“It’s bittersweet. Everyone here, you’re coming here to win the jersey. Coming second, it’s nothing to you really, everyone wants the green and gold.” - Chris Harper, Bridgelane.
It was a disappointed Chris Harper after the finish of the nationals road race, with the South Australian pondering again how he had come so close to the coveted green and gold stripes without pulling on the jersey.
It all came down to the dramatic finish, which saw a dropped Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) come over the top of Harper and Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott) in the finish for a memorable victory.
“I knew that Cam with his track background had quite a good kick on him,” Harper said, “so coming into the finish I wasn’t confident and I sort of tried to put him on the front to give myself every opportunity, but Freibs (Freiberg) came back and didn’t give up.”
It was the game of cat and mouse in the finish that ultimately cost both Harper and Meyer a shot at the win. The high stakes game of brinksmanship is always a tough line to straddle, with the first to blink at a disadvantage in the ensuing sprint.
“I wasn’t looking for a moment to jump,” Harper said, “I sort of called Cam’s bluff a bit. I think he would have been confident going to the line with just me so I put him on the front and thought that if Freibs came back that’s just another person for him to worry about really.”
“Cam tried to kick onto him but couldn’t quite get there and I came off Cam’s wheel and couldn’t do anything either.”
Despite the heartbreak of coming so close yet again, Harper remained positive about his form and was already looking forward to his next test against World Tour opposition at the Santos Tour Down Under.
“It’s nice to be competitive in the race, and we have some of the best riders in the world rocking up to the race. I have a lot of races over the summer and hopefully, I come out of this with the confidence that I can get a result in another race.”
Harper has been a member of the Australian domestic powerhouse Bridgelane squad for three years now, with the squad famous for its production of World Tour riders undergoing the biggest shift in its history.
Long-term manager and founder of the squad Steve Price is no longer involved and Andrew Christie-Johnston, regarded as one of the best tacticians in the sport, is taking more of a hands-off approach than previous years. Christie-Johnston was behind the wheel issuing instructions for the race and paid tribute to the ride by Harper.
“Chris is a bloody good athlete, there’s no doubt about that,” Christie-Johnston said. “He’s trained really hard for it. He wasn’t happy last year getting third and he came back this year trying to get the top step.”
The tactics of the race played into Bridgelane’s hands, with Mitchelton-Scott clearly trying to avoid a sprint finish and committing to trying to win from the breakaway.
“We said this year it wasn’t going to be a bunch kick, it would be won from a break,” said Christie-Johnston. “I chose four riders for him to follow from Mitchelton, three of those riders were in the break and that was the key, to put people in there.”
Harper tried a number of attacks in the final laps, with a long-range attack at the 32km mark.
“I said to him, you can’t control what others do,” Christie-Johnston said, “so when you feel good, you attack. Unfortunately, Durbo (Luke Durbridge) was feeling pretty good so he probably spent a lap out there unnecessarily there in the end. He was brave and I’m always impressed by a brave rider.”
Christie-Johnston will be ceding a lot of duties to Tom Petty, the former director of Mobius-Bridgelane. Petty is energetic and has shown the ability to identify and develop talent, with now-WorldTour rider Robert Stannard the highest profile rider to go through the Mobius set-up.
“This period for the team is very important,” Petty said, “Andrew and Steve have built a team that has been at the top of Australian cycling for 18 years. At this point, a lot of teams are licking their lips, thinking the NRS (National Road Series) is open.”
Bridgelane is off to a near-perfect start to the season, with Tristan Ward nearly taking out the criterium and then Nick White winning the under 23 race. The crowning glory would have been winning the blue-riband event, the road race.
“I’m not gutted today,” Petty said. “It’s great to see a team at this level get the win.”
“A lot has been written recently about the strength of Australian domestic cycling and how we’re all in dire straits. You look at the fact that Harper and Freibs have gone head to head with WorldTour guys. I think it shows a lot about the quality of domestic racing.”
The UniSA team for the Tour Down Under is set to be dominated by the Bridgelane set-up, with the top-ranked team in the NRS taking a majority of the team to the biggest race in Australia.