400 kilometres of pain equals a sprint jersey for Ben Hill

Ben Hill (Team Bridgelane) is renowned for his attacking style of racing, but he took it to a whole new level at the 2020 edition of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, jumping in the break all five stages to eventually claim the Bright Brewery green sprinter’s jersey.

It’s easy enough to tell the narrative of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour by just talking about the WorldTour squads. Team Sunweb won stages 1, 2, 4, mountains classification, teams classifciation and the general classification with Jai Hindley. Mitchelton-Scott took stages 3, 5 and had Damien Howson third overall. Sandwiched in between the WorldTour pair was Seb Berwick, who also claimed the young rider jersey, you can read that story here.

The only remaining jersey went to the rider who more than anyone was responsible for animating the race, Ben Hill.   

When you have a situation where one rider is in every main break of the day for the entire length of a five-day bike race in a quest to take a sprint jersey, you have to start from the beginning.

Stage 1 – Happy Birthday – Sprint points: 6 – Approximate kilometres in the break: 100km

Birthday boy Hill, 30, always gets himself to the front of the peloton early for stage start when he’s thinking about getting in the move and often attacks from the drop of the flag. He was in the initial move after the peloton had cleared Mitchelton Wines, but that was brought back before the first sprint point and others jumped to sprint for the points.

Undeterred, the next move also had Hill present, this one stuck and he was able to out-sprint his breakaway companions to claim the six points on offer, before being the last man caught as the sprint trains warmed up into Shepparton to take the most aggressive jersey.

“I went early for the first one but we got brought back,” Hill said, “then I went out for the second one. Ideally, if I was going to get on the podium today it would have been for the stage.

“I’m not going to do it in a sprint so I had to go for the breakaway, I couldn’t get all the points in the sprint, so I had to hit them in the finish to get most aggressive.”

Stage 2 – Grab that sprint jersey! – Sprint points: 14 – Approximate kilometres in the break: 185km

Hill was again attacking right from the gun, with fellow breakaway exponent Angus Lyons (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) before the pair were joined by others. Hill only claimed two points at the first sprint, but after Lyons attacked to go solo, Hill bridged across, took out the second intermediate sprint in Mt Beauty and promptly dropped back to the peloton.

Hill swapped out the red of his most aggressive rider’s jersey for the green of the Bright Brewery sprint jersey.

Stage 3 – Hot, hard day, getting rolled and ‘that’ cramp – Sprint points: 16 – Approximate kilometres in the break: 295km

Hill was again one of the first to move on a day where everyone wanted to jump into the break. He found himself in a move before Tawonga Gap, but the peloton brought the initial foray back on the early slopes of the climb. The skirmishing and attacks continued off the front of the race until the 50 kilometre mark, where finally the elastic snapped. Surprise, surprise, Hill was in the move.

The hard start and mid-thirties heat had taken it out of the break, and an already fatigued Hill wasn’t finding it easy. Nonetheless, approaching the first sprint, the move looked like it was going to pay off as only one member present in the front group had any points, Charles-Etienne Chretien (Aevolo) with just two to his name.

Hill did what normally happens within cycling etiquette in these situations, asking around to see if anyone was going to contest, receiving what he thought was a unanimous response of ‘no’ then going to the front to pull a long turn so his breakaway companions got some benefit from him taking the points. Hill got to the end of his kilometre-long turn and looked round to see Chretien and then James Oram (Black Spoke) sprinting. He could only respond weakly and had to settle for two measly points for third.

The cooperation broke down in the group after that, and attackers split the group and reformed it with a more cohesive operating unit having dropped two riders. Hill was showing signs of fatigue out on the hot roads, sweating profusely and having to skip turns of pace-making. With just six kilometres to go until the second intermediate sprint, Hill suffered a massive cramp in his right leg, tried frantically to stretch it out, but had to pull over and stop.

Hill has a long history with bad cramps, in fact both the Hill brothers suffer from the problem, a relatively common one for cyclists. He was dropped from the break and nursed himself into the finish in Wangaratta with just two points to show for all his effort.

“I wasted a lot of energy out there and didn’t get anything for it,” Hill said. “It was really a pretty disappointing day.”

“It was really bad — I have a problem with cramping and it was so painful,” Hill said. “I couldn’t keep turning it [the gear]. I tried to adjust a little bit, I stretched it out. The boys weren’t going too hard — I think they were waiting for me — but I just had to stop and stretch it for a bit.”

