After having to sit out the all important Australian January racing block injured Lucinda Stewart (ARA Skip Capital) made a stunning return, claiming a solo victory at the 160 kilometre Lochard Energy Warrnambool Women’s Cycling Classic.
The 19-year-old Stewart launched from a group of four that had been out the front for well over 100km of the National Road Series Event, holding the chase of her former break companions at bay through the final six kilometres to claim victory on the Raglan Parade line.
“I am just in absolute disbelief,” Stewart said in an interview broadcast on the livestream by SBS. “I didn’t have too much confidence going into this race, I’ve sat out all of January with a broken collarbone.”
The team, however did have confidence in Stewart, who had come fourth in the race last year as her teammate Sophie Edwards claimed the win. On paper she looked the fastest of that lead group but drawing inspiration from Saturday’s solo Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Mark O’Brien, and seeing how much the riders around her were hurting, Stewart decided at six kilometres to go to deliver an “all or nothing” effort.
“I’m sort of more of a sprinter but I didn’t really want to wait to the end for a sprint so I just dug the heels in and gave it everything and held on,” said Stewart.
Josie Pepper (Butterfields Racing) came second, relentless in her pursuit and crossing six seconds back, while Amanda Poulsen (BridgeLane), a further four seconds behind, swept up the final spot on the podium.
Sophia Sammons (Cycling Development Foundation) was fourth, with the 18-year-old in her first National Road Series race the first of the break riders to be shed in the final ten kilometres, but only after a long and valiant effort fighting painful leg cramps. Lauren Thomas (Lochard Energy Composite Team) came fifth after having jumped out of the peloton at 20km to go, while Keely Bennett (BridgeLane) led the first bunch from the split peloton over the line, 3:33 after Stewart had claimed the victory.
How it unfolded
The Victorian event, in its third edition as a standalone women’s race, set out from Colac to follow the same route as the final 160km of Saturday’s Melbourne to Warrnambool – reaching the coast at Port Campbell and then heading up to the Raglan Parade finish line in the coastal hub of Warrnambool.
The 2023 winner Sophie Edwards (ARA Skip Capital) was on the start line, bolting over from the Track Nations Cup in Adelaide, then there was also Matilda Raynolds (BridgeLane), who won the event in 2021 and 2020 when it was run as a women’s category within the 267km Melbourne to Warrnambool. Grace Brown (FDJ-Suez) was also among those who were always going to be closely watched, as even with no teammates around her the strong WorldTour rider was not going to escape intense scrutiny.
It was a cool beginning but temperatures were rising for the women’s race, the maximum for Warrnambool near 30°C – warm but fortunately well below the near 40°C temperatures expected further to the east. The first points on offer for the Queen of the Mountains classