One way women's cycling is different to that of men is the breadth of ages across the peloton. Where late 30-somethings are an anomaly among the men, it is the norm with the women. Asks Anthony Tan in Ballarat, among the fairer sex, is age a determinant of success, and can a small field see an as good - or better - race than a large one?
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:39 PM

Thursday at the Cycling Australia
Road National Championships, the entire complement of elite and under-23 women comprised 29 riders.

Shara Gillow, who took her fourth elite national time trial title on the 29.3 kilometre course, won by a margin of one minute and one second from 40-year-old Bridie O'Donnell, 13 years her senior, with Taryn Heather, a further eight seconds behind and 31 years of age, third.

Notwithstanding O'Donnell's highly creditable performance, that a part-time doctor, part-time cyclist/sports director, now in her forties (not that there's anything wrong with that...), can ride to a silver medal at a national championship, what does that say about the depth of the the women's field here in Buninyong?

"Well, I don't think you need fifty riders to make the race solid," said O'Donnell.

"You get a lot of local guys showing up and racing the elite men and finishing seven minutes down, so it doesn't make for good competition.

"I don't think it's necessary (to have a large field to see a good competition). I think we've seen women who tend to gravitate towards a course or a discipline will do that.

"I wish the national selectors would work this shit out, but time trialling is a discipline that people get better at with age. It's no coincidence that at the (2012) Olympics in London, the podium, the average age was 39. If people let athletes do their thing and prepare the right way, they'll perform well - we saw that (today) with Felicity Wardlaw (who finished fourth)."

Gillow had a different take on age being a determinant of success in time trials.

"I don't think it's necessarily age. It's (the nature of) women's cycling: they can peak in their early 20s, or they can peak in their late 30s," she said - but did admit valuable lessons can be learned as one gets older: "The 2014 season, I had the worst year I ever had, results-wise. I had a lot to learn last year.

"I think it's very individual myself. I'm really going (to try and mould myself off) someone like Lisa Brennauer. She's my competition, she's current (time trial) world champion - and she's still pretty young (26 years). The age (of those who win time trials) is all over the place, really."

"I know I'm really, really old," jested O'Donnell, "but I don't feel like I've reached my best potential yet."

"Sitting on an old woman..."

There was also some conjecture whether Gillow, who only passed O'Donnell in the final few hundred metres but not without trying beforehand, used her competitor's slipstream longer than she should have.

"I don't know if it was a drag race. I was in front, so she (Gillow) was probably benefitting from having me just in front," O'Donnell said.

"She made all the (time) damage, I think, on the way out. (But) it's very helpful having someone to sit on (to) all the way back, so she said be ashamed of herself - a full-time, professional athlete, sitting on an old woman like me," the silver medallist, accompanied by a sardonic smile, said.

Should the officials have done something? "I have never sat 20 metres behind a rider and not overtaken her.

"It's very hard to say. She (Gillow) obviously had a better first fourteen-and-a-half kilometres than I did, and it's hard to know if she would've ridden exactly the same time and the same pace if she started five minutes before me. You never know. But it's absolutely a benefit to have somebody sitting there, to chase - it's something she can work on relentlessly."

Was a specific tactic, then, to sit on Bridie?

"No, not at all. I was just riding my own race," said Gillow. "I was on the other side of the road, just trying to pass (O'Donnell) at one stage, then only got that bit of opportunity at the end, so... I was just riding my own race, just concentrating on my own race.

"I tried to pass her, but then I was spinning out in my 53 (tooth chainring) on the downhills and then I'd catch her again, so it was a bit of cat-and-mouse at one stage. And I think towards the end, I started to come back stronger and stronger, and passed her at the finish line.

"I was actually trying to stay out of her slipstream, taking the longer route on the other side of the road, to make (the contest) a bit more even. She was going really good in the downhill section; I just wish I had a little bit of a bigger gear in the downhill (sections)."

O'Donnell remarked: "I don't appreciate it, but it's a bike race, and if she's not going to get DQ'd then it's within the rules."