A late attack from Sunderland and Marcus Culey (Rauland guest rider) proved to be the winning move. The trio jumped away with just under 30 kilometres remaining in the race and managed to get a good gap initially.
A concerted chase from Inform TM Insight MAKE looked to set up former two-time winner Nathan Elliott for a late surge, but despite a hunger-flat Culey exploding late, Hodges and Sunderland were able to hold off the chasing group into the finish.
Hodges led out the sprint and the result was never in doubt once he accelerated, saluting his first National Road Series (NRS) victory in style.
“It’s pretty unbelievable actually,” said Hodges, “definitely not something I was expecting coming into today. I left it all out there and got the result we wanted.”
Not a favourite - or even a past finisher - coming into the race, Hodges has taken a big step up in the past season, improving his reputation from one of a solid rider while part of GPM-Stulz to one of the best after committing more seriously to racing with the Continental setup, Oliver’s Real Food Racing.
“I’ve started it a couple of times, never finished,” said Hodges of the Grafton to Inverell. "I’ve just tried to step it up this year, training-wise, race-wise with Oliver's. It’s all coming together and I’ve had a few good results now. First finish, first win!”
“No secret, I think it’s just a great team. Sam (Layzell, team sports director) backs me, the boys back me, everyone backs each other. We have that attitude that anyone on their day can win and it happened to be me today.”
Hodges wasn’t present in the early moves and posturing of the major teams as the race played out the hard opening section culminating in the imposing 17 kilometre climb of Gibraltar Range. An initial break of seven riders including National Road Series overall leader Raphael Freienstein (Inform TM Insight MAKE) and many other strong athletes, saw riders drop off, then more join to swell the move.
Just after the summit of Gibraltar, Team Bridgelane led a group of attackers over to the front selection, meaning they had four riders out of the thirteen present. They refused to drive the move from there however, instead attacking with Sunderland.
Ryan Cavanagh (St George Continental), Jay Vine (Nero-Bianchi), Ryan Thomas (Drapac Holistic Development Team) and Mark O’Brien (Inform TM Insight MAKE) were the other riders to join in what proved to be a doomed move that was swept up by a heavily reduced main bunch as the riders battled the crosswinds coming into Glen Innes.
With the race as close to intact as possible after 160 kilometres of hard racing in tough conditions, the riders split apart dramatically in the crosswinds. An initial attack of Culey and Brendon Davids (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) saw a splintering of the field behind, with a strong group eventually forming at the front after the catch of the escaped duo.
Again it was Bridgelane who appeared to hold the advantage, with Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Nicholas White the hot favourite to take out any sprint. Defending champion Nathan Elliott (Inform TM Insight MAKE) was also present along with teammate O’Brien, Hodges, Sunderland, Cameron Roberts (GPM-Stulz), Troy Herfoss, Peter Milostic, Liam White and Liam Magennis (both Drapac Holistic Development). The final attack of the day came from Culey and Sunderland, with Hodges scrambling to get on the wheel.
“There were a lot of points where it was in the gutter and it was just solid all day. Never an easy point in the race. There were a few splits out of Glen Innes and it was a bit all over the shop and difficult to work out what was going on,” said Hodges of the crucial move.
“Then 10 of us were together and with about 25 kilometres to go, Marcus and Dylan Sunderland hit out and I was able to get over to them.
“We chopped off and rode it hard into the finish, Marcus got dropped right before that last little climb, then I led out the sprint and go the win. You never know after 230 kilometres though. It’s one of those ones where it’s so hard you just got to go and see what happens.”
The chasing group got very close to the escaped trio - which became a duo after Culey hit the wall with hunger flat - with O’Brien doing a lot of the work in reducing what had initially ballooned out to a 50 second advantage back to 20 seconds as the riders reached the final climb before the descent into Inverell.
A last-ditch attack from Elliott up the challenging ascent wasn’t enough to catch the front pair with Sunderland leading the way up the climb with Hodges in tow. With known sprinter and teammate Nick White behind, Sunderland opted not to force Hodges to take on the burden of pace-making, despite being well aware of the Oliver's riders’ sprinting prowess, having lost a sprint to the Bathurst local at the Orica Kermesse recently.
Sunderland is part of the impressive Sunderland cycling dynasty based out of Inverell that includes former professional cyclist Scott Sunderland, his uncle, as well as local star and father Peter Sunderland. The Sunderland clan has never won the Grafton to Inverell, despite numerous attempts to take their local race.
Hodges duly led out the sprint and took the win, leaving an exhausted Sunderland at the finish line wondering what might have been.
“I’m quite stuffed,” said Dylan Sunderland. “I’m slightly disappointed, but there was nothing I could do about it in the finish, Will was just stronger.”
“I knew I wasn’t in a good way with about 20 kilometres to go, I probably paid for a few efforts earlier on. I was just trying to hang in and hopefully get over the last climb with them. I knew I was in a race for second.”
Sunderland was one of the main animators of the race, probably alongside Culey, Herfoss and O’Brien as being an ever-present member of attacking moves throughout the over six hours of racing.
“It was full on, it never stopped all day and the wind made it super aggressive all day,” said Sunderland. “It was a super strong wind, especially coming in to Glen Innes, I think a lot of guys were starting to struggle and the wind forced the cracks.”
“I wanted to ride it from the front, which takes a bit of pressure off, having a person there. I actually got a bit caught out coming out of Glen Innes and had to bridge across to the front group… that took quite an effort.”
Nicholas White duly dominated the sprint finish to take third, gapping the field and perhaps prompting the question of whether it might have been a better option for Sunderland to refuse to pull turns and perhaps wait for White in the finale.
The result sees Sunderland take over the leadership of the NRS, though he sits equal with teammate White on the overall standings.
Megan Scott (Sydney Uni- Staminade) won the non-NRS women's event ahead of Katie Banerjee (Vie 13-KOM Financial Advice) and Kate Perry (Specialized Women's Racing).
The race was marred slightly by the lax traffic organisation, with promised road closures indifferently enforced by police once the race moved off the closed road section into the promised rolling road closures. This is unusual for the Grafton to Inverell, normally a well-run and policed event, but there were numerous incidents during the race that could have compromised rider and convoy safety.