If there's a single phrase that sums up Liam White as a rider it's probably some variation of 'bloody tough with a good kick".
White proved those qualities today as he suffered through bad legs, a very poorly timed mechanical and riders sitting on to take the win on Day 5 in the series of NRS one-day races in the Tweed.
If there's a succinct phrase that sums up Brendan Johnston (CCS Canberra), it's not known to this writer, as he has proven in this series of races that he's a sprinter, a mountain climber, a criterium rider and his own super domestique all rolled into one.
An early strong break of riders got away after some serious scuffling on the first lap of the race, with attacks and counter-attacks trying to go free before the eventual break was formed. Big threats Cameron Scott (ARA-Sunshine Coast), Jay Vine (Nero Continental), Will Hodges (Oliver's Real Food Racing) and Sam Jenner (Team Bridgelane) all had pedigree with their performances in the past and were joined by Ryan Schilt (CycleHouse), Dylan Hopkins (CCS Canberra), Carter Turnbull (Inform TM Insight MAKE), Sam Volkers (Memil Pro Cycling) and Alex Bogna (Avantias).
The group cooperated mostly well, with the exception of Hopkins, who was policing things for team leader Johnston and Jenner, who would have preferred a better breakaway with more Bridgelane representation.
That break yo-yo-ed at a gap of just over a minute for a while, before Team Bridgelane decided that they'd had enough of hurting themselves to bring back a strong break after a number of tough days of competition.
The gap began to balloon out as the peloton stopped for a natural break, seemingly letting the nine riders fight it out for stage honours as the gap peaked at a four-minute lead with 60 kilometres to race. But that wasn't to be, as 'Trekky' (Johnston's nickname) stepped to the fore to make his presence felt.
"I thought 'bugger this, I'm not out here to roll around'," said Johnston after the stage. "I kept on hitting it, hitting it, hitting it. A couple of groups went away, were brought back, went again."
Johnston's ferocious pace, ignoring normal slower points such as feed zones and perhaps conventional wisdom on how to win a bike race, reduced the gap dramatically from four minutes to a minute and ten seconds within the space of approximately 10 kilometres, even more impressively, a break that was reportedly working well at this stage as Jenner had joined the pace-making. Meanwhile, behind the peloton was in tatters with riders dropped and the main bunch in three parts.
That was the point where there was an awkward moment as the men's breakaway approached the rear of the women's peloton, racing on the same circuit at the same time as the men's race. The men's race continued past the neutralised women's bunch and onwards, with the race for the win still very much in play.
Johnston's incessant attacks continued, bringing the race back together before eventually a group of three, joined by a group of two other riders to form a quintet at the front of the race featuring White, Johnston, Carter Turnbull (Inform TM Insight MAKE), Sam Hill (Bridgelane) and Alistair Mackellar (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast). They established a winning gap to the peloton with Kane Richards (Avantias) in the middle, struggling to bridge across.
Richards eventually made the bridge with just under two kilometres remaining, but White was like a man possessed in the sprint, muscling clear of his rivals to win by lengths to Johnston, with Hill finishing in third. White's race reflected the peloton's predicament, a hard race in the heat with the pace constantly on.
"Definitely at the start of the day I didn't expect it, which is always nice," said White. "It was a super tough day for me, I dropped my chain with two laps to go. Almost every climb I was getting shelled except for the last couple and then we had a couple of passengers in the finishing breakaway. Because of team instructions, that's the way the race works, but it was good that 'Trekky' and I were able to go 1-2. I don't know who got third. If it was Carter (Turnbull), great on him, he also rode really well in that final part of the stage."
The result that currently shines brightest in White's career is his third behind Team Sky duo Owain Doull and Luke Rowe on an epic stage of the Herald Sun Tour. White's unlikely, come-from-behind performance was aided significantly by his teammates, who assisted him to get to the finale on a day of racing where he was far from at his best of the start.
"I can't thank the Oliver's guys enough," said White. "The second last lap where I dropped my chain, Gus Lyons and Kai Chapman dropped back and paced me back on the group. I wasn't the protected guy for the day, but I followed one move and it stuck."
White has shed six kilograms from his peak weight in lockdown, 75 kilograms to 69, with his parent's cooking to blame and then also to credit after a diet change. Liam lived with his parents and brother Nick - a rider who is getting significant WorldTour hype - during lockdown and also in the process of his brother's change of coach to Andrew Christie-Johnston, Bridgelane sports director and coach who has shepherded many riders to the professional peloton. Liam jumped on brother Nick's newly-appointed diet to make it easier for their parents to shop and it is a more lean and mean Liam White that has emerged from lockdown.
"Mum and Dad have been compassionate about that and looking to keep me and Nick in top shape," said Liam White. "With the help of Oliver's and Compeat Nutrition, they've been keeping my head on straight. But don't worry, we've had our share of chocolate."
Somebody who looks like he hasn't had a cheat meal in months is National Road Series leader Johnston. If the NRS individual title ends being won by him, it will likely be down to his performance today. Jay Vine and Cameron Scott were in the breakaway, both significant threats to his lead, but his performance to do the lion's share of the work to bring them back on the road, then make the new break, then sprint to second against an accomplished fast man like White only tells a small part of the effort 'Trekky' expended.
"I was happy to see Liam take the win," said Johnston. "He committed in that last bit, not that I was able to come round him but I was happy to see him get up.
"It was a great day, it was a real objective to get back to the front of the race when I really thought that we were out of it."
Johnston finished second today after obliterating the rest of the bunch, fifth on Day 4 on the summit finish of Tomewin, third on Day 3 after a series of late, punchy climbs followed by a sprint, and sixth on the Day 2 criterium. The only stage where Johnston failed to finish in the points was the opening day time trial, but combined with his Melbourne to Warrnambool victory the endurance mountain bike star is holding a strong, if not quite insurmountable lead at the top of the individual standings.