ready for 2017."
This off-season van Vleuten has opted for a different approach, swapping the European winter for the Australian summer, also participating in some of the local racing, like the Crocodile Trophy and the Tour of Bright.
“It was a different way of build-up, I wouldn’t have done it last year because of Rio and you don’t know how it will go and if you will like it here, so it was a good moment in my career to leave my home for two and half months and go round and enjoy Australia," she said. "I didn’t think I’d trained too hard for this but I’ve done a lot of kilometres in the sun and enjoyed every day to be with Australian people and I’d love to come back next year and repeat this preparation.”
As the main bunch reached the foothills surrounding Geelong, an increase in pace heralded the start of major attacking moves from the favourites and Gracie Elvin (Orica-Scott) launched off the front, followed by Lucy Kennedy (High5 Dreamteam). Kennedy was forced to do the lion’s share of the work and the two were swept up by a counterattack from the peloton but continued on to look one of the strongest on the climbs and finish fourth in the sprint.
“The last 30-40 kilometres were really hard work,” Kennedy said, “which was what I was hoping for. Once the hills started I felt like I was climbing really well so I took advantage of that where I could and actually went early with Gracie Elvin on the first long drag climb.
“We had a decent gap, but I wasn’t getting any help so we got caught, then it was a matter of jumping onto the moves of the riders who caught up, and hanging on, then trying to get away when I could.
Kennedy led the chasing group of four over the climb and looked the strongest on the ascents beside Pooley, however, she isn’t as renowned for her sprinting prowess and finished fourth in the dash to the line.
“Unfortunately we caught Emma on the final rise and there weren’t any hills left! From then on it settled down a little bit, and I was cramping by that point, so I was trying to conserve as much energy as I could and hoped that at the end of a long race my sprinting legs would get me on the podium, but I just missed out," she said.
“Fourth place stings, but I can’t really complain about being fourth in a field like that. I’m pretty stoked.”
The woman who had put the hurt on the rest of the field and looked destined at various stages of riding off to the victory was Emma Pooley. As the group of attackers reached the Queen Park Rd climb, 34-year-old Pooley, who now also competes in triathlon extensively, showed her climbing legs are still very strong, surging clear on the toughest section of the ascent.
“I wanted to wait and wait until it got really hard then attack on one of the climbs and get away solo," Pooley said. “That was only possible because the Holden girls rode awesomely, I think it’s fair to say we’re a little team, up against some proper UCI teams but they rode like real pros today.
“There were four behind and they were all chasing, which was annoying from my point of view but that’s bike racing. I don’t have much of a sprint so I had to race in there solo.”
Pooley was dangling off the front of the group of four chasing, with her maximum gap of 30 seconds coming down gradually. She’d come into the race with good memories of Geelong after her 2010 World Championships time trial win in the city and was again thrilling with her performances in Australia. However, she wasn’t content with her entertaining showing - thinking only of what could have been.
“To be honest right now, I’m pretty disappointed because I didn’t win when it had been set up perfectly," she said. "For me, the hard bit is getting away and being patient.
"I hope it was a great race to watch, obviously I’ve got some great memories from 2010. It brings back a lot of memories. I would have liked to win to dedicate it to my mate Sharon, who’s in the UK and pretty sick now, needs a bit of cheering up.”
The third edition of the race will go down as an important marker in the sport, the first UCI race to be televised live since the 2010 World Championships. If this effort is anything to go by, women's cycling has plenty to offer the cycling public well into the future.