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Australian Open Road Championships - CN
Mt Torrens, Australia, January 11-14, 2006
Race 6 - January 14: Elite Men's Road Race, 175.5 km
Walker brilliant as Van Hout takes the elite jersey
By Les Clarke in Mt Torrens, with additional reporting by Kathie Stove
Victorian U23 rider William Walker (Rabobank) has taken one of the biggest wins of his fledgling career, winning the Australian Open road race in Mt Torrens today as Australia's U23 riders put their more experienced competitors on notice with a display of confident and aggressive riding.
Walker won in a solo attack, with the bunch sprint for second taken out by another U23 rider, Tasmanian teenager Wes Sulzberger (TIS/Cyclingnews), and the first senior rider across the line was South Australia's Russell Van Hout in third after a crash earlier in the race took out many of the favourites.
Defending champion Robbie McEwen was in a group that suffered the indignity of being withdrawn from the race by commissairses because it was in danger of being lapped by the more aggressive breaks that had demolished the field.
But the finale wasn't without controversy, with protests flying thick and fast as commissaires deemed Henk Vogels then Victorian Gene Bates rode dubious final sprints. Bates was eventually relegated for riding an improper line.
As an U23 rider, Walker won't be eligible to wear the elite national champion's jersey; he has to settle for the gold medal for winning the Open as well as the U23 national champion's jersey, but he is not allowed to wear the U23 national champion's jersey in open road races. That honour goes to South Australia's Van Hout, who is, ironically, still hoping to secure a fulltime professional ride for the 2006 season.
Walker made the critical move late in the race, flying away from the leading bunch after several attacks were unsuccessful in breaking up the leading group. Walker's attack soon after the feed zone on the final lap stuck, however, and he was able to motor to the finish and win by a comfortable 27 seconds from the 19-year old Tasmanian Sulzberger and Van Hout.
The 20-year-old Victorian, who will be riding in the senior ranks of the Rabobank squad this season, showed why he's tipped as the future of Australian cycling with a super-strong finish to hold off a bunch that contained former Australian champions Vogels, Nick Gates and Matt Wilson. After a an early crash that put favourites Allan Davis and Luke Roberts out of contention, the race for the Australian championship became a war of attrition, with big-hitters such as Robbie McEwen and Simon Gerrans not making it to the finish.
And as it was a day for upsets, it also saw Australia's 'Crocodile man', Adam Hansen, winner of the incredibly tough Crocodile Trophy MTB endurance race, pick up second place in the senior ranks (and fourth overall) with a smart and strong ride - indeed, his last-lap attack really stuck and shattered the lead group - finishing well ahead of many other more well-credentialed roadies.
How it unfolded
With 180 starters in the field, it was always going to be a tight opening to the men's elite race, and after the great view offered by Andrew in the Shimano neutral service car during Friday's women's race, Cyclingnews took to the Commisaire's car for another action-packed ride through Mt Torrens. After only two kilometres, a fall involving 60 riders made what promised to be a tough day even more difficult, with riders such as Baden Cooke, Allan Davis and Luke Roberts caught up in the opening-lap chaos. Davis, tipped by many to be a contender for the title, withdrew soon after as a result of two punctures. Speaking to Cyclingnews after his withdrawal, the Queenslander was clearly frustrated, saying, "I got caught in the crash and punctured my front. After I got a spare I started chasing back to the bunch and then my rear punctured...there were no more spare and I had to get a lift back from the motorbike. What can you do?"
Victorian rider Simon Gerrans wasn't injured in the fall, but it certainly spoiled his chance at victory. "The crash must have been only about four k's into the race. I chased for a good half an hour to get back on again after the crash - it's hard to do that early on. The race was just really aggressive from the start, with breakaways going and coming back again. Once the break formed up the road it became quite negative in the bunch, because everyone wanted to get across but nobody wanted to do much," he said.
It was then time for a group of six to go away, with Mark Renshaw, Glen Chadwick, Cody Stevenson and Tony Mann among the small group that tried to break going into the third turn at the 10 kilometre mark. Soon after it was all back together before Henk Vogels decided to flex his muscles, taking three riders out the front of the bunch. The tone of the race had been set, and the battle began to take shape. In a prelude of things to come, it was William Walker who made his way to the front to test the waters of the early stages, only to find them too cool to his liking, moving back into the safety of the bunch.
When the three riders led by Vogels were joined by four more riders, the bunch vigilantly chased them down, keen to keep any early moves in check. Before long it was all together, with the bunch bringing the break back on the climb out of Mt Torrens on lap 2. The second lap was all about the selection, with riders lifting the pace and more attacks flowing freely. Vogels went out front again, this time joined by David Betts and David Pell - these three would form the beginning of the leading bunch that later reformed to stay away until the finish. All three were working well together, doing turns and putting more time into the field - with the peloton slow to react, they soon gained an advantage of 1:05 minutes.