Hill gave up the sprint jersey to Alberto Dainese (Team Sunweb), with the Italian and Kaden Groves (Mitchelton-Scott) two points above Hill from their two sprint finishes.

“Oh gee, I’m pretty exhausted now, but we’ll see,” Hill said when asked if he’d keep on attacking. “I guess it’s the only way to try and keep the jersey but I’m really starting to get tired.”

Stage 4 – Back in green – Sprint points: 28 – Approximate kilometres in the break: 375 kms

Again Hill was in the earliest move of the day, a sort of mass attack of riders that hung out at the front of the race until everything got sorted and a more palatable eight-rider group formed off the front. Hill had some friendly company this time as teammate and fellow Canberran Ayden Toovey was in the move.

Toovey did the leadout for Hill at the intermediate sprint points and Hill wasn’t leaving anything to chance as he sprinted at both points despite facing no challenge. 12 points in the bag gave him a good buffer, but still with more work to do. Hill stuck around to help out the break and Toovey in particular as he rode a very hard turn on the lower slopes of the Mt Buller climb that dislodged a few riders. He then swung off and conserved energy to the top.

“I just thought I’d keep jumping with it until it finally goes and I was able to get in it today,” Hill said.  “Having Ayden in there as well was perfect for us.”

“I was very disappointed after yesterday and a little bit defeated. It’s hard to do anything on this stage anyway or tomorrow. It’s our only real shot to go for it today to get something out of the tour.

“I actually woke up with good legs today and was keen to get in the move. And finally, finally things worked out for me. I was really happy with how it played out.”

 “Yesterday I asked around a bit, today I didn’t even ask I was just going for it. No one was even contesting it,” Hill laughs while talking about it. “The second one they said, you can have it, you can have it, but I was like I don’t care, I was sprinting for it like it was the finish line.”

Stage 5 – Just one… more… break – Sprint points: 34 – Approximate kilometres in the break: 400 kms

Hill was the fan favourite at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and seemingly everyone was happy for the 30-year-old Canberra resident to take out the sprinter’s jersey on the final stage of the race, as he was battling as much with mathematics as the other riders.

Hill came into the final stage with ten points lead on Groves and Dainese. With Groves the near-unbackable favourite for the stage, ten points on the finish line and the tiebreaker for being equal on sprint points being number of stage wins, Hill knew he needed some points.

Again attacking from the gun, the break was initially brought back before going away again with Hill present. The presence of two general classification candidates, Jay Vine (Nero Continental) and Jesse Ewart (Team Sapura), complicated matters as they were looking to grab time bonuses from the intermediate sprints.

Nonetheless, Hill took a stranglehold on the sprint jersey by taking maximum points at the first intermediate after 20 kilometres. He was then given the option to drop back to the peloton by team director Andrew Christie-Johnston and for once, Hill choose the more defensive option and he returned to the main bunch.

The break lasted to the second intermediate sprint, soaking up points that points that could have jeopardised his lead, which had the effect of making Hill the winner of the classification.

“We knew if Kaden won the stage and I had no points, Kaden would win the jersey, which was quite a possibility,” Hill said. “I had to get out the front and take some points. I took that first sprint and after that ACJ was like the defensive move would be to go back and if it does come back for that second sprint, I could try and roll a second or third.

“We took the safe option and I returned to the peloton to defend the jersey from behind. I had a crack at the finish as well, but my legs were pretty dead by then.”

Hill now has three classification wins to his name at the Herald Sun Tour, two sprint jerseys and one mountains fleece with the Aussie stalwart seemingly a fixture on the Herald Sun Tour podium.

“I won this before a few years ago and the results aren’t on ProCyclingStats,” said Hill, “I don’t think they have the jersey on there. This will be good as they have the jersey on the ProCyclingStats now!”

“Sometimes when you get in the break the first two, three days, everyone kind of gives up. It’s a lot less stressful, but a lot less satisfying than if you’ve had to battle all the way through to the finish. I was relieved after the first sprint and after the second sprint and it was sewn up, it was a really good feeling.”   

It’s been a rough month for Team Bridgelane, with the premier domestic team suffering injury after injury, a relatively poor showing at nationals and then not having their GC riders fire at the Herald Sun Tour. Hill’s performance is a shining beacon for his new team and one that will live long in the memory.

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Written by Jamie Finch-Penninger