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Victorian Peta Mullens (SRAM) won a two-up sprint against Rachel Neylan to take her first elite national road title, continuing the fine form she has shown during the Australian summer of racing. Mullens, reigning cross-country eliminator (XCE) mountain bike champion, could not contain her surprise and delight following her brilliant victory at the Mars Cycling Australian National Road Championships.
“I really can’t believe it,” said Mullens. “Of all the national titles…I’m a mountain biker, and I’d still prefer to win this one. It’s a bit ironic because this was supposed to be my only road race for the year, and now that I have won the stripes I might have to change my plans.”
In the penultimate lap, Mullens escaped from the grasp of an eight rider chase group with Neylan up the road. Neylan launched her missive up Mount Buninyong. Mullens bridged across on the Fisken Road descent. The duo worked together to build up nearly a minute lead as they crossed the finish line to the sound of the bell.
“I just saw an opportunity with Rachel on that second last lap,” said Mullens. “I thought my coach Mark Fenner is going to kill me for this. He told me to be patient but that is not the way I race bike races, and it was so good we rode away with it. I sat on Rachel for the last couple of hundred metres, but I knew we had 30 seconds, and I was confident that I would have her in a kick.”
Four time national time trial champion Shara Gillow broke away from the chasers on the tenth and final ascent of Mount Buninyong. She put time into the group behind but never quite managed to make contact with the leading duo. Gillow soloed across the line 22 seconds behind Mullens while relative newcomer Tessa Fabry (High5 Dream Team) won the 17-rider sprint for fourth place.
“At one stage, I was gaining on them,” said Gillow. “But the climb ran out. I’m mostly happy with the result. My legs were tired at the end.”
Orica-AIS, who had previously dominated the Australian Road National Championships, leaves Ballarat and Buninyong empty-handed. The only Australian-registered UCI women’s team failed to medal in any of the three championship events. Lizzie Williams sprinted in for sixth place to post the team’s top finish on Saturday following several break attempts by Amanda Spratt. It’s a big blow for the squad that has won the national road race since the team’s inception with Amanda Spratt (2012) and Gracie Elvin (2013-2014) and collected additional gold medals from former riders Alexis Rhodes in the criterium and Shara Gillow in the individual time trial.
“The team is obviously disappointed,” said Orica-AIS Sport Director Gene Bates. “It’s the first time we won’t take the jersey back to Europe. I was quick to remind them we have to approach this like a test series. It’s one of 50 or 60 races we do this year. It’s not the end of the day. It’s a long season, and there will be plenty of opportunities. I expect big things out of the girls in the coming months and throughout the whole season.”
“There was enormous pressure on Gracie today,” Bates added. “Winning the last two editions and Portarlington [at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic] the way she did, there was huge pressure. I think she handled herself really well today. She’s disappointed, but the whole team has rallied around her. We’re 110% supportive of Gracie Elvin.”
Shannon Malseed (Holden) took top honours amongst the U23 women, adding to the national criterium title she earned on Wednesday. Eleventh overall, Malseed narrowly edged out Alex Nicholls (ACTAS), 12th overall, for the gold medal. Bronze medallist Ellen Skerritt (High5 Dream Team) finished on the same time as Malseed and Nicholls in 19th place.
THE EARLY ACTION
Williams, Loren Rowney (Velocio-SRAM), Allison Rice (ACTAS) and Kendelle Hodges (High5 Dream Team) collaborated in the first significant breakaway of the day. The group slipped away on the second lap and were back in the bunch inside lap three. Although the move was short-lived, it inspired a significant pace increase.
With her teammate Williams back in the bunch, former Australian National Road Champion Amanda Spratt put in an attack. She immediately gained an advantage over the rapidly diminishing peloton. At maximum, Spratt would enjoy a nearly minute-and-a-half advantage. An attack by Shara Gillow (Rabo-Liv) the sixth time up Mount Buninyong would spell an end to Spratt’s solo move.
“I was out there for longer than I expected I would be,” said Spratt. “I was just thinking I need a friend. I need a friend. But no one came across.”
When Spratt returned to the bunch, the peloton sprung to life with repeated attacks. The 40 rider peloton split into two on the descent, but the groups rejoined before reaching the finish line with three laps left to race.
The quiet start to lap eight gave way to fireworks up the 2.9 kilometre climb on Midland Highway and Mount Buninyong Road. By the time the bunch hit the finish line to start lap nine, Spratt was back off the front with Bridie O’Donnell (Total Rush) for company. The duo enjoyed a tenuous 20 second advantage over the peloton.
The situation would change rapidly and repeatedly over the next lap with Fabry launching an attack, O’Donnell losing Spratt’s wheel and an elite group led by Gillow coming together up Mount Buninyong.
THE WINNING MOVE
The next time up Buninyong, it was Neylan’s turn to put on the pressure. The silver-medallist at the 2012 Road World Champions timed her attack to perfection, and Mullens was quick to respond. The duo formed a formidable team and immediately set out to stretch out their lead over the disorganized chasers. By the time they heard the bell, they had 45 seconds over a chase group of 13 and 57 seconds over what remained of the peloton.
“The winning move was pretty much with a lap and a half to go,” Mullens explained. “Rach kicked off from the bunch and no one was really doing all that much, and I just thought now is the time. I think I can bridge across to her, and I think we would be a pretty strong duo.”
Mullens proved her sprint can pack a punch when she took the silver medal in Thursday’s national criterium championships and would be the likely bet should the race come down to a two-up sprint. Fully aware of her break-mates sprinting accolades, Neylan put in a few digs before the finish in the hopes she would rid herself of Mullens before the line.
“I was going all out on the last lap,” said Neylan. “I did drop her with a k and a half to go after the left hand turn coming into the finish. I had a big attack there, and I did drop her but she grovelled back. She is a classy bike rider. I knew that she was on form, so I thought it was going to be pretty hard to drop her.”
Despite settling for silver, Neylan says she’s happy with her form and her result.
“I’m really, really, really stoked to be on the podium and get the silver medal,” she said. “I really wanted to let my legs do the talking today and really show people that I’m not done yet. A few injuries and a few setbacks never slowed me down before, and it won’t slow me down now. I’m really putting my hand up as a contender for the Rio Olympics.”
Mullens is likewise focused on the 2016 Olympics. Her step back from the road allows her to give her full attention to her mountain biking bid – although her plans may now change.
Mullens said: “I’d like to think maybe I’ve got the talent to be there on the road, but I need that support as well.”
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