A loss at the Tour of the Great South Coast, where they won four stages out of six but couldn’t take the overall, combined with some of the comments coming out from the victorious Drapac-Pat’s Veg team, clearly fuelled the fire for an imperious show of strength by Isowhey Sports-SwissWellness against the 150 rider field.
The return of two-time NRS champion Joe Cooper to the fray didn’t hurt either and the New Zealander immediately set about re-establishing the team’s dominance in the opening time-trial, finishing first as he averaged over 50 kilometres an hour over the nine kilometre course. With teammate Sean Lake second and a number of the rest of the team all well up in the standings the squad had a strong hand going into the rest of the racing.
The mens Stage 2 was neutralised for GC due to the massive field of riders taking on the narrow track around the showgrounds. It ended up being a bit of a bizarre spectacle, with the punch strung out in the opening laps and taking up a third of the 800m course as they raced, like a dog chasing its own tail.
The numbers at the front weren’t sustainable, and the attack of Michael Freiberg (Isowhey Sports-SwissWellness) and Liam Magennis (NSWIS) saw a snapping of the elastic, with few other teams willing or able to take up the pace to bring the strong pair back. Freiberg ended up taking out the sprint from Magennis, with young up-and-comer Toby Orchard (Nero Racing) winning the bunch sprint for third.
The final two stages were tense affairs, with attacks looking like they would stick, before tactical reasons and teams nullifying the moves eventually closed things down. On the dirt and gravel climbs of the Strade Nero, Drapac-Pat’s Veg decided to lead the attacks on the climbs, launching Jesse Featonby and Mat Ross over to the early breakaway. A few punctures to key riders, like Sean Lake and Mat Ross, took impetus out of any potential cooperation by the strongest riders at the front, eventually leading to a small break being allowed away.
It was Isowhey Sports who took it upon themselves to shut down this final move, whilst NSWIS profited at the end of the stage with a superb leadout to deliver Alex Smyth to the win, with Orchard second and Magennis third.
Wind and climbs were on the agenda for the final stage. Nerves were commonplace on the startline as crosswinds threatened the bunch from the drop of the flag. The stage ended up being consistently hard and fast with the few moves that went allowed little time to gain an advantage. Morgan Smith’s (St George) attack was the best of the moves, but it was swallowed up as Drapac-Pat’s Veg launched their riders up the climbs and Isowhey Sports followed.
The constant attrition of the attacking and the consistent high pace had seriously reduced the field coming into the final kilometres and it was there the decisive move went, splitting off the front in the crosswinds. Five Isowhey Sports-Swisswellness riders were in the move of nine that went. They drove clear of the field and maintained their gap all the way into the line, with Freiberg taking his second win of the Tour ahead of Liam White (Drapac-Pat’s Veg) and Sascha Bondarenko-Edwards (Inform Tineli).
The end result on the overall standing was near complete domination for Isowhey Sports-SwissWellness as they secured the top 4 positions on the general classification as well as sixth. Race winner Joe Cooper is approaching local legend status in the NRS after years of being nigh on unbeatable in time-trials and races where he can utilise his power effectively. He spoke about the race and the motivation that the team had carried into it.
“We had to right the wrongs of the Great South Coast (the previous NRS event), the lads have given a good account of themselves this week and definitely done what need to be done, “ said Cooper. “For me personally, it’s very nice to be back racing the NRS.
“I might have left my run a bit late for my third overall win, but I’ve got some runs on the board now and we’ll have to see how many races I can do from here. I haven’t raced for a long time this season, it’s nice to come back and stand on that top step again.”
On his team’s main rivals for the overall National Road Series win, Drapac-Pat’s Veg, and their tactics throughout the race, the New Zealand two-time road race champion wasn’t shy in his analysis of their strength.
“They took it to us, but they did it with one bloke against seven. You do the maths… one bloke isn’t going to ride away from seven. So back to the drawing board for them and hopefully they put up a bit more of a fight next time.”
Outside of the general classification, Jesse Featonby (Drapac-Pat’s Veg) was very explosive on the climbs, which lead to his winning the KOM jersey. Oliver Smith (Cobra Intebuild Racing) was the revelation of the tour alongside Toby Orchard (Nero Racing), with both of the powerfully built youngsters certainly ones to watch for the future.
The womens race was a different affair to the mens, far less controlled and with a number of changes to the leadership of the race as the riders fought over one of the best opportunities to take a tour win with a number of NRS stars away on duty with the High5 Australian national womens development team.
