The idea behind this piece is to look at the riders and teams that may not have graced television screens, instead looking at some of the diamonds in the rough at levels below the WorldTour.
Best Australian Cyclists
Ben Dyball (St George Continental) -
Dyball, 29, has spent a large portion of his career been referred to as the ‘what if’ rider of his generation. A superb climbing talent who battled eating disorders, uncertainty about bike-handling ability and demonstrated lack of consistency proved the doubters wrong with a 2018 season return that dwarfs anything achieved by an Australian rider on the Asian Tour.
After reeling off-podium finish after podium finish at highly competitive events, Dyball ends 2018 as the top-ranked rider in Asia. He remains one of the best Australian climbers and deserves to get a chance to show himself at the highest level after this year of top-level showings.
Grace Brown (Holden Team Gusto, moving to Mitchelton-Scott)
Going places quickly, both literally and metaphorically, is former runner Grace Brown. She sent an early season warning with great performances at Nationals and the Tour Down Under before becoming the 13th Amy Gillett Foundation Scholarship recipient. That enabled her to have a limited stint with Wiggle-High5 on the WorldTour stage before showing that she really belonged at the top level with her valuable ride at the world championships.
The winner of the 2018 domestic National Road Series (NRS), Brown showed up to events underdone or training to other goals and blitzed the domestic field. The Victorian shapes as a similar talent to Lucy Kennedy and given the impact that Kennedy has had in a season curtailed by injury, hopes are high for Brown.
Top Young Talents
It would be possible to fill this section with names, but for the sake of expediency, we’ll restrict it to two riders.
Kaden Groves (St George Continental/Mitchelton-BikeExchange, moving to SEG Racing) is a young man going places. Everyone talks about his talents with equal parts enthusiasm and awe. A sprinter who can outclimb the majority of the peloton and then creates a buzz of excitement with his fast finishes unseen since a young Caleb Ewan first showed his face.
Groves, 20, already has four professional wins to his name in some of the hardest races in Asia and will see European competition next year as he joins development team SEG Racing. He was kept out of Nationals in 2018 with injury but 2019 offers a golden chance for Groves to announce himself to those outside the aficionados of the local scene.
Sarah Gigante (Holden Team Gusto) is one of the most vivacious young cyclists in domestic racing, combining a relentless enthusiasm for all things cycling with a smart approach and formidable ability. She swept the women’s junior national road titles in Buninyong before backing it up with track national victories and further performances on the road in the NRS.
A horror crash saw Gigante require surgery mid-season. Despite having to juggle Higher School Certificate studies at the same time, Gigante was able to complete a comeback and race at the world championships where she put in a creditable performance. The 18-year-old is always a positive influence at races and the future only looks rosy for her.
Most Unexpected performances
James Whelan won the under 23 Tour of Flanders in a result that beggared belief. Whelan is an incredibly progressive talent within Australian cycling. In September 2017 he rode his first NRS event, in December 2017 he won the prestigious Tour of Tasmania, impressed at Nationals in January 2018, then finished ninth on the queen stage of the Herald Sun Tour, beating out WorldTour prospects who were trying their hardest to beat him.
With his reputation as a climber blossoming, he went to Europe and immediately won one of the hardest races on the calendar, the Espoirs Tour of Flanders, in his first race over the cobbles, his first race in Europe, against riders built to race in these conditions and with high pedigrees of their own. Though the rest of his season was blighted by crashes, the win secured a professional contract with EF Education First-Rapha for 2019.
Jason Thomason’s win at the Tour of the Great South Coast also deserves a mention within this section.
"Cycling can be a brutal sport. That is particularly true for those at the back of the peloton, grovelling in the wake of some of the superb athletes that the National Road Series sees grace the roads of regional Australia.
One of the teams of the battlers is unquestionably Van D’am Racing p/b Butterfields, a development squad from South Australia that is more accustomed to the middle of the result sheet than the top.”
These were words written by this author for the Van D’am website after Thomason took what was a very unlikely win in the NRS in August.
The memory of the win and the emotional celebration afterwards from a team that epitomises the image of the ‘Aussie underdog’ within the sport still creates goosebumps.
This, unfortunately, doesn’t carry the full force of law, but there are a number of cyclists, nominally from overseas that are embraced by Australia and given honorary status as an Australian. Past examples include Koen de Kort, Esteban Chaves and Valentina Scandolara, but there are a few new inductees.
Raphael Freienstein (Inform MAKE) will be a name well-known to those that followed the NRS a few years ago but the German cyclist returned to Australia in 2018 with a mission in mind. The most consistent cyclist on the domestic scene, Freienstein spearheaded a young Inform MAKE squad to an individual NRS title win. Well-spoken, courteous and hard-working, there could be few better role models for young Australian cyclists in coming years.
Catalina Soto is a Chilean cyclist based out of Melbourne who races with Holden Team Gusto. She strode into Brunswick Cycling Club with the intent of improving her cycling and with their help she went to the world championships as a junior and took 14th in the time trial and 28th in the road race. One to watch with a can-do attitude.
Event of the year
The mix of intimacy and intensity of the Road Nationals is hard to replicate elsewhere in the racing season, and the 2018 edition of ‘Nats’ also produced some of the best racing you can see anywhere. Late attacks were swallowed up in the final few metres, while others just hung on to take victory.
The expansion of the 2018 event incorporated para-cyclists and junior athletes, a positive change that brought an increased atmosphere of community to what was formerly an ‘elite-only’ event.