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BUNINYONG, Australia (CT) – Twelve months ago, in his first elite Nationals, Luke Plapp let youthful exuberance get the better of him.
He’d just won at the Santos Festival of Cycling, he’d just won the elite National TT title (while still eligible for the U23 race), and he figured why not try to win the Nationals road race with a roughly 70 km solo effort? He was caught and finished 17th.
One year on, it’s clear 21-year-old Plapp has learned from that mistake. In winning Sunday’s 2022 Nationals road race, Plapp was the very definition of patient. He was in all the right moves, but rarely put his nose in the wind. While others around him attacked and attacked again, Plapp – the only Ineos Grenadiers rider in the race – stayed at the back of the bunch and bided his time.
Not that he wasn’t tempted to go long-range again.
“At the same time [as last year] with six [laps] to go, five to go, four to go, I was like ‘This is it. This is it,’” Plapp said later. “And I was like ‘I can’t make the same mistake as last year.’ And I think I took a lot of learning from last year.”
When he finally did attack, around 30 km from the finish, it turned out to be the winning move. He burst clear of an elite chase group, and set off in search of lone leader and training partner James Whelan (Bridgelane).
“I spoke to my coach last night and he said as soon as you feel the moment, just back it, don’t hesitate,” Plapp said. “And once you have that one move, commit all in for it and don’t make another. So I was just glad that that one move that I chose paid off.”
Plapp reached Whelan just before the pair reached the top of Mt. Buninyong for the 16th and final time, with roughly 9 km remaining in the 185 km race. Plapp didn’t wait around – he got onto Whelan’s wheel, then burst past him.
“I could see he really wanted to get to the top of the climb before I got him,” Plapp said. “And he really upped the tempo when I was getting close so I tried to do the same. I could feel the legs starting to cramp up a bit so I was just trying to manage that. I knew I had to get him before the top of the climb. And yeah, I was lucky enough that I did.”
With Whelan behind him, Plapp pushed on and quickly built an unassailable lead.
By the time he reached the finishing straight, he had enough time to sit up and celebrate for the final 200 metres, and still finish 45 seconds clear of Whelan.
“To be able to do it today and really be patient, I couldn’t be happier,” Plapp said. “I was just glad – I guess [I learned from my] mistakes from last year.”
Another minute or so behind Whelan, Brendan “Trekky” Johnston, the mountain biking, road racing electrician, crossed the line in third, having put in an impressive late solo dig of his own.
In warm conditions, the opening laps of the elite men’s road race were a sedate affair. A first-lap breakaway of seven riders was traded in for just two by the end of the second lap. Kane Richards (ARA Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) and Jean-Pierre van der Merwe (Bridgelane) would go on to lead the race until lap 9 of 16 around Mt. Buninyong.
Behind them, plenty of attacks and accelarations were being meted out, with the peloton splintering, reforming, thinning, and reforming again. Sam Jenner (Bridgelane), Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma), Luke Durbridge (BikeExchange-Jayco), and Mark O’Brien (Inform TMX Make) were among the most aggressive, while Harper’s new teammate Rohan Dennis (Jumbo-Visma) also did good work in support of his fellow South Australian.
Once Richards and Van der Merwe were caught, the attacks continued. A group of five got away from a heavily reduced peloton – Johnston, O’Brien, Jenner, Chris Hamilton (DSM), and Whelan – but they were caught by lap 12. With that, the attacks continued. Jenner led with Lionel Mawditt (St. George Continental) for a time, but it wasn’t long until Whelan was making his move and kickstarting the race’s finale.
Whelan made his move on lap 13 of 16, attacking from the 15-strong group that remained of the peloton. It wasn’t long before Whelan was passing Mawditt and Jenner, and was at the front of the race on his own, with 33 km to go. Roughly 4 km later Plapp set off in pursuit, from the remnants of the peloton.
Speaking after the finish, Whelan was philosophical about his second place. He would have loved to finish one step higher on the podium, of course, but he was quick to recognise the talent of the man that had beaten him.
“I gave it a bit of a long flier with three laps to go there, but I gave it everything I could,” Whelan said. “Unfortunately, there was a Lucas Plapp in the field and he’s a pretty good TTer and he’s a class act.
“I knew I was in trouble when he was coming across solo. I thought maybe if he was with a few other guys, maybe they’d muck around and I’d stay away, but with the class of Plappy …
“I knew if he caught me I could just try and get on his wheel but he caught me right at the right time on the crest of that last hill [and] I was riding for second. It’s been a dream of mine to be on the podium. It’s a dream of mine to win the thing. But I’ll take second for now.”
After three years in the WorldTour with EF Education-Nippo, Whelan is back racing at the Continental level in 2022 with Bridgelane. Missing out on a WorldTour contract for this year stung, and Whelan was beyond keen to put in a good show at Nationals; to prove that he’s still a world-class bike rider.
“I was crazy-motivated,” Whelan said. “I was tearing up almost during the ride. I would still love the opportunity to go to the WorldTour. I fell short with a few teams. Maybe this ride will help some negotiations. I don’t know. There’s not much bike racing on so hopefully a lot of teams were watching that – maybe that’ll help.
“But if not I’ll just focus on my season with Bridgelane. We’ll go over to Europe in the middle of the year.”
As for Plapp, his win is the perfect way to start a WorldTour career. He was unable to defend his time trial title on Wednesday after being deemed a close contact in a COVID case, but today’s win is more than consolation enough.
“I couldn’t ask for a better start, mate – first race in the new colours, in the new Bioracer colours, and what a way to do it,” he said. “It was just awesome fun out there. I’ve dreamed of this one for a while. It was a shame to miss that TT, but to make up for it here in the road race, nothing beats that.”
With the green and gold jersey his for the next 12 months, Plapp will now head over to Adelaide for the Santos Festival of Cycling – the domestic-level replacement for the COVID-affected Tour Down Under. From there he’ll venture over to the UAE Tour, his first race with his Ineos Grenadiers teammates, as Australian champion.
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