Credit: Cycling Australia/Con Chronis/Zac Williams
Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott) claimed an emotional win with a last lap attack sending him up the road to secure his maiden elite national road race title.
While the race came down to a solo attack from Meyer, the way the race played out as a constantly evolving chess match on wheels kept the crowds entertained on the circuit of Buninyong and back in the living rooms with TVs tuned to SBS.
Hard racing early in the piece threatened to split the peloton into pieces, but after a number of attacks went and were neutralised a breakaway containing two riders, Marcus Culey (Team Sapura) and Nick Schultz (Mitchelton-Scott), overcame the resistance of the main bunch and jumped away.
They were joined after a concerted chase by Cameron Roberts (GPM-Stulz) and Jason Lea (Maloja Pushbikers) and formed a working quartet out the front of the race.
Bridging efforts from Mark O’Brien (Inform TM Insight Make) and Liam White (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) were doomed to only getting part of the way across before faltering and the race maintained a consistent tempo during the middle portion.
Team Bridgelane were the biggest team caught out by the move and committed to the front of the peloton to bringing the break back into the fold. As the race continued the break got out to a maximum advantage of two and a half minutes before the Bridgelane chase began to have an impact, dragging the gap down to a minute as Roberts and Lea dropped off from the lead group.
With 40 kilometres to go, Mitchelton-Scott sprang their trap, with a big bridging effort from Callum Scotson and Meyer seeing them fly across the shortening gap to Schultz and Culey with 38.5 kilometres left to ride.
As the favourites scrambled to follow the power move by Mitchelton-Scott, a nine-rider elite group formed at the front of the race with Luke Durbridge, Lucas Hamilton, Callum Scotson, Meyer (all Mitchelton-Scott), Marcus Culey (Team Sapura), Jay McCarthy (BORA-hansgrohe), Michael Freiberg (ARA Pro Racing Sunshine Coast), Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma) and Nathan Haas (Cofidis).
Mitchelton-Scott were content to drive the pace for a lap to make sure the rest of the field wasn’t going to come back into contention, with Scotson dropping off the pace after shouldering the majority of the work.
When the pace dropped off a bit probing attacks began from the break, and it was Lucas Hamilton who made an attack stick with 20 kilometres left, using a lull after a McCarthy surge on the second last ascent of Mt Buninyong.
The attack of Hamilton prompted the other World Tour stars to chase, with McCarthy, Haas and Harper taking the lion’s share of the pace-making work.
With Hamilton pegged by the chasers, he backed off a bit and the catch was made at the start of the final lap. Meyer used this opportunity to attack and flew past the group after attacking from the back. He quickly established a gap and while Haas and McCarthy mounted a spirited chase, once Haas swung off over the top of the climb and Durbridge failed to roll through, the impetus fell out of the chase and it was clear that Meyer was riding to victory.
Culey and Harper, who had been dropped by Haas’ surge to follow Meyer, returned with seven kilometres remaining and a series of attack began to fight it out for the remaining podium positions. Durbridge and Haas were particularly active, but it was Hamilton that broke the elastic and skipped clear of the group before Culey seemingly defied the laws that govern physics and caught breakaway riders to recover from his long day making the pace at the front of the race to launch his own attack and gain a small gap.
Meyer soloed in on a wave of obvious emotion, with Hamilton following just under a minute behind with Culey cheered home by the crowd to claim third.
“It means so much to me,” said Meyer after the finish. “I had seen my brother (Travis) win it and I fell in love with this race. 12 years ago, I was fourth in my first elite title around here… it’s a surreal moment.
“This is the queen jersey, it’s what everyone comes here to do. Conquer Mount Buninyong and take the road race jersey. I’ve had time trial jersey twice and the criterium but this is the one I really wanted.
“Everyone asks me all my stories over the twelve years and now I can tell them that this is the best of the lot.”
Hamilton set his teammate up for the win, with the local from down the road in Ararat doing the job for his team rather than waiting to make the last lap move like Meyer.
“Originally I was meant to wait until the last lap,” said Hamilton. “I’m climbing alright at the moment, so I was quite confident I’d be one of the strongest climbers here. But I saw an opportunity there. I think it was Jay McCarthy that attacked and I saw that everyone was maybe hurting a bit, so I went.
“But it was really hard around the back end of the course and as soon as I knew I only had 14 seconds, I sort of didn’t push too hard because I was going to get caught.”
Hamilton later jumped away with the reserves of energy saved by waiting up, whereas Culey had to summon a reserve from out of thin air to recover enough to attack again within the final kilometres and hold off the world-class riders behind to take the final step on the podium.
“It was a nice feeling looking around in the last couple of laps,” said Culey. “There were seven or eight WorldTour riders and then just me. I was sort of cramping on the climb in the last two laps, I was probably lucky that there was a bit of a headwind on the first section and the pace wasn’t really on. I got gapped in the last lap and managed to ride back on with Harper and then it was all on for the finish.”
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Written by Jamie Finch-Penninger