• Night time criterium racing with the Sydney CBD in the background (Ben Cirulis (The Spokes People))Source: Ben Cirulis (The Spokes People)
The second annual running of the White Bay Criterium had the scenery, atmosphere and quality of a much higher profile race with the Sydney Harbour foreshore playing host to the young event.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

20 Nov 2018 - 8:43 AM 

With the Sydney CBD skyline as the backdrop and party boats and fans lining the course watching on, it was Matilda Raynolds (Rush Womens Racing) and Darcy Ellerm-Norton who proved the fastest in the women's and men's elite races.

The women's race was the more spectacular of the two affairs, with surging and attacking from the main bunch seeing a dynamic race full of splits, chasing back and counterattacks. The field contained world-class riders, with the likes of Brodie Chapman (Tibco-SVB), Josie Talbot (ISCorp Pro Cycling), plenty of representatives from the globe-trotting New Zealand-registered team Roxsolt-Attaquer and national junior criterium championship champion Sarah Gigante sporting her Aussie jersey.

Chapman and Talbot were at the forefront of the attacking in the race, driving the pace and utilising any lulls to launch new assaults on the field. The flowing corners of the course at the White Bay Cruise Terminal were more rounded than a typical 'hot-dog' style circuit, with the more oblique angles allowing for aggressive riding into the sweeping bends.

Nonetheless, it was still a majority of the field that was present for the bunch sprint finish, with Matilda Raynolds leading out the dash to the line and being able to hold off a fast-finishing Chapman. An effusive Raynolds was laughing with the other competitors after the race, with the higher stakes competition clearly not dulling the enjoyment of the event. 

"It was the first semi-professional win I've ever had," said Raynolds, "so I was too scared to throw the hands up in the air, I can't believe I just did that! To have some of the girls back from the World Tour - I have so much respect for them."

Raynolds is a consistent competitor on the local scene, always one to watch in the sprint finishes of National Road Series events, though she opted to race up in Sydney rather than down at the hilly NRS event that clashed with the White Bay Criterium, the Tour of Tasmania.

"There's a heap of racing on around the country - I wasn't sure what the level would be like here - and I'm just proud we put on the best show," said Raynolds. "It was constantly on and you could never lose focus, just attack after attack. Everyone was on the rivet the entire time. We were here to entertain and we did exactly that.

"Full credit to the Spokes People, Shimano and Cycling NSW because it's a great event, awesome under lights and is just going to get better and better. We just need to work with the event organisers, as with the women's field we don't have the depth to do two major races in Australia at the same time, with Tour of Tasmania on at the moment. We're missing a few names, but the crit dogs came out and gave it to us."

The men's race was decided by an early breakaway that slipped away from the pack after some initial skirmishing in the opening laps. Brendan Johnstone attacked initially, with Dan Bonello and Ellerm-Norton quick enough to follow the move and gradually extend their advantage over the field.  

Brodie Talbot (St George Continental) struggled to bridge the gap but was reabsorbed back into the pack and the race was on to see if the trio out the front could lap the field on the short course. They managed to catch the peloton, with a bit of uncertainty on how the race would play out from that point, with much discussion among the commissaires about whether to pull the bunch and just have the three riders race, or to continue the race with the main pack.

They came down on the side of having a bigger field and spectacle for the watching spectators, though there was potential for teammates of the front three to influence the race. In the end, it was a long, hard effort on the front by Liam Magennis (Drapac-EF) that set up the run into the final sprint for Johnstone, with Darcy Ellerm-Norton able to power off the final corner to take a convincing win with an impressive salute to match. 

"There's a lot of crits in Sydney and it was nice to win a big one," said Ellerm-Norton. "I had a good sprint win down in Heffron Park, but the other weeks I haven't been able to find the speed so today was a good mix of pushing on early and then having the speed to finish it off in the end."

Ellerm-Norton is a regular in the Sydney racing scene, after years of racing at National Road Series and at UCI level in Asia with St George Continental, 2018 has been a welcome change of pace.

"I'm just riding for fun, I'm really enjoying it," said Ellerm-Norton. "There's no pressure day-to-day. If I don't want to ride, I won't."

"I came here last year and did a lot of work early for Kaden Groves (then St George Continental rider and Ellerm-Norton's teammate who finished second), but this year riding for myself it's a good weight to have on my own shoulders."

The clash with other events also affected the men's field, with a number of national-level riders riding either the Tour of Tasmania or the Super Series in Adelaide. The inaugural National Criterium Series was a project to bring together the main criteriums in Australia, give it a bit of an identity and an overall goal to shoot for.

The 2018 series hasn't been a shining example of that ambition, with fields lacking any continuity from one event to the next and events getting cancelled, like the women's race at the Stan Siejka Launceston Cycling Classic, or postponed, like the Shimano Wollongong Criterium, which is now set to run in February. Each event cited problems with getting enough riders to compete, something that could have been headed off early with the avoidance of the inevitable racing clashes.

Showcasing cycling in areas close to city centres, with the action and atmosphere to entice a wider audience into the spectacle of racing in these showpiece criteriums is a great idea and was executed well at the local level by organisers the Spokes People and it shows that with a bit better scheduling this event and the National Criterium Series as a whole has a promising future.