We line up behind a sheet of mist. It’s going to be a wet race.
A hundred little helmets, their colour popping through the grey, bob as we roll to the start line.
Each contains a world of hope and uncertainty. Plans and doubts buzz inside, everyone knowing what they’ve managed to achieve in preparation and what they haven’t.
Hoping it’ll be enough. We shiver in the cold, feeling the pressure squeeze down on us.
Nationals means so much to all these riders – it’s more than just a one-day race, it’s trying again and again and somehow still believing it’ll eventually work out.
At the finish line – scenes of elation and disappointment. Riders overwhelmed by emotion.
The winner, Sarah Roy, wipes tears of happiness from the corners of her eyes, hugging her teammate, Grace Brown.
The two of them smiling, gripped by the feelings which flood them. It’s reflected later in the men’s race, with Cameron Meyer and Luke Durbridge.
Bikes discarded, lying forgotten on the ground as they embrace.
They’ve ridden all day for each other, backs against the wall, and the hard work has paid off in a dramatic finish. From concentration to elation in a few split seconds.
Then there are others – the people who rode for their teammates, who might’ve hoped they’d get a chance at the result themselves. Silently a little disappointed.
Some riders, like Peta Mullens and Matilda Reynolds having injured themselves in the criterium and, incredibly, managing to get in the break. Suffering in excruciating pain all day.
Those who make it to the line are proud of themselves, gripped by the rollercoaster of the week’s events, exhausted.
In the men’s race, second place Kelland O’Brien hugs his teammate, but it’s a complete contrast to that of the winners.
They console each other, overwhelmed by what could’ve been, like they’ve thrown something away.
People crossing the line just behind hang their heads or bash their bars in frustration, having been out of position, gone too early or too late, or crashed out of the lead group.
A handful of excited winners among a scene of exhaustion and disappointment.
But these scenes don’t show the many others who it went wrong for much earlier.
There are people you don’t see - people whose training didn’t go right, who were injured, who struggled to keep going through COVID.
There were people who had worked for months in preparation who got locked down in Western Australia and couldn’t make the start.
There were people worn down after trying for years and not seeing the success they’d hoped for, who decided it was time to stop and live a normal life.
For every person who messes up the last corner, starts their sprint too early or crashes in the final kilometres, there are many more, unseen, who didn’t even make the start line.
There are many others who did, but did so knowing they weren’t in good enough form. That they weren’t even going to finish this year. And every winner has felt these struggles too.
That’s why when everything does work out, it means so much to people. It’s why when it almost works out but is lost – in a momentary mistake, a miscalculation or instance of bad luck – it can be so tormentingly painful.
You know how few chances you can get in this sport.
I watch the finishes from the sidelines, having, myself, been pulled from the race.
Getting tangled in a crash on the first lap was the least of my worries, as I battled back to the bunch, the misty rain washing the blood from my knee down my leg.
My bigger issue was the four months of training I missed last year due to fatigue issues. The fact I hadn’t gotten back to fitness.
I looked down at my knee. The crash happened in front of me on the climb and was only a small tumble, but it forced me to chase from the beginning.
The icing on the cake to a race I knew I wasn’t going to finish. But as people cheered my name, rattling cowbells as I clawed my way up the climb, not seeming to mind that I was getting dropped for the third time, I just felt glad.
Glad for how far we were from the COVID-tainted depths of last winter. That I wasn’t sitting in my room, staring at a wall, wondering if I was ever going to get overseas again. That I wasn’t coming home from a one-hour easy ride and struggling to imagine the idea of ever racing again.
There are many stories of elation, disappointment and suffering told on the faces of riders who cross the finish line in the focus of the cameras.
But there are more stories, more drama behind the scenes, in the riders who are absent from the front of the race.
That’s what makes the National Championships what it is.
That’s why it means so much to people to get a result in Buninyong.
Me, I’m just proud to have made it here, to have stood on the start line. Because there were plenty of times in the last 12 months where it looked like I wouldn’t be doing cycling anymore by the time 2021 Nationals came around.
And you can say that for many people on that start line, no matter what their form looked like on the day – they made it through one of the hardest years to be a cyclist.