There was a lot of excitement in late 2016 when Cycling Australia announced an expanded NRS calendar for 2017, with more race days for both the men and women. The women in particular have had a busy summer, with several teams participating in events such as the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic, the Santos Women’s Tour in Adelaide, and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
I’ve had a fun summer getting closer to the women’s cycling scene, covering key races for several teams. I wanted to take my coverage of the sport to a different place, and focus more on documenting the candid moments off the bike. The triumph, the pain, the recovery, and everything in between. So here I was, immersed with the Rush Women's Team for the first NRS event of 2017.
Rolling out of Total Rush (the bike retailer that funds the team) in Richmond on a sunny Melbourne afternoon, the mood is relaxed. This is mainly because we have a four-hour drive ahead of us to Metung in the south east of Victoria. I achieve several things in the team van over those four hours; I got completely up to date with my favourite dog accounts on Instagram, napped, and ate a whole pizza, while the ladies stuck to their pre-prepared healthy meals.
It’s a late arrival to our accommodation. Several of the team are already here, Ruth Corset (former National Champ) enduring a huge commute that started before first light in Townsville. There’s time for a quick hello before everyone heads off to get some sleep before a big Saturday.
I know some of the girls will be up around 6am to begin their preparations, so I’m up at 5 to eat and shower so I can stay out of their way on race day. I don’t know if I’m expecting some highly strung monsters, but the girls are the opposite. I made some coffee; an age old photographers trick to help lower people’s guards and build trust. That, or I was just mega keen on coffee and made too much.
The mood is relaxed and jovial, but it’s obvious everyone has their own way of preparing. Ruth Corset and Justine Barrow stand out. As two of the more experienced riders in the NRS, they go the extra mile in every step of preparation. They are the first up in the morning, their meals are pre-prepared, and they’ve studied the TT course.
It’s an 8am start for the ITT, and the team has a good start with Ruth Corset crossing the line 3rd fastest. I spent 45 minutes standing on one of several climbs, preying on anything I can get that looks like a pain-face, however all I end up capturing is pure focus and determination. I begin to judge the riders’ ability based on how loudly they are breathing.
By 9am everyone is back at the house with their feet up and relaxing before the road stage that afternoon. Naps, coffee, and a team meeting fill the 3 hours before it’s time to kit up again.
The race starts and within 10km there’s action for the team. Minda Murray has jammed a chain and needs assistance from the team mechanic. 90 seconds later Minda is back on the road and working hard to rejoin the peloton. Being stranded on the side of the road during a race is a lonely place to be, even with a mechanic and a team car to get you back to where you need to be.
It’s a small field for the first race of the year. With a two-month break following ToEG, the teams that haven’t been racing all summer don’t have much incentive to race. They’re not as fit as those teams that have been racing, and consequently the field comprises 7 teams as well as a handful of individual entries.
As a two-rider break gets out to a maximum of 90 seconds ahead of the peloton, the race plays out as many expected. There are a number of stories from the day that will go relatively untold, but each of them are a great tale of the hustle and flow of road racing.
For Minda, who must be tired from her effort to rejoin the race earlier, it has to be a tough mental battle. At times the elastic band to the bunch shows signs of wear up the climbs, before a flat road offers a brief reprieve and a chance to sit comfortably mid-pack.
There are countless other riders who seem to always sit one-wheel length off the back of the peloton, but somehow as we approach 10km to go they are still there, as they have been for 65km’s. Indeed, at the end of the stage they are still there fighting with gritted teeth. After the stage they’ll get nothing. No kudos, no presentations, nothing except another layer of toughness earned, which they will need for tomorrow.
At the end of the stage, the scenes are like any other team sport. Athletes recount their recollections of the important moments, who said what, who made which move, and ultimately what didn’t go according to plan. For Rush Women it’s a happy time. Ruth Corset managed to pick up 2nd on the stage, and sits 5 seconds off GC leader Louisa Lobigs (Holden Racing). The team sits 2nd on the Team Classification.
After the stage it’s straight back to the house for recovery. Kits are washed, everyone has their own favourite food and recovery drinks, and Ruth is on the foam roller. The aim of the game is to spend as little time on your feet as possible. That’s not hard to do; it’s raining and cold outside, typical of the weather-lottery that a Victorian summer provides. There’s more than a slight chuckle when it’s mentioned that the men are out racing in the rain.
I’ve been to Le Tour de France, but I don’t recall ever sticking around for presentations of any stage. So while I’m not entirely sure how and where they present the winners, I guarantee they’re not on the same level as the presentations at the Meetung Hotel. An amazing backdrop of the inlet and a beautiful burnt summer sky played host to the announcement of the place getters and winners of each stage across all grades (this weekend doubled as a VRS round for the men). The ambiance was only lifted by the presence of 40+ rowdy footballers who performed numerous sparkling renditions of their favourite sing-a-longs. Chapeau to the Metung Mud Frogs.
Sunday morning greeted us with a 5:30am wake up. The final stage would take place in Lindenow, 45 minutes from yesterdays racing in Metung. The feeling in the team was unanimous; today would be a day of aggression, not just for Rush Women but for all teams.
The town of Lindenow was buzzing pre-race, a Melbourne-esque cafe slinging double-shot everythings to keep the riders happy and focused before the race. Riders warmed up on the roads surrounding the town, while Brodie Chapman chose to cut laps of the skate park, showing off some impressive bike handling skills.
Sure enough the race full of attacks, none of which stuck. But that didn’t stop anyone from trying, as rider after rider went to the front and essentially banged their head against a wall for a couple of minutes before settling back into the peloton. I jumped out of the convoy on one of the longer climbs, but after the grass started moving and making noises I got back in the car pretty quickly.
Ultimately a bunch sprint decided the outcome of the day, with a couple of High-5 Dream Team riders Sam De Rider and Lucy Kennedy taking the 1-2, and Ruth Corset again finishing 3rd.
There’s a great sense of relief post race, hugs and pats on the back are handed out freely and the team are happy with how they rode. Attention shifts almost instantly to food.
For Ruth Corset it’s another solid performance in the NRS, and she will again be a contender all season. The biggest thing on her mind though is her airport routine while she waits to board a flight back to Townsville. Sushi is definitely on the menu, and she also seeks input on which Krispy Kreme donut she should pick while she waits to board.
As some of us pile into the van for the trip back to Melbourne, the girls say their goodbyes. Their next chance to all come together won’t be for two months, but they will use that time to train hard and be ready to put it all on the line for the team.
There’s a lot said about the NRS. People talk about the quality of riders that have come out of the men’s competition, and as someone who hasn’t watched a heap of the women’s racing I always ask people for their opinions on it.
Having now spent a whole weekend with one of the top teams, I walk away impressed with the commitment and professionalism of all the riders. The quality of the racing was fantastic; attack after attack, and smart racing from all teams. Despite Holden Women’s Racing being so strong, it looked like any number of 8-10 women could take the GC heading into the final stage.
Thanks to Rush Women’s Team for having me and for trusting me to come into your environment for the weekend.