How it happened

No wind! Riders depart in positive mood

By Karen Forman

Founding committee member Jack Griffin described the weather at the start in Grafton as being perfect - around 20 degrees, sunny and still. The only disappointment the lack of a crowd to wave the riders off. Despite all efforts of the race organizers and a local events group in providing a live band, a barbecue and coffee stall, only a handful of cycling enthusiasts have made the effort this morning.

First off the line at 7.20am was the C grade bunch, then the elite women's field set off in the inaugural World Heritage Way Ladies Challenge from Grafton to Glen Innes (see report). Next to start is the B grade bunch, and then it's time for the A grade men's field, comprised for the first time of teams-only (in previous editions, the A grade field could be made up of any combination of riders from Australian and overseas clubs or teams).

Jack, now 72, shares a couple of his own memories of the race before sending them on their way. They leave the riverside Crown Hotel then head over the uniquely shaped Clarence River bridge before turning onto the Gwydir Highway, where the neutral zone ends and the race begins. And begin it does.

There's an attack and six riders are off the front in the first few minutes - Daniel Newnham (Cheeky Monkey), John Ebeling (Fulchers Cyclery), Samuel Lee (selle Italia-Columbia/NSWIS), Adam Metcalf (Turramurra), Keirin Cameron (selle Italia-Columbia/NSWIS), Bradley Mills (Clarence St Cyclery), Richard Vollebregt (Caravello), Damien Forster (Uno Clothing/VIS) and Peter McDonald (Caravello).

Clarence St rider Glenn Stojanow and Uruguayan riding for Hinchinbook, Jorge Libonatti, fourth in this race last year, are chasing and soon catch the leaders. All eight teams in the race are now represented. The chasing bunch isn't even chasing…they don't have to… all the teams are up there.

The leaders quickly establish a 1.44 gap and are working well together, rolling turns. The field starts to move into the foothills which lead to the major climb of the race - over the Gibralta Range. It's a 970 metre climb in 17km and is what this even is most famous for. The leaders are travelling at an average speed of 35.4kmh.

Forty two minutes from the start, Vollebregt attacks off the front at 103 metres elevation and wins the first KOM sprint at Cattle Creek with Mills and McDonald second and third.

The leaders have a 6.25 time gap and most of them are really only starting to feel warmed up. Their location? The aptly named, Purgatory Creek. NSWIS head coach Gary Sutton is excited at events so far and says it's going to turn into a great race. Forster has chain trouble and drops back but Caravello team manager Dominic Caravello leaps into action out his vehicle to assist.

The gap is out to 12 minutes. Mills wins the Mann River KOM sprint with Rutter second and Cameron third. The leaders now begin to wind their way through patches of trees and rolling green hills. Singled out, they are swapping turns and at this stage all look comfortable.

The time gap is now 12 minutes. "It's a joke says Dominic Caravello ... Nobody is doing anything." And no, there's not much happening in the bunch behind.

The gap is out to 13.50 minutes. The riders enter their feed zone and there's a crash - Metcalf goes down when a musette is caught in his spokes, but he is immediately up again and chasing to get back on. The mountain awaits. Rutter drops here, followed by Forster. By the bottom of the climb, Newnham is off the back, trailing by around 100 metres. Entering Bellbird Gully, the leaders are climbing strongly, led by Cameron who has been doing a lot of work on the front. Stevenson is now also trailing off the back. A total of five riders have dropped; three are 100 metres apart, trailing behind. It's cool but not cold on the mountain, sunny and still. The leaders are doing 20km an hour. Meanwhile, the lead B graders are at the climb.

Camera has exhausted his energy stores and has dropped off the back of the lead bunch. He will soon withdraw from the race.

The lead pack now consists of six riders representing four of the eight teams - Samuel Lee (selle-Columbia NSWIS), Bradley Mills (Clarence St Cyclery), Glenn Stojanow (Clarence St Cyclery), Peter McDonald (Caravello), Jorge Libonatti (Hinchinbrook) and Richard Vollebregt (Caravello). They have a 14.5 minute gap back to the main peleton. Four minutes behind is Newnham. Caravello believes Libonatti is the rider to watch in this race. Certainly he has been doing most of the work on the front and looks the strongest of the lot. Cameron and John Ebeling (Fulchers Cyclery) are six minutes back.

88 km:
Two hours, 46 minutes into the race, McDonald leads out the Summit KOM sprint but is overtaken by Mills. McDonald second and then Lee is third. The time gap is now 14.5 minutes. The pain of climbing is over .. .for now. The course rolls now for 20kms or so, then the steep pinch at Waterloo Range will provide an extra challenge. Libonatti is hanging around at the back of the group, stretching his quads and calves. The group is travelling comfortably at 40km at hour.

The Mt Mitchell KOM sprint is won by McDonald, with Libonatti second, Mills third. Mills now has nine points and McDonald eight in the KOM competition. The downhills to follow are the opportunity to give aching muscles a shake and a stretch, have a chat … and also a chance for the banked up traffic to get past … caravans, boats, race supporters …and a semi trailer, leaving a nauseating odour of cattle dung in its wake.

