After a year hiatus, the Melbourne to Warrnambool was back on the NRS Calendar. The timing may have changed (previously November, now February making it the first NRS race on the calendar), the route might have been slightly altered (to include some stunning Great Ocean Road sections), but the heritage and soul of the Epic race remained.
Domestic one day classics of recent years have followed a very similar pattern; one that has seen the winner come from the main break of the day. Couple this pattern with Warnie's new time slot in the NRS calendar and you can bet there was a very common theme to all team discussions over the dinner table Friday night ... GET IN THE BREAK!!
So as the 160 NRS riders and hundreds of B and C grade racers hit the first few kms of the M1, the sound of their DS's voice still ringing in their ears, it became very clear, very quickly, that this was going to be a fast opening.
The multi lane highway might have made a breakaway almost impossible, but it did give our guys the opportunity to let their Shimano C60 tubulars do their thing. Anyone with an opinion on the clinchers v tubulars argument, needs to roll off the front of a 100 man Pelo at 70km/hr on a set of C60 tubulars!
Fast wheels aside, it wasn't until the 30km KOM mark that a move of some relevance got some space. TNB rider Jesse Coyle had made the split, as had a number of the other big teams. For a moment the bunch sat up and it looked like this could have been THE move. That was until Mr Ben Hill decided he would implement the "There Must Be A Hill In The Break At Warnie" rule and almost single handedly brought it back.
Normal service then resumed as small moves established and returned. For those of you familiar with this style of racing you know how taxing it can be. TNB shared the load of trying to get in the break extremely well. Obviously Sam Hill and Jordan Louis were the most active, but Chris Miller, Bentley Olden and Kallum all threw their hat in the ring on multiple occasions.
Being attentive and aware at all times is key and it is a skill Sam Hill has perfected. So it was no surprise that as the bunch hit the first feed zone (just after the first sprint at 88km), as many riders switched off to grab feed bags or take nature breaks a move slipped away.
Could this be the one? Teams quickly made assessments of who they had represented and who rival teams had represented. Just as the bunch considered it's next move it was brought to standstill on a dangerous right had turn over train tracks, a pause which seemed to take the wind out of the bunch.
Meanwhile Sam Hill positioned himself in a breakaway of 12 who set about working together, putting time into the bunch very quickly.
There was a time in the very recent past, where, as a new team, merely making the breakaway was considered a goal achieved. Now, as a team we felt we had multiple options and opportunities for achieving results, from multiple riders and circumstances.
How did this plays out on the road? Well, Sam was aware it was not his responsibility to drive the break, with the best part of 180km remaining it was incredibly important he knew he had to stay in position for the long haul.
With the break gone and 160km remaining, a bizarre period followed in the bunch. From averaging 48km/hr for almost 2 hours, the bunch covered 30km in the following hour. In fact race organisation threatened to pull the peloton off the road as the gap blew out to 14 minutes.
A stale mate had developed amongst the teams, partly due to their confidence in their rider and also the unknown quantity of the Great Ocean Road section, which had the potential for exposed cross wind.
Ultimately however as first the break and the bunch hit the beautiful coast road we learnt the benign conditions of the first 200km would continue.
Throughout this benign period however, Sam was racing hard grabbing sprint and KOM Points at every opportunity. He also knew if he intended to win the race it ultimately had to be from a smaller group. Just before the 200km he set out with one break away compatriot on a quest for the win.
While the move was unsuccessful, it did give him the chance to win the 200km championship, a highly sought after Victorian Cycling championship. Sam was recorded as the 2019 Champion, a well earned accolade.
No sprint is straight forward, certainly not ones after 6 hours of racing. But Sam will be the first to admit that in hindsight, his decision to go early on the left hand side might not have been the best one. But to be fair he was willing to risk it all in the quest for the win as he knew a straight up sprint with Nick White and Harrison Bailey was never going to prove successful.
For those of you watching the live stream, you would agree that Nick White was a deserving winner, he has added tactical awareness to his already long list of skills, a combination that sees him crowned 2019 Melbourne to Warnambool winner.
Special mention to Harrison Bailey of GPM, a training partner of many of the Sydney based TNB riders and someone who is rumoured to be very pleased with his result.
Meanwhile the bunch was having some fun, as the final 30km were raced as if more than egos were on the line. Jay Vine and Tristan Ward continued where they left off at the Shimano Wollongong crit, marking each other and forcing a break that included last years winner Nathan Elliot. They crossed the line just in front of a small selection which included Jesse Coyle, giving Team Nero Bianchi three riders in the top 20 and a top three on teams classification.
But these are merely side notes on Sam's outing. His tally was impressive. He grabbed the KOM WINNER Jersey, the SPRINT WINNER Jersey and the 200km CHAMPIONSHIP WINNER as well a coming 6th overall. To take all these jerseys at one of the biggest one day races in Australia is a fantastic result for Sam. Any one of the seven guys who represented TNB on the weekend will tell you it is only the beginning. A solid foundation for us all to build on 2019 and beyond.
Finally, to get seven riders from Melbourne to Warnambool takes more than 250 normalised power, it takes a support team. We were lucky enough to have Margret Phillips, Geoff Stubbs, the whole Bentley family and of course, Al Reither and Sam Witmiz calling the shots in the car. Thank you as always for all your help to make this possible.