When it came to the final few hundred metres of the 30 kilometre ascent of Falls Creek, there were four WorldTour riders battling it out to take the win, and one National Road Series (NRS) rider, Jaime Gunning (Specialized Women’s Racing).
Gunning was far from overawed by the occasion or her opposition as she capitalised on the opportunity to take second overall behind Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott).
“I was just focused on trying to get the young rider jersey and not let the pure climbers get too far ahead,” said Gunning. “Surprisingly, I managed to slide into second on GC while doing that.”
The 21-year-old looked calm and collected throughout the race, quite the feat after Kennedy's massive haymaker attacks in the closing kilometres.
She was generally one of the first to follow Kennedy and rarely put herself in a position of difficulty.
“People say I have poker face… but it is purely a poker face,” said Gunning. “Inside I’m dying, dying a thousand deaths."
"It was really hard, Lucy has a serious motor and her attacks really, really hurt. I managed to hang on until those last few hundred metres.”
Kennedy claimed overall victory after Gunning tailed off slightly under the hot pace of the final few hundred metres.
“I was very much on my limit when they opened up the sprint and I wasn’t stressed about losing a couple of seconds because I was quite aware of where the GC was,” said Gunning.
Gunning’s results over the last two years tell the tale almost by themselves - best young rider at the 2019 Tour Down Under, winner of the 2020 Under 23 national road race, numerous top five and 10 finishes and now runner-up at the Herald Sun Tour behind one of the strongest climbers in the world.
She achieved all of this while headlining a domestic team as just a youngster in the scheme of things.
“It was a pretty good summer,” said Gunning. “If anything it was better than my one last year. Last year, I came away with best young rider at Tour Down Under and this year I didn’t.
“I think the way I raced this year was a lot better and I surprised myself at all the races this year and show that I can do more than just climb.”
On the podium together yesterday, Gunning and Kennedy also share a history stretching back to QETS Racing under supercoach Kim Palmer with Gunning a fresh-faced 16-year-old and Kennedy a recent convert from middle-distance running.
Add in NRS champion Emily Herfoss, WorldTour rider Jessica Pratt, and Ainslie Bakker, a phenomenal talent unfortunately forced out of the sport after a horror crash, and the postive trend in riders emerging from that squad is obvious.
"(Gunning) is a very talented rider with great physiology,” Palmer said. “She was a pleasure to coach and I always knew she’d go a long way.”
Specialized has been Gunning’s home for the past few years, with the Queenslander proud of the way her team has measured up against top tier opposition.
“It was very competitive,” said Gunning. “That’s why I love that my team are only a domestic team and we’re still highly regarded as one of the best teams racing in summer. I’m stoked that we can race at such a high level.”
“It’s kind of the only opportunity we get as a domestic team to race at that level. Obviously, we have nationals and international riders come back for that, but it’s not so team-orientated. So, to have basically WorldTour teams here, you can get an idea of where you’re at and what your level is.”
While her results to date indicate she’s on track for a future WorldTour berth, Gunning herself isn't quite there yet.
“No, I’m definitely not close,” said Gunning. “I’ve got a few friends that have done the WorldTour in Europe, they say it’s a lot different and a lot harder. The racing in Australia is a good indicator but it’s not the full picture.”
While Gunning will definitely need to bridge the gap to cycling's top-tier, it is perhaps not quite as big as she fears.
Plenty of WorldTour teams will no doubt like what they see in the versatile youngster, and it won’t be long before they come knocking.