• Neil van der Ploeg (centre) edges out Matt Ross (right) at the 2017 Grafton to Inverell (Bruce Wilson/Veloshotz)Source: Bruce Wilson/Veloshotz
If you think that the only stories of interest are in the World Tour, it's a good time to re-evaluate as the National Road Series had a lot going on over the weekend! It was the one day epic, the 228 km Grafton to Inverell, for the men and the hilly Mersey Valley Tour down in Tasmania for the women.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

16 May 2017 - 6:18 PM  UPDATED 16 May 2017 - 6:34 PM

Nice guys don't always finish last

A bellowed ‘Yes’ was the winning salute for Neil van der Ploeg (IsoWhey Sports SwissWelness) as he realised that he had taken a narrow victory ahead of Matt Ross (Carnegie Caulfield CC) and Ayden Toovey (NSWIS) at the Grafton to Inverell. The Albury-based rider came into the race as one of the favourites but had to really scrap hard at the finish to counter the attacks of the other three riders with whom he came to the line.

Van der Ploeg is well-liked by the majority of the peloton, he's funny and affable off the bike and one of the toughest competitors on it.

“If there’s a race that you want to win, the Grafton to Inverell has to be right up near the top of any list," said van der Ploeg, "just super happy to win it for the team.”

Van der Ploeg is a rider that has the talent and mentality to be a professional rider in Europe, but he was a late entry to the sport and the reluctance to hire older riders has kept him out of the World Tour. He's an asset for IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness, not only on the bike, but also running a Youtube channel that puts the focus on the humour in cycling.

Inspirational determination drives Girdlestone

If you haven't heard Keagan Girdelstone's story yet, check out his remarkable comeback story on his Youtube channel and his twitter feed. That he is alive is amazing. That he can walk and talk is amazing. That he just completed a 228 kilometre race, widely regarded as the toughest one day event Australia has to offer, beggars belief.

Visibly shaking with exertion after being given the honour by the group he was in of crossing the line first, Girdlestone (Tineli-Powerstream) was calm talking about how he felt completing one of the long list of goals in his comeback to cycling.

"Pretty sore I'm not going to lie. I was hurting at about 130 kilometres in, I went through a real bad patch but I actually came pretty good in the last 10-15 kilometres, quite surprising as it's by far the longest ride I've done. It was a good experience to get out there and finish. 

Girdlestone's story has touched many, both within and without the sport and seeing the crowd slap the barriers as his group came home and Keagan give a wave of appreciation was heartwarming.

"It was pretty special. A lot of the guys were really welcoming, they saw me in the bunch and said it was good to have me back. I got pretty emotional coming in the last three kilometres knowing that I was going to finish it. It was a special day."

"Definitely ticked off another goal. It was an honour to come over the line with the group and lead them through. For the next goal, I have no idea... take it how it comes."

It is a long way back from lying on the operating table and cheating death to the top of cycling, but Girdlestone was a prodigious talent and his incredibly strong mentality is going to give him as good a chance as anyone of completing the feat. He even sounded a warning to competitors that he'll be back to competing for the victory sooner than you might think.

"I'm definitely on track, the only thing I lack at the moment is racing. I'll get that strength back as I race more often and I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the end of the year I was riding at the front of the peloton again." 

The bounce-back

Lucy Kennedy (High5 Dreamteam) must be made of rubber! The Oceania time trial champion hit the tarmac hard during the Stage 1 time trial of the Mersey Valley Tour, she split her helmet apart and there were questions whether she would even continue after limping over the finish line in last place.

Two wins in the next two stages over well-known Tasmanian climbs like Gunns Plains were Kennedy's emphatic response to the disappointment of the first stage.

And it looks like she might be rewarded for her fine run of form, with Wiggle High5 team owner Rochelle Gilmore hinting that Europe may be calling...

Holden continue winning ways

It would be great news for Kennedy, although it may make the racing in the womens National Road Series a bit one-sided, as she was the major threat to end Holden Womens Cycling's early season dominance.

The squad have taken several steps up since the addition of Lisen Hockings last year, with riders maturing and working really well together as a team. The team atmosphere within the squad is one of healthy fun alongside their competitive steely edge and they really have the confidence that they can win any race they enter at the moment. They've been by far the strongest in time trials, have the most depth in the hills and can probably only be beaten in sprint finishes. 

Grace Brown took the win for them at Mersey Valley and they have Shannon Malseed in the NRS overall lead after three races done. They've got probably six of the top ten riders in Australia currently, though they will be without the services of reigning NRS champion Hockings after she broke her collarbone on the weekend.

The National Road Series still the best place for young stars to shine

The local scene offers great races for young riders to develop their skills and the physical prowess before they move up a level, heading over to Europe or the United States and getting paid. Realistically the level of what we saw at Grafton to Inverell is racing of a quality on par with a lot of overseas racing, one day classics that are that hard and fast simply aren't commonly held anywhere in the world. There were a few this week that really confirmed their potential.

Matt Ross (Drapac-Pat's Veg, though he raced in Carnegie Caulfield CC colours) has finally decided to concentrate more on the road than the track, it looks to be paying dividends already as he has been superb in Victorian racing and is now translating that form to the NRS. One of the best climbers around these days, can time trial and his sprint was almost enough to come around noted fast man Neil van der Ploeg at Grafton to Inverell. An exciting prospect.

Australian female talent in the junior ranks has looked a bit bare over the past few years but this season is set to change that. Madeleine Fasnacht (TIS Dulux), Jaime Gunning (Holden) and Jessica Pratt (High5 Dreamteam) are leading the charge, the talented climbers already compete with the best in the NRS and their future is in the World Tour if they want to pursue it. Even younger, there are talents like Sarah Gigante (Brunswick Cycling Club) and Anya Louw (TIS Dulux) who are already pinging the radar of those on the search for the future of Australian cycling.

The debate always is how much riders need to go offshore, at this stage the NRS doesn't offer enough race days for much more than half a season and with the haphazard way it is scheduled, you need to incorporate overseas events to get a full season on the bike.

Where are Drapac-Pat's Veg?

You might be forgiven for wondering why the Drapac-Pat's Veg team weren't making waves in Grafton. A number of their riders were there, Matt Ross and Drew Morey in particular had good races, but they were racing as individuals without team support. The race should have been a good target for the red and blue team, as their squad boasts former second-place finishers Cyrus Monk and Oliver Kent-Spark.

The feeder team for the Cannondale-Drapac World Tour squad hasn't clocked up many race days this season, supplementing the Australian summer of racing with local Victorian events and the Tour of Thailand. They have the riders to be competitive in almost any type of race and given their development mandate, hopefully they're planning to back-load their schedule with races.