The peloton had been greeted by near perfect conditions in northern New South Wales for Battle Recharge a few weeks before but the weather gods had different ideas on the Victorian and South Australian border, sending squalls and single-degree temperatures at the peloton throughout the five-day Tour of the Great South Coast. The rain and wind that assailed the riders made for a combative race, with the peloton reduced significantly by the finish of every stage as the conditions took their toll.
The race gets plenty of character from what is affectionately referred to as 'John Craven style racing', with the long-time event organiser renowned for peppering his race routes with sprint points and King of the mountain locations to keep riders on their toes and make sure that taking bonus seconds is an important part of racing the Tour. With 46 sprint intermediate sprint points throughout the six stages of the race, the top contenders had to pay close attention to who was taking the time reductions on offer.
Stage 1- Sprint train delivers 1-2 for dominant Bennelong SwissWellness
It was a tightly controlled affair in the opening stage, with few moves allowed to gain more than the briefest of advantages as the teams battling for the sprint and overall lead had plenty of incentive to keep the race together.
In the final stages, the full might of an imperious Bennelong SwissWellness squad was on display. They had a late challenge from Australian Cycling Academy (ACA), with a slight coming together between the two big sprint teams turning into the home straight, seeing the eight-time NRS champions emerge the stronger and take an impressive 1-2 finish with Michael Freiberg and Tristan Ward.
"It was a wet and wild stage out there today," said defending National Road Series champion Freiberg after the race. "The weather certainly played a factor. The ACA guys jumped our train with half a lap to go, they really scared us then and we had to go long to get them back by the final corner."
The intermediate sprints proved to be a key factor in determining the race lead, with Freienstein the most attentive at each opportunity. He took a big haul of bonus time on the Mt Gambier CBD circuit and then finished third behind Freiberg and Ward to take the race lead into Stage 2.
"Raph was unbelievable out there today," said Freiberg, "he was like an energizer bunny going out there for all the sprints. He's going to be a tough one to beat".
Stage 2- Late raid sees Toovey claim race lead
A tough 6.5 kilometre circuit around Blue Lake saw an attacking race and a key blow landed in the general classification battle. In what proved to be the decisive attack of the race, Toovey jumped across to join consistent aggressor Sam Hill (Phoenix Cycling Collective) with three laps remaining and the former Canberra training buddies worked well together to push the gap out.
The peloton was too late to respond to the diligent efforts of the pair and coming into the final few kilometres it was clear that one of the two would take the race win. Toovey slipped away on the downhill run to the line, taking the win over Hill, with the peloton 41 seconds behind Toovey, allowing the Mudgee-born rider to take the race lead. Hill claimed the consolation prize as most aggressive and his first NRS stage podium finish, with track star Sam Welsford (Australian Cycling Academy) winning the bunch sprint for third.
"I was more concerned about picking up the KOM time bonuses when I attacked," said Toovey. "I've got a bit of a kick but I can't really match it with the likes of Welsford so I thought I'd push on from there. Sam Hill is originally from Canberra, and we've trained together a fair bit over the years. When he went on one of the climbs I nabbed the KOM points and we felt really good and just went on from there."
With a face speckled with grit and dirty water from a tough day out in the elements Toovey was upbeat about the effect of the weather on proceedings. "I think it affects everyone, but the quicker you go, the less time you're in the weather," said the new race leader.
Stage 3- Crosswind havoc ends in Welsford win
A 19 kilometre loop around Port Macdonnell saw the peloton assailed by the miserable weather typical of the region at this time of year, with rain and winds battering the peloton from the side for much of the circuit. The crosswinds saw echelon action each time the peloton turned on the north-south parts of the course, with only a neutralising headwind section offering much solace to riders struggling to keep up.
Each lap the field was whittled down, with only the barest of gaps grabbed at times by attackers like Michael Vink (Brisbane Continental), Carter Turnbull (Inform-MAKE) and Tom Kaesler (Drapac EF) off the front. The final crosswind section in the last ten kilometres saw attacks fly off the front of the 20-rider strong front group, with Oliver Martin (Brisbane Continental) taking a convincing advantage on the run into the finish.
The recent Battle Recharge stage winner looked like he might take his second National Road Series win of the past few weeks but ended up falling agonisingly short, swept up in the final few hundred metres as Welsford powered off a fine leadout by Toby Orchard to take the win.
"It was a really hard day out there but really enjoyable," said team pursuit world-record holder Welsford. "It was probably one of the hardest days I've ever done, which makes taking the win is even more special.
"It was a big power sprint, with the tailwind, we were already going about 60 (kilometres per hour) and then you had to go faster than that, so it suited me."
Nick White (Oliver's Real Food Racing) claimed a fast-finishing second place, with Toovey in third and extending his overall lead.
Stage 4- One for the battlers as Thomason and Van D'am Racing snatch maiden win
An unlikely winner on Stage 4 of the Tour of the Great South Coast provided one of the stories of the race, as Jason Thomason (Van D'am Racing) took out the victory from the breakaway.
Thomason made his move at the midway point of the race, initiating a move with Patrick Burt (Drapac EF Education First Holistic Cycling) to track down two early escapees in Sam Hill (Phoenix Cycling Collective) and Chris Miller (Nero KOM Racing).
"It's pretty unexpected, but I'm super stoked to finally get a win at this level of racing," said an emotional Thomason after the race.
A hesistant peloton couldn't really decide who was required to do the main work of bringing the aggressors back, with leading team Bennelong SwissWellness perfectly content to see all the time bonuses and points out on course swept up by the riders in front. It put the break in a position of relative ease, knowing there was little chance of being brought back as they entered the final ten kilometres with a three minute lead.
