The two-time Melbourne to Warrnambool winner launched the decisive move with just under 30km remaining in the race, jumping clear of his erstwhile companions with Raphael Freienstein (Inform-MAKE) and cooperating well with the German-born rider to ensure that the pair would fight out the finish.
The nippy Freienstein would be the favourite in a typical sprint between the two, but after 228km it was Elliott who proved the strongest, winning the final dash to the line by mere millimetres.
“I was a bit worried coming into the sprint,” said Elliott, “and I almost shook Raph (Freienstein) off on that last climb there. I’ve got a pretty good sprint at the end of a long race but I know he’s pretty quick, so I was stoked to come around him!”
Elliott’s win comes in the wake of back to back Melbourne to Warrnambool victories and strong performances at the Grafton to Inverell, where he has been on the podium twice in recent years.
“I seem to be naturally good at these long endurance races so I don’t need to work so hard at that. A lot of people think that I’m doing all these massive kilometres, but really I only do a few long rides. I’ve come so close before, so I was training for this to go one better.”
The winning move was instigated by Elliott just as it looked like a few groups on the road might come together, with Ben Dyball (St George Continental) in particular looking like he might make the catch and go on to claim the victory.
“I was looking back,” said Elliott, “and saw that they were close and also the bunch was starting to close us down. The guys in the break were starting to ride a bit slower as well. I didn’t want to get caught by Dyball before Wire Gully, that wouldn’t have been ideal. So maybe we could get ahead before he caught us. I knew Raph was strong so I thought maybe we could hold the bunch off.”
John Elliott, the father of Nathan, was emotional on the finish line after spending the day out on the road passing off bidons and musettes at the feed zones on course.
“He’s made us so proud,” said John Elliott, “there was a stage last year after his crash where it looked like he wouldn’t be able to walk with the minor brain damage, let alone get back to racing like this.
“The tougher it is for him, the better Nathan gets and a hard race today is really where he shows what he can do.”
“Considering how bad the crash was," said Nathan Elliott, "to win the Warrny was really special. Hopefully this time I can put a whole season together.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
The race was set up to be a special edition as soon as the riders set out from Grafton in cold conditions early on Saturday morning. Recent trends have seen prevailing winds carry riders to faster times, with the race record bettered twice in the last two years.
That was not going happen this time around, with a fierce headwind and numbing conditions greeting the peloton as they fought over the infamously hard course.
There was a lot of preliminary skirmishing to make the initial move, with a group of twenty riders, including eventual top two finishers Elliott and Freienstein, eventually escaping up the road before the traditional major test on the Gibraltar Range. The break headed into the base of the 17km climb with a five-minute advantage.
The imposing climb again played its part, seeing the early escapees’ advantage shrink dramatically as their steady pace was contrasted by a number of attacks of the front of a splintering peloton. A group containing the top climbers in the race went on the attack, with St George Continental’s Ben Dyball particularly prominent in the moves.
The breakaway managed to hold their advantage over the top of the Gibraltar Range peak but surrendered to the larger bunch just before the first feed zone at the 119km mark. The race began anew from that moment, with the riders at the front again seeking to establish a move.
As before, it took time for another move to get off the front, but eventually a group of four went clear with Jesse Featonby (Drapac-EF), Tim Cameron (St George Continental), Freienstein and Elliott quickly building a good gap. Their advantage stretched out to a maximum of two and half minutes, with the lagging efforts in the chase also allowing riders dropped on the climb to come back into the swelling main bunch.
That respite was shortlived, with the peloton exploding to pieces as attacking riding and awful, gusty conditions both played their part in ripping the race to bits. There were small groups all over the road and even in ones and twos, while the four men out front continued to tap out a solid pace.
The peloton eventually resettled again with the only rider still plugging away in the gap to the break the Australian Superbike champion Troy Herfoss. The race again passed a significant milestone in Glen Innes with 63 kilometres remaining.
The flame under the peloton was ignited again shortly after, with Dyball again the instigator. This time he launched an attack that proved too hard to follow, bridging across to Herfoss with Jesse Coyle (Mobius-Bridgelane) joining as well after a similar solo effort.
The trio was steadily eating into the advantage of the four out front and just as it appeared inevitable that the catch would be made, Elliott attacked the group with Freienstein quick to respond. That left a chasing group of five, as well as a hungry ‘pack’ of 20-25 riders still keen to bring the race further behind, with still 25km to race.
With a lack of representation up front, Australian Cycling Academy and Drapac-EF took up the bulk of the pace-making duties in the peloton. This fast rhythm eventually saw the chasing group of five brought back, but not before a final doomed bid for victory for Dyball, who attempted to solo clear.
Elliott and Freienstein’s cooperation was unwavering in the run into the line, with the only serious attacks and gamesmanship coming on the final climb with five kilometres to go. A full-fledged attack by Elliott was clawed back by Freienstein, who then went to the front for the rest of the climb and looked to be happy to back himself in the two-up sprint.
It was a near-run thing in the end as the front pair threatened to be swallowed up by the onrushing peloton in sight of the finish as the riders foxed with each other. In the end, it was an Elliott win by the slimmest of margins, just beating out Freienstein in a drag-race to the line.
Cam Scott (Australian Cycling Academy-Sunshine Coast) was left disappointed that his reduced bunch sprint was for third rather than first after a mountain of work by teammate Michael Potter had brought him within sight of a standout win.
The consistent refrain from riders after the race was that it been a chaotic, brutal edition. Scarcely could a race have suited the eventual champion, Nathan Elliott, more.