The women began with a nine kilometre time trial over flat ground around Whitfield, with nationals time-trial bronze medallist Kate Perry (Specialized Womens Racing) winning by nine seconds ahead of teammate Kate McIlroy, with youngster Madeleine Fasnacht (TIS Racing) in third, 14 seconds back.
The lead would be short-lived for Perry, she passed off her leaders jersey to McIlroy in the afternoon criterium around the Wangaratta showgrounds. The stage ended up being taken out by young NSWIS-Sydney Uni rider Georgia Whitehouse, who burst onto the National Road Series in her debut race by blitzing the field with a final lap attack and holding on to take the win over the much more fancied fast-finishing sprinters.
The iconic Strade Nero sections awaited in Stage 3 and they didn’t disappoint, with attacks coming thick and fast on the gravel climb. Only the elite survived to the top, with two groups of three going over the Queen of the Mountain climb in quick succession.
Eventually a group of five formed in front, comprising Stewart, Fasnacht, McIlroy, Justine Barrow (Rush) and Sharlotte Lucas (Roxsolt Attaquer). They cooperated well through the remaining dirt sections and also on the run back to the finish in the Sam Miranda winery.
A spirited chase from the teams that missed the break almost saw the leaders brought back, but in the end it was Macey Stewart who really signalled her readiness for overall honours by taking the win in a sprint from Lucas with Barrow third. The effect of the result was to thin the race for the general classification win down to that select group who fought out the finish. McIlroy went into the final stage with a slim lead over the two TIS riders and Lucas.
Stage 4 was a hard, windy affair from the dropping of the flag, with teams like Holden and High 5 Dreamteam, who had missed out of previous stages, looking to force the pace. The early pressure forced some splits, but the big event was a mechanical for race leader Kate McIlroy. She had teammates drop back to help pace her back on but she wasn’t able to get onto the peloton before the first sprint point, which was also where the crucial break of the day went away.
From there, the team dynamics were such that it was essentially just a long time trial for her one remaining teammate, Kate Perry to try and bring back the attack, which was driven by a host of strong riders, ambitious to move up on the general classification.
Their advantage continued to blow out on the windy, flat terrain around Wangaratta, punctuated by short, steep ascents, climbing up to a maximum gap of three minutes. By this point, Stewart and teammate Fasnacht had swept up enough bonus seconds to secure the top two places, even if the race did come back together, so a cat-and-mouse game began for the stage win.
It almost brought the group behind back into the race, with minutes being stripped away as the group in front played chicken with a group led by the imposing McIlroy, driven by the frustration of missing her chance at a maiden NRS tour win.
In the end, the one who won the out- foxing competition was the experienced West Australian, Erin Kinnealy (Holden Womens Racing) who saved energy on the run-in before taking out the sprint just on the line, over more favoured opponents like Stewart and Ashlee Ankudinoff. Impressively, Kinnealy had to overcome a chest infection to take the win, one she put down to using her head as much as her strength.
“I couldn’t sprint out of a wet paper bag,” said Kinnealy, “so I needed to take advantage of the cross-winds, fully commit and be first into that (final) turn. I had to be a wily old fox towards the end, sit back and draw upon my strengths to beat those better sprinters like Ankudinoff and Stewart.”
Frustration was the overriding emotion for the New Zealander McIlroy after the finish, who lacked neither the strength nor the tactics to win the race, the triathlete convert had just been unlucky.
“It was a really tough day today,” said McIlroy, “and I probably got a mechanical at the worst time. It took a while to change the wheel and get back up to the front group. I was unaware that a break had gone up the road after that sprint and basically from there it was KP (Kate Perry), me and four others.
“Every other team was represented up the road, so we were the only ones who were going to work. KP worked her arse off for me, it was awesome, but it was just such a tough day.”
Race-winner Macey Stewart, 21, has had more of a journey in the early years of her life than many will have in their entire career, with the dual track and road star having already retired from the sport and restarted. The former junior star of the sport is back refreshed and more certain in the knowledge that cycling is what she wants to commit herself to.
“Yeah, I’m really stoked,” said Stewart in the aftermath of the victory, “it’s probably one of the best road wins I’ve had in a very long time and my best as a senior. Things are heading in the right direction and I’m pretty excited for the year ahead.”
“I was awesome that we got a split without the leaders jersey in it, I still can’t believe it to be honest. We worked hard together as a team and played our cards right and took the win.”
The next race for both the men and the women in the National Road Series is Amy's Otway Tour, which will take place from 16-17 September.