Kimberley Wells (Holden Womens Racing) and Sam Welsford (Michelton-Scott) emerged the winners after a hard-fought series of criteriums at the Tour of Gippsland over the weekend.
Wells, former dual national criterium champion, was well-suited to the short lap-based event and banked her win after proving the most consistent over the four stages. A dominant opening stage sprint win for Rebecca Wiasak (High5 Dreamteam) got the racing started, with a fierce battle brewing between the two top teams, Holden Womens Racing and High5.
Wells and Nicola Macdonald (NSWIS-Sydney Uni) filled out the podium, forming the group of three that would go on to contest the final General Classification (GC).
Stage 2 was an aggressive affair, with Holden looking to get aggressive. They were the instigators in a mid-race move that saw a strong break of five go up the road. Chloe Moran was on policing duty for High5 and ended up taking the win, but the battle for the GC tightened, with Macdonald slipping into the move and joining Wiasak on points at the top of the standings.
A technical Bairnsdale course for Stage 3 was the scene of the most memorable performance in the womens event. After strong, attacking rides from Macey Stewart (TIS Racing) and Emily Roper (High5) looked to have been nullified by the peloton, a final lap attack was launched by a flying Wells.
She surged up and over the break, picking up a passenger in Roper before gunning it to the line, narrowly beating the Victorian in a sprint for stage honours. The win put her equal on points with Macdonald at the top of the standings, with Wiasak lurking close behind after another strong showing.
The final stage left everything to play for in the race and it ended up being two very different races. One for the stage win and another for the GC. An early break was allowed out to a big lead and ended up taking the win, with Ruby Roseman-Gannon (High5) out-powering her erstwhile companions in the sprint to the line.
The win wasn't to come for High5 back in the bunch however, a late crash took out Shannon Malseed (Holden), Wiasak and Macdonald with just a few laps remaining.
The bunch split significantly on the run to the line, Wiasak fought her way back, but Wells was able to battle to the finish ahead of her GC rivals in sixth, with Wiasak and Macdonald rounding out the GC podium.
Wells also took out the Sprint Classification, whilst teammate Shannon Malseed did enough to keep a grip on her National Road Series leader's jersey and take the award as the domestic series best rider.
It wasn't the last event of the season for the men, who still have the Tour of Tasmania left to race and the series overall wouldn't be decided on the roads of Gippsland.
Nonetheless, the racing was a fiery affair. Hard and fast criterium racing saw some of the track stars of Australia take to the streets with the Michelton-Scott team packed full of world champions on the boards. They came up against the firepower of an Isowhey Sports-SwissWellness squad looking to propel NRS overall leader Michael Freiberg further ahead of his rivals.
It was the case of dueling sprint trains for the first two stages, with Melbourne to Warrnambool runner-up Sam Welsford taking two wins. The first came after powering away off the back of a strong leadout, whilst the second was more opportunistic, slipping his way up the inside on the final corner to take a narrow over teammate Cameron Scott and Freiberg.
The third stage was a special one for Tom Robinson (NSWIS), who made ammends for coming agonisingly close to the win at Melbourne to Warrnambool with a hard-fought victory from the breakaway. Dropping break companion Jesse Coyle (Mobius Future Racing) in the final few laps, Robinson was able to hold off the peloton to take the win, with Welsford consolidating his GC lead by bringing home the bunch sprint.
It all came down to the tough final stage, with Welsford taking a handy points lead into the last day of competition over Freiberg. It was far from a stroll in the park for the Michelton-Scott rider with an aggressive peloton all looking to have their own shot at glory after a breakaway had been successful the previous day.
The race appeared to heading for another bunch kick until a final lap move by up-and-comer Sascha Bondarenko-Edwards (Inform-Tineli) caught the field out. The young rider had made a similar move at the Battle Recharge criterium, where he jumped clear of the peloton to take second behind a solo attacker.
This time Bondarenko-Edwards claimed the big prize of the stage win, just holding off the chasing pack. The bunch splintered on its way into the line, with Freiberg leading them over the finish, but Welsford was placed handy enough to maintain his overall lead.
Each of the stages was live streamed via the Subaru National Road Series Facebook page and also the Wiggle Facebook. There were teething problems at times, but overall the ability to watch live racing with quality commentary from Pat Shaw looks to be a way forward for the local scene.
Hopefully it represents a building block for future events as interest in the NRS and the quality local racing on offer continues to grow.