The Tour of Gippsland 2018 course was renowned for its oddities as much as the tight racing that the routes produced. Race director John Trevorrow delivered a tour of three circuit races, suiting the sprinters, before the final mountain time trial up the infamous slopes of Mt Baw Baw which brought the climbers right back into contention.
The race was blessed with blue skies and warm conditions right up until the final day of competition, with the Gippsland region a picturesque setting for the National Road Series event.
The opening kermesse around the Phillip Island race circuit was a rarity, in that it was a course built for motor racing that produced a compelling cycling spectacle. A fast sprint finish in the mens race saw West Australian youngster Craig Wiggins (Mobius-Bridgelane) emerge the quickest, beating out Troy Herfoss - the Superbike champion more used to riding a motorised two-wheeled vehicle around the circuit - and Tristan Ward (Bennelong-SwissWellness).
The womens saw a two-woman breakaway establish a big gap early, with a number of the top teams missing out then lacking the strength to bring Roper and Jaime Gunning (Splatt Lawyers Racing) back. Their advantage was just less than a minute by the end of the stage, with Roper and Gunning combining well to take the maximum advantage on their rivals. Roper took out the sprint to win the stage from the Queenslander, with Shannon McCurley mopping up the bunch sprint for third.
McCurley would go on to take the the next two stage wins in the womens race, with her powerful track rider's physique well-suited to the sprint finishes on the tight criterium courses around Traralgon and Sale respectively. She won Stage 2 comfortably over Matilda Raynolds (Rush Womens) and Gunning, but the Stage 3 finish in Sale went to the photo, after Georgie Whitehouse (Sydney Uni-Staminade) gave McCurley all she could handle in the dash to the line with Chilean youngster Catlina Soto (Holden Team Gusto) third.
McCurley has undergone a rapid transformation as a rider, only six months ago she was exclusively a track sprinter, but has since switched to track endurance and the Tour of Gippsland marked her first National Road Series event.
"I'm probably in the form of my life heading into the World Cup season on the track," said McCurley.
McCurley represents Ireland on the track, but has deep roots within the Gippsland region, with plenty of roadside support on the Stage 2 Traralgon stage.
"Yeah, I guess you could say I'm from far south Ireland! It's awesome, Traralgon is my home town and I was just super stoked to have won it here," said McCurley.
The mens event saw a very dangerous move of the top riders initiated in the early laps of the Stage 2 criterium, with those vying for the National Road Series overall lead, Ayden Toovey (Bennelong-SwissWellness), Nick White (Oliver's Real Food Racing) and Freienstein all present in the attack. The move looked like it might stick into the finish, but Bennelong-SwissWellness bridged a few riders across, which neutralised the break and saw the race brought back together for a sprint finish.
Theo Yates (Drapac-EF Holistic Development) fought his way to second wheel round the final, super-fast corner, emerging to take his first win in the National Road Series over White and Freienstein in the fast man's first race in the local series since 2014.
The Sale criterium saw a much-more controlled affair in the mens, with a fast course proving too difficult for riders to break away. A frenetic finish saw White take his maiden NRS victory, with the Ballarat local finally able to shed the tag as the man who had gone close so many times with his win over Ward and Freienstein.
"It means a lot to me, it's been a long time coming," said White. "I've got a lot of podiums in the NRS over the last two years and to finally get that win is a really good feeling."
"I was pretty nervous going into it, but definitely though I was in with a chance. Bennelong had it pretty strung out, Tommy Bolton (White's teammate) dragged me up on the third last corner, then Theo Yates and I managed to sneak up onto Tristan Ward's wheel, from there it was a drag race to the last corner and onto the finish."
White's win narrowed the gap to race leader Freienstein, whose consistent placings and raids on the time bonuses at the intermediate sprints had him with a seven-second buffer on White heading into the 4.7 km time trial up an average of 11 per cent gradient to the summit of Mt Baw Baw.
Sam Hill (Phoenix Cycling Collective) made the early pace in the pattering rain and cold conditions with a time of 19.38 proving very hard to beat until Connor Brown (Mobius-Bridgelane) showed his form gained racing in the USA wasn't just for show, posting a time that would prove impossible to best.
The battle for overall honours was yet to be decided and with White and Freienstein passing Commissaire 2 on the road with a kilometre remaining, White had moved into the virtual race lead as he was eight seconds faster than his German rival. White powered to the line to record the second fastest time of the day, but Freienstein found something in his legs and managed to fight back to finish just a second behind White and secure his first National Road Series event victory.
"It was only a seven second lead over Nick White and he showed he's in really good form," said Freienstein, "he showed in the other stages that he's flying at the moment. You focus on your own effort, everyone has fatigue, everyone has the same conditions."
"It was a head-to-head race, and I'm super happy to win my first NRS tour overall. I've come second overall a few times back in 2014 and '15, then this year at Tour of the Great South Coast I was second overall, so finally we got an overall win for the team."
Freienstein remains locked in a tight battle with White and Ayden Toovey for the overall series honours with the battle between the three clearly on show during the event.
"Unfortunately it almost turns the way we race. The three going for overall, we mark each other and sometimes the racing gets a bit boring, because no break will go when one of us is in it... but that's team tactics."
The womens race was expected to be a race for two, with Roper and Gunning heading into the final stage with over a minute's advantage on the rest of the field. However, stunning rides from Bree Wilson (Splatt Lawyers Racing), Katie Banerjee (Vie13-KOM Financial Advice) and Justine Barrow (Rush Womens) set the bar high for the riders to come, with Wilson fastest in a time of 23.28.
The two leaders fought out their own private battle, with Gunning struggling on the early steep slopes and being caught by Roper, who started out a minute behind, before fighting back to overtake her general classification rival on the road if not on time. Roper drove her way into the finish, ending up fifth on the stage and a minute and 36 seconds behind Wilson, meaning that she won the race overall by a margin of just four seconds from Wilson, with Banerjee third.
"Bree lives on the Gold Coast and we actually train together, so I know how fast she goes up those hills," said Roper after the stage. "I got six seconds in a sprint prime yesterday in the crit, so thanks to that little sprint I did, I was able to hold her off."
Roper's performance was even more impressive as she rode as an individual and had to protect her overall lead right into the mountain-top finish, not just from close rival Gunning, but from the other teams that had missed out on the opening stage.
"I don't think the 11 per cent climb was really my thing," said Roper, "but it was an unusual set-up with three crits leading into the time trial, so you had to be an all-round rider. I had to be alert in the crits to see what moves were going. I used Splatt a few times to chase down moves, as they had Jaime up there in a good position as well."
There was a change at the top of the mens NRS overall standings, with Raphael Freienstein moving in the series lead, with Toovey and White in hot pursuit. In the womens, Grace Brown (Holden Team Gusto) retains her overall lead despite not being present in Gippsland, with Ashlee Ankudinoff (Specialized Womens Racing) her main competitor.
The National Road Series will continue with the Tour of Tasmania in November.