Tristan Saunders has won the Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic after being set up by effective, if slightly unconventional, teamwork by Team Bridgelane.
In the late stages of the mammoth 267-kilometre race, the South Australian went solo from the remnants of the day-long breakaway.
Proving to have the best legs left, Saunders time-trialled away to collect an emphatic victory on Raglan Parade, taking the biggest win in the 22-year-old’s young career.
“I don’t believe it, honestly. This race, it’s such as a special race,” Saunders said in his post-race interview.
“It’s my fourth go and I’ve wanted to win every time I’ve raced. This team put it together so well. I can’t believe it and I can’t thank the boys enough.”
Saunders benefited from the earlier work of teammate Sam Jenner, who spent much of the finale in a small breakaway up the road, taking the pressure off Team Bridgelane.
“I had the perfect ride, I was just sitting in the wheels,” Saunders said.
“We were so well-represented from the gun, Sammy Jenner out there at the front. All I had to do was just sit there, me and Chappy (Tom Chapman) following all the moves. And then I just had to go on my own at the end.”
Brendon Green (Cycling Development Foundation) took second place with a late attack from the chase group, while Bailey Mcdonald (NCMG Criterion Racing) led home the sprint for third.
The podium getters had been part of an enormous breakaway of 29 that formed during the first half of the race, which was slowed by stiff headwinds.
All the big teams of the AusCycling National Road Series made that move, including three riders each from Team Bridgelane, ARA Skip Capital (including 2022 NRS winner Kane Richards), Blackshaw Racing and CCACHE x Par Küp, as well as Green, Mcdonald, Jordan Villani, Liam Johnston, and Daniel Bonello, among others.
By the halfway mark, their lead had extended to seven minutes over the peloton, which was curiously led by ARA Skip Capital despite them having strong riders up front.
Lack of cohesion in the breakaway saw multiple attempts to thin it down with individual attacks. The one that stuck was a two-up move by Jenner and Bonello with 100km remaining, forcing ARA Skip Capital into chasing for Richards.
Somewhat unconventionally, despite having Jenner up the road, Tom Chapman (Team Bridgelane) attacked from the chase group along the Great Ocean Road, and again through the feed zone.
While this did bring his rivals closer to his teammate, the accelerations left Richards isolated without any ARA Skip Capital teammates.
More counter-moves meant that after Jenner and Bonello were caught, Team Bridgelane retained the upper hand with two riders in the new lead group of nine: Jenner and a fresh-looking Saunders. Only CCACHE x Par Küp matched them with two riders in Brendon Davids and Bentley Niquet-Olden.
An awkward stalemate ensued, with nobody willing to make the pace, yet a sense of caution against burning matches on attacks with 40km still to race.
Behind, the peloton was timed at 11 minutes and completely out of the picture, although news filtered through of a rapid chase by Ben Hill and Tour de France winner Chris Froome at just over 4 minutes and closing.
Back up front, those with numbers began trying their luck, with Davids and Saunders each attacking several times – even, in the case of the Bridgelane rider, through a feed zone.
However, nothing stuck until Green tried with 24km remaining, then Saunders and Niquet-Olden bridged across.
With 19km to go, Saunders rolled away from that leading trio and was not seen again until after the finish line in Warrnambool. Any attempts to chase behind were frustrated by an indefatigable Jenner, allowing Saunders to complete a well-crafted race by Team Bridgelane.
We were a little bit confused because ARA had probably their strongest riders there, but they weren’t looking too willing to ride it from the front,” Saunders said about the initial breakaway.
“So, we just tried to keep the race moving; keep us ahead. We were getting a few different time checks from behind, didn’t know how far really they were.
“We wanted to race it from the front, and we got put in the perfect position by Sammy Jenner, and me and Tommy just sitting in taking care of ourselves.”
Saunders said that despite his usually quick finish, he did not want to take his chances in a sprint.
“I was actually hoping that I could go solo because (during) a few of the jumps, my legs weren’t feeling great, in terms of just the sprint. I was a bit worried coming down to a sprint, how I was going to feel at the end.
“I tried to get away with those two (Green and Niquet-Olden). The other two guys didn’t roll through and I thought I’d just go on my own. And if they come back to me, they come back to me. If they don’t, I’ll just put my head down, not look back, and go for the line.”
His winning time was almost squarely on the 7-hour mark, evidence of the tough going in the headwinds.
Chris Froome finished ahead of the peloton in 12th place, an entertaining ride for the Grand Tour legend after officials held back the start when his flight to the race was delayed.
It’s Saunders’ second NRS win after picking up a stage in last year’s Tour of the Tropics, but the Warrny is certainly his biggest victory so far – and another success for the team of Andrew Christie-Johnson.
Click for full results.
Photos: Con Chronis