Requiring mechanical assistance, Mark Renshaw dropped back in the field and was forced to chase back onto the bunch, making his day in the office a tough one. Meanwhile, a chasing bunch had now formed, with about ten riders including Peter McDonald and Matt Goss doing their best to bring back the leading group. A lap later this group had increased in size to 17 riders, with Vogels, Walker, Nick Gates, Russell Van Hout, Peter McDonald, Adam Hansen and Gene Bates included in the selection - this group formed the nucleus of the winning move. The group maintained their lead throughout the fourth lap, and as the fifth lap of the 19.5km circuit approached two clear groups had formed, with 15 riders in the front bunch and 12 in the second.
By the beginning of lap 5 it appeared as though the chasing group would make it across to the leaders, but it wasn't to be. Over the course of the next three laps this leading group built their advantage to a maximum of 2:45 minutes over the chasing group, which included Matt Wilson, Sean Sullivan, Shaun Higgerson and last year's silver medallist Robert McLachlan. From there the peloton sat up and trailed by a maximum of 14:15 minutes, and it was clear that the winner would most likely come from the group well established at the head of the field. The question was - would it be one of the young guns, or one of the old hand pros?
Heading into the eighth of nine laps the main bunch, who were the third group on the course and 11km behind the leading group, were withdrawan from the race as the pace of the leaders increased. As a result, the gap to the chasing group increased to 3:20 minutes, with Walker, Wes Sulzberger and Jonathon Clarke doing some big turns and searching for any weaknesses. Vogels then prodded the will of the group with a burst at the front, but they brought the move back. The race continued with constant attacks aimed at 'softening up' the remaining riders before they hit the final lap. But going into the last circuit these attacks hadn't achieved their objective, and the leading group remained together as they crossed the start/finish line.
It was an action-packed final lap, with Nathan Jones, Adam Hansen and Walker all launching attacks over the first half of the course; but it was Hansen's attack that broke the group, prompting Walker to chase and pass Hansen before launching his winning move just outside the feed zone at the 13km mark of the circuit. From there it became a one-horse race for the win, with Walker steadily increasing his lead and maintaining it, and the chase more content to sit up and fight over second. This is how it ended, with Walker taking the win, Wes Sulzberger taking second and Russell Van Hout finishing in third.
Having ridden an immaculate race for the win, Walker - an U23 rider - was not aware that although he had taken the gold medal for the race, he did not secure the elite national champion's jersey. He was, however, awarded the U23 champion's jersey, but won't be allowed to wear that in elite events. "You're kidding. I think that's diappointing. I can't really understand those rules, but I guess that's life." With mixed emotions Walker explained that, "I came across to him [Adam Hansen] on the hill and he really just couldn't keep up to me. So it was 15 k's solo for me and they were always there so you've got to go into the red, or the black, or whatever colour it is. It's just unbelievable to have a bit of a gap in the last few hundred metres and not get caught."
Having worked hard out front for most of the race, Henk Vogels was bitterly disappointed at the finish, saying that, "This was a demanding course, and the small guys like Willie Walker are fantastic bike riders and really suited to this course. It really came down to the last climb, where we were all right up to him, but he just rode away - hats off to him, he's obviously a talent for the future."
Vogels spoke of the final sprint, where believes some "erratic riding" could have caused an accident and cost him a medal. "There was some fairly erratic riding and I got put into the barriers; I had to put on my brakes otherwise I would've hit the start-finish sign. I'm not sure if I medalled, but I don't think so."
Second-placed Wes Sulzberger, another of the youth brigade at just 19, showed that the future of cycling in Australia continues to look bright. "It's unbelievable - I can't believe it myself," he said at the finish. "It was great to get in the break and once I was there I just went with it to the end." Speaking about the finish, Sulzberger said that Gene Bates went across from the outside and into his path, causing Nic Gates to be pushed into the barriers. Relieved to have avoided an accident, Sulzberger believed the result could've been different if not for Bates' final sprint.
Controversy continued after the finish, however, as commissaires told Vogels he had been omitted from the results after what they believed was a dubious final sprint, with Sulzberger relegated to eighth place for the same reason. Both riders were furious, with Vogels saying, "They're trying to rub me for a separate incident that happened 300 metres before ... there was that much hooking going on; I was on the inside and riding a straight line the whole time. I led out the sprint; how can I move across the road? I rode a straight line all the way until Gene Bates guided me into the barriers."
But following lengthy discussions Vogels was reinstated to fifth place, cold comfort for a rider with aspirations of taking the national champion's jersey. Russell Van Hout, having just won the jersey, said he felt "pretty good". "There were plenty of attacks in that final lap, and that sprint was the choppiest sprint I've ever ridden; everyone was just all over the place," he said.
"With 100 metres to go I've got through a gap I was lucky to get through, and the run through that just got me home." It was a confusing conclusion to a topsy-turvy race, with Cycling Australia committing to running separate road races for the U23 and senior riders next year.