A little known quirk in the NRS rulebook is that after the first of October, a team may take on an U19 rider in addition to the maximum allowed squad for NRS events. Due to this, I was given the opportunity to ride the 2019 Tour of Gippsland.
My expectations were evidently very high given the presence of four continental teams and a host of riders that I look up to but I set myself a goal of not letting this or my nerves affect the way that I raced. I was there, not just to make up numbers but to enable my teammates to get the best results possible. For the team, this was an important race because GC results could move us up in the NRS team standings.
With the weather forecast looking very Victorian and a trio of tough stages this was lining up to be a very difficult tour for me.
Late starts always get me nervous. Before stage one, a square circuit, one of the sides being gravel, this was especially the case. The moment our van rolled into the teams parking the bad weather began to roll in, getting my heart pumping even louder. As the starting gun fired, all of this disappeared and I became focussed on the race and optimizing my performance.
I was committed to holding position in the top 20 and making sure that the team had a presence in all of the major moves that went off of the front. Contrary to most of the club and state racing that I have done in the past, we were not the only team with this goal and that made it difficult for any meaningful moves to get off of the front.
The gravel that I was nervous about beforehand ended up being not so difficult or decisive because the majority of it was downhill and I was able to use that section to my advantage, gaining position there every lap. In the second half of the race, Jordan, who was impeded by mechanical issues, was able to sneak off the front and stay away for 2 laps.
This made life easier for me because I was able to just follow chasing moves without having to contribute. Surprisingly enough, I was able to do this without killing myself and it allowed me to hold good position, avoiding any possible splits on gravel or crosswind sections. On the last lap, leadout trains were beginning to form with all the sprinters teams represented. This surge towards the front meant many riders moving forward in the wind, allowing Bentley, Jay and I to move forward with relative ease.
The three of us were at the front exiting the circuits and going into the last corner, Jay was in fourth wheel and I was further back in 10-15th wheel, with 300m to go. Because it had been raining, the corners were quite slippery and the fast moving riders on the inside slid out taking Jay and I out. At first, I was really disappointed both for Jay missing out on the podium and personally what could have been a top 10 result for me in my first NRS race. However, after the race I realised that I had to be pretty stoked about my ride considering my lack of experience at this level.
Friday had left me feeling confident about stage 2 and the 5:30am wake up meant my nerves had no time to fester. The course profile looked favourable for me, with a pretty steep ~5 minute climb that we would go up 10 times and the sun peeking out of the clouds during our warm-up. After doing a lap of course with Sam, I found out that Jesse had a rear derailleur that was not working.
Jordan was riding the spare bike so I offered JC my bike because he was going to be much more important in the team's plan than me. This left me very pessimistic on the number of laps I would be able to ride with the peloton, especially because there were some very steep pitches on the menu.
Once the race had started, I had a very singular focus. Get to the front before the climb. Doing this meant that I could drift backwards and just regain contact with the group on the descent. I was able to repeat this until the fifth lap where it started pouring down rain and the lactic acid was building up from my 40rpm strength efforts.
The descent on that lap was one of the scariest things I have done on my bike. The combination of gale force winds, hail and cold temperatures made me feel as if I was being shaken from side to side in a snow globe. I was only just holding my bike upright and got pushed off the road onto the grass at one point.
When I passed the finish line and found out the race was called off it was a bitter-sweet feeling. I was relieved to not have to continue riding in dangerous conditions but so disappointed that the 5 Nero boys who were in the front group of 20-30 didn’t get an opportunity to play their cards and potentially fight for the GC win.
Understandably, the mood on the trip home was a little bit sour but we had to remember that bike racing often pans out in an unexpected way and that this only makes the wins feel sweeter.
The last stage was the one I was looking forward to the least. It was a hot dog crit and it was going to be wet. From my perspective, this was probably the least interesting stage. While Jay was up the front sending attacks, I was putting in full gas sprints to catch the back of the group. Despite my best attempts, I wasn’t able to move into better bunch position around the wet corners or on the straights as the pace was kept high by the sprinters’ teams. Luckily, I was surrounded by some experienced riders and was able to hold this position until the end.
The team finished the tour with four riders inside the top 20 on GC and one most aggressive rider jersey. I was 9th placed young rider. Although this was a disappointing tour from a team perspective, I cannot be more thankful to the team giving me a chance and the boys always encouraging me on and off the road. This race was the perfect initiation into the top echelon of racing.
Words By: Robbie Matthews