"We did what we had to do, but we didn't put too much pressure on the pedals," said Thomason. "I knew from last year that there was a little lump coming into the finish, I went hard over that. I knew two of them would be faster than me, I'm not too fast, so I had to attack.
"This is easily my best result. I'm from New Zealand, I've raced a fair bit over there.. bit less in Australia but this is a big result for me."
Coming across the line, Thomason could only manage a muted victory salute, a fist pump was the only indication of his joy at taking the win. That changed as he was greeted by team mates and support staff, and Thomason paid tribute to the Van D'am Racing setup after the race.
"Coming over here as someone from New Zealand, without that support, and a uni student," said Thomason," it wouldn't be financially possible to race without the support from the team."
Key to that support network is Lachlan Ambrose, founder, manager and do-it-all man for Van D'am Racing, who also works as Cycling South Australia's CEO. There were tears in the eyes of Ambrose after the race, and plenty of fellow team directors and followers of cycling were quick to offer their congratulations to the cycling tragic turned administrator.
"I think we're in the chippy phase, there was definitely an emotional phase before," said Ambrose as he watched Thomason talking to the media after the stage. "It's been three years of hard work and finally getting to the top step of the podium is a pretty rewarding experience."
Ambrose has always been a proponent of doing things a bit differently to the rest of the field, working tirelessly to ensure his riders get an opportunity to succeed. He extends that zeal to his duties as Cycling South Australia CEO and it makes for some very long days, and this win went some way to paying off all that effort.
"At least for the time being, it seems to make up for all that lost sleep," said Ambrose. "Going home and doing emails until two in the morning some days. This is what we do it for, really happy and it happened to a really good guy as well."
Hill took his second runner-up finish on the stage, just edging out Patrick Burt as they sprinted in a few seconds behind Thomason, and Toovey comfortable retained the leader's jersey.
Stage 5- Ben Van Dam and Magennis light it up in miserable conditions
An aggressive start to proceedings saw Ben Van Dam (Nero KOM Financial Advice) escape the pack after a flurry of attacks had softened up the field. No one was able to join the lone escapee despite a few attempts and the Tasmanian settled into a long solo effort with over 70 kilometres left to race in the stage.
His gap got out to as much as two minutes and thirty seconds before race leaders Bennelong SwissWelness reined him in to a point where he wouldn't challenge Toovey's overall standing. Van Dam kept on hammering away up front and though it seemed unlikely he turned into the final ten kilometres and a brutal headwind run to the line with a minute and twenty seconds advantage.
One of the regular squalls then rolled in, as Liam Magennis (Drapac EF) launched himself from the closing peloton and began surging through the sheets of rain over to the lone escapee.
Magennis made contact with three kilometres remaining in the race, going on to take the sprint convincingly over an understandably exhausted Van Dam.
"I hit the peloton with about 10 kilometres to go," said Magennis, "using my teammate Tom Kaesler - who'd been helping me all day - as a launchpad. I wasn't super confident of catching him, but I felt like I had good legs and I managed it."
It was yet another day of miserable weather, with the peloton just avoiding a hailstorm that hit on the morning of the race.
"It was very tough out there," said Magennis, "it's a good day to win, because everyone will remember it!"
Stage 6 - Hard finish to tough tour see Freienstein claim deserved win
In what was a fitting finish to a gritty Tour of the Great South Coast, with the final criterium around Portland seeing the field rapidly depleted by a hard pace set on the front of the race. A tight battle for the podium positions saw a fierce battle from the top riders at the intermediate sprints, with just 20 seconds separating Freienstein in second and Cameron Scott (Australian Cycling Academy) in fifth place on the general classification.
A see-sawing fight througout the stage saw it still up for grabs as it came into the reduced bunch sprint for the win, with only race leader Toovey assured of his position on the final podium. The final surge to the line was led by an impressive Kell O'Brien (Australian Cycling Academy), but he was overhauled on the line by a final kick from Freienstein, with stalwart Anthony Giacoppo (Bennelong SwissWellness) just beating O'Brien into second.
"Going into the final day I was focused on getting intermediate sprints to defend the second overall," said Freienstein, "which was really tough, going head to head with Nick White. I had two or three seconds up on him going into the final sprint and Sam Welsford had sat back for most of the sprints, so I thought if he took the final sprint and took ten seconds he might jump over me.
Freienstein's win was the narrowest margin of victory of the entire race, just barely a wheel in it as he managed a late exclamation of joy as he came over the finish line.
"There was a headwind here," said Freienstein, "which played into my cards, having the right wheel and launching and the right time at the right moment. I won here four years ago and I was really happy to pinch it on the line again."
The leader's jersey stayed firmly on Toovey's back after his early stage win - though he finished with just a 16 second lead on Freienstein - with his Bennelong SwissWellness team protecting his race lead quite comfortably despite the tough conditions and attacking racing. With the win, Toovey completes back-to-back overall race wins, a feat that propels him into the overall National Road Series lead ahead of former leader Freienstein.
"It's very nice and I'm honoured to do it," said Toovey, "I only got my first overall Tour win at Battle a few weeks ago and it's nice to get the ball rolling then win another one too."
Toovey has been on the rise in the past few years on the local circuit, progressing from a rider who would pop in the harder classics to an athlete who performs consistently across a wide variety of terrains and race types.
"Everyone develops differently," said Toovey. "I was lucky to be mentored by some terrific guys coming up and now I'm on ACJ's (team director Andrew Christe-Johnston's) team, Bennelong SwissWellness, everything has really come together."
"I think that's the beauty of it all. There's a lot of quality out here and I think that it shows the depth of quality that Australian cycling has. I had faith in my team and in myself that I could have a crack and take a good result here."
The National Road Series 'Tours' season will continue on August 31 with the Sam Miranda Tour of King Valley the next stop in northern Victoria.