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Tristan Saunders (Team BridgeLane) won a headwind hit edition of the 267 kilometre Melbourne to Warrnambool on Saturday, launching solo with less than 20km to go and holding firm so he had time to savour the victory as headed toward the Raglan Parade finish line.
Saunders took out the prestigious Australian race in seven hours and 17 minutes as winds blowing from the west stretched out the hours and added an extra level of challenge to the already gruelling event, with recent editions more often delivering a winning time of close to six hours. The remaining podium positions in the National Road Series race were decided from a group of six, with Brendon Green (Cycling Development Foundation) attacking on the run in and holding the gap to take second place as he came over the line nearly three minutes behind the 22-year-old winner.
The final podium spot in the 2023 edition of the race, which first ran in 1895, was decided by a sprint from the remaining riders in the group, with Bailey McDonald (NCMG Criterion) securing third. Saunders teammate, Samuel Jenner, came in with that group to take sixth, holding in the chase even after having long been out the front in an early break. Once through the line he was quick to find Saunders and celebrate the team victory.
“I’m extremely happy and also extremely tired,” said Saunders when asked how he felt on the SBS livestream of the race. “I had the perfect ride, I was just sitting in the wheels. We were just so well represented from the gun really Sammy Jenner out there out the front, all I had to do was just sit there, me and Chappy [Tom Chapman] just following all the moves and I just had to go on my own in the end.”
Saunders, who was riding his fourth edition of the Melbourne to Warrnambool, initially went with a group of three, including Green and Bentley Niquet-Olden (CCACHE x Par Küp), but then struck out on his own,
“I was actually hoping that I could go solo because a few of the jumps my legs weren’t feeling great in terms of the sprint and then I was a bit worried coming down to a sprint how I was going to feel at the end,” said Saunders. “I tried to get away with those two and then the other two guys didn’t roll through so I thought, I’ll just go on my own and if they come back to me, they come back to me’ and if they don’t I’ll just put my head down and not look back and go to the line.”
Which is exactly what he did to secure a place on the honour roll of the event, which is firmly entrenched in Australian cycling history.
How it unfolded
The race, which kicks off Australia’s National Road Series (NRS) for 2023, rolled out from Avalon airport at 8am in uncharacteristically cool and grey summer conditions with a start list full of NRS teams, individual riders and some extra high profile additions to the field, including Lachlan Morton (Trivelo – EF) and Chris Froome (Israel-Premier Tech) . Even though there were 267km ahead it wasn’t much of a wait for the action to start.
Riders launched in fits and starts and by the time it was 200km in to the racing a group with around 30 riders had settled out the front with an advantage to the peloton of around four minutes that just kept stretching.
The attacks kept coming from the lead group, which had a mix from among the teams, and it Jenner and Dan Bonello that established the break. They worked well together to hold off the chase in conditions where cross and head winds added another layer of challenge to the long distances and behind the peloton drifted further back but the chase group was only a couple of minutes behind. At 200km down with the race having worked its way through the inland section and to the coast at Port Campbell, the strain of being out the front was showing with Bonello having to skip a turn on an incline.
Bonello dropped, leaving Jenner out the front alone as the race ticked down toward the 50km remaining mark and then it wasn’t long until he was caught, but the chase group had since been through many alterations with attacks and reformations regularly re-shuffling the configuration.
There was now a group of nine out the front including Saunders and his teammate Jenner, Green, McDonald, Niquet-Olden and his (CCACHE x Par Küp) teammate Brendon Davids, along with Jason Thomason (Van Dam Racingp/b Butterfields), Liam Johnston and Jordan Villani.
While there were a number of riders still spread between that lead group and the rest of the field, the peloton was more than ten minutes in arrears. However first a group of six and then from that the pair of Chris Froome and Ben Hill decided they weren’t prepared to sit back and call it a day and set off from the main bunch in pursuit of the front of the race.
In the meantime the lead group of nine turned into a lead group of three, and then one as Saunders launched and rode his way to a solo victory. His two former companions Green and Bentley Niquet-Olden were swept up by the chase and ultimately it became a chase group of six that headed to the line – Green, McDonald, Davids, Villani, Jenner and Johnston.
Not far off five minutes after Saunders had claimed the win and around two minutes after Green and McDonald had claimed the podium spots, Hill came through the line eighth after an impressive chase from the peloton. Then it was dropped riders Chapman, Niquet-Olden and Bonello who took the next three sports while after his pursuit of the front of the race Froome crossed in 12th spot.
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