The late scratching of Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) from the start list had all the teams scrambling to reconsider their tactics with the absence of the three-time winner. A number of moves were instigated before the long train of Team Bridgelane settled on the front of the peloton in the final laps and drove the race towards the inevitable sprint finish.
Bridgelane’s Ward launched and looked to have a gap, but Jones was able to emerge from the slipstream of his opponent and secure a narrow victory on the line.
A triumphant Jones hoisted his bike above his head in salute after the race, before stopping to let the enormity of the win sink in and celebrate with family and loved ones. He spoke after the race of the lure of nationals and whether the goal of coming back to take a national criterium jersey was a big motivator.
“Massively, I am one of the best criterium riders and obviously tonight that I am the best Australian criterium rider tonight,” said Jones. “To finally prove that is fantastic and I’m really happy.
“I don’t think it has sunk in yet, I think it will later on tonight when I sit down and see the green and gold jersey in my bedroom. I think it’s quite special and a lot of hard work and perseverance over the years to get to the top step. It has been a challenge but to finally get there is a massive reward for everyone that’s helped and supported me along the way.
“A pat on the back to myself for just persevering and not letting people distract me from never trying to get to the top step. I have tonight and it’s fantastic.”
Jones has been on the end of a horrific crash and unlucky timing with results and opponents that have seen his career not quite reach the lights of the World Tour. The fast man from Warragul has had to reinvent himself in recent years, moving around the world to pursue the dream of racing with the best.
“I’m 27 now and I’m still chasing that World Tour contract and I hope to have that in 2020,” said Jones, who races for French Pro-Continental squad Delko-Marseille Provence. “That’s my goal, my manager and I are working towards that and I think this year has started off well.
“I’m happy to be in a French team that gives me plenty of opportunity overseas and does force me to work hard for it. Then when I hopefully one day make it to that top level that I’m dreaming of making it to, it comes much easier to do the hard work at that level.”
Jones has graced the podium on four separate occasions in the past, for two seconds and two thirds, with three of those podiums coming behind established rival Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal). Jones, in fact, had a bit of inside information that Ewan was considering pulling out of the race.
“I saw Caleb last night after dropping off his suitcase after taking it from Williamstown (the final stage of the Bay Classic Criteriums) for him and he said ‘good luck tomorrow night mate’ and I think that gave me the heads up that he wasn’t going to be here tonight,” said Jones.
It was a tight margin between first and second and despite a desperate lunge on the line from second-placed Ward was unable to hang on to win after his Team Bridgelane compatriots delivered him in a good position to win.
“It’s amazing, a tad bittersweet,” said Ward. “I do this to win and I didn’t. I probably made a small mistake coming off my leadout man a tad early, but at the same time to see BJ (Jones) win was awesome. We come from the same mountain bike team and he’s put in the hard yards. The atmosphere was great here.”
Ward was caught up in a final lap altercation that saw the Sydneysider clip the barricades at high speed after a collision with Drapac-EF’s Theo Yates. He fought back from a situation that would have seen many fall and take out most of the field behind him to fight it out for second, before collapsing briefly after the race.
“Bloody oath. Bloody Theo (Yates) from Drapac railed me into the fence,” said Ward. “I was just going to ride it into the ground there was no way I was giving up Neil’s (van der Ploeg) wheel, so I fended him off but I reckon I nearly broke my elbow on the barricade.”
Jay McCarthy (BORA-hansgrohe) rounded out the podium with a bit of World Tour quality, sending a strong indication that he is in good form for the road
With a reported crowd of 7,500 lining the streets of Ballarat, the switch of the time slot to Friday early evening appears to be a successful innovation of the nationals format for Cycling Australia.
The one downside of the move is that it makes it significantly harder for riders to be competitive in both the criterium and the road race, with Caleb Ewan deciding to concentrate on the road race and robbing the race of some star power.