The main peleton is 15 minutes behind the leading group of six. The sun is blaring down but the temperature is still cool and pleasant; the conditions are almost perfect. Trent Wilson, just back from overseas and presumably fit, has attacked off the front of the main peleton and is now in between the leading pack and the chasing bunch, eight minutes behind the leaders. The Mt Mitchell KOM sprint is won by Vollebregt with Mills and McDonald taking up the minor placings. Most of the riders take feedbags at the feed zone at the sprint finish … Libonatti, however, takes only a bidon.

A cross wind has sprung up. The riders form an echelon and the terrain is still rolling and very dry. It's thirsty weather. Trent Wilson has joined Stevensen, who was dropped on the climb, eight minutes behind the leaders and four minutes ahead of the main peleton.

The two Trents are making ground, just five minutes behind the leading group, with seven minutes back to the chasing bunch. Vollebregt sets up the next KOM sprint, won by Mills. Libonatti is third. With just under 100km to go and riders bridging the distance, the leaders' nerves are starting to get on edge.

Lee is cramping, trying desperately to stretch out at the back of the group. The wind is howling across the open plain and the riders are battling in the crosswind. Trent Wilson has dropped back and is now leading the main peleton. 146km: The gap is six minutes and 20 seconds to Trent Wilson (selle Italia-Columbia NSWIS), who has attacked off the front of the bunch and established a five minute gap. Vollebregt has attacked off the front of the lead group, looking for the next sprint, a hotspot, but the other riders are looking around, forming single file . . . then finally go. Mills is second, Libonatti third.

The sun is hot but the air temperature isn't too bad. Libonatti is stirring the leaders up a bit. The gap is six and a half minutes. Trent Wilson is gaining a minute every 10 km or so. The riders are entering Glen Innes where a $100 sprint awaits in the main street. Libonatti leads them through into Glen and then attacks. The Clarence St riders are covering the Uruguay. A small but appreciative crowd of locals cheers them on as Libonatti takes the sprint, Mills is second and then Vollebregt.

The riders enter the feed zone. Stojanow has dropped off the back, leaving the five leaders looking behind them for him. It seems he did too much work earlier and is now suffering for it. The gap is nine minutes and 25 seconds to the main group. Trent Wilson is still on his own between the two groups, four minutes, 45 seconds behind the leaders.

The KOM sprint is led out by Vollebregt, with Libonatti second and McDonald third. Mills and Lee have dropped away, leaving the remaining three riding strongly together. Team Caravello is now represented by two riders. Hinchinbrook, one. Is Libonatti strong enough to hold off the teammates?

Another KOM sprint and the points go to Libonatti, McDonald and Vollebregt in that order. Wilson has now been joined by Stojanow.

Wilson is now three minutes 20 seconds behind the leaders who are swapping turns smoothly. But there is no room for complacency. McDonald attacks Libonatti over the crest of a hill, yet Libonatti isn't about to let him get away with it. He's on the ball and leaps ahead to bridge the small gap. They are still too far out to expend too much energy without a guaranteed result.

The riders reach Wire Gully, quite often the scene of a final attack that has decided the Grafton. McDonald again attacks but Libonatti is straight onto his wheel. McDonald wins the sprint, the Uruguayan is second and Vollebregt is third. 12km of the race remain. The results are the same for the Dijon Sapphire Sprint which follows.

Out in the open now, with drought-affected cattle staring at barren paddocks, shaded from the warm spring sun by trees, the riders are battling the cross wind again. Who of the three will win the 2004 Grafton to Inverell Classic? All three still look pretty fresh (despite the salt around their faces). Libonatti is very lean and muscular and has been winning recently. Vollebregt and McDonald are teammates, but only recently so. But then again, maybe it won't be any of the trio. Wilson is still making ground, just a minute and 50 seconds behind them; the bunch another two minutes.

Approaching Inverell on the final, slight downhil run into town, Libonatti is frequently looking behind him. He goes to into second wheel and continues to pedal smoothly, with a little more cadency than his peers. The time gap is two minutes 40 back to Wilson. The race enters the town limits. Wilson's courageous effort in riding alone for so long, will not get him there this time. It's cat and mouse; a long lead out by all three riders. They slow, they speed up, they slow again. Vollebregt goes to the left side of the road, marked by Libonatti. McDonald gets onto his wheel. The Caravello riders have Libonatti sandwiched between them. Crowds of people are lining the streets, cheering and clapping as the riders past. Nobody is making a move.

A right hand turn around a roundabout and Libonatti leads out the sprint into the straight. McDonald is on his wheel, his team mate behind. McDonald gets in front, Libonatti gives up and McDonald crosses the line first, hands in the air in jubilation. An awesome ride by all three. Libonatti is second and Vollebregt third. The trio stopped the clock at 6.43.00 (unofficial), a good 43 minutes away from the race record of 6.00.49, set by Englishman Paul Curran in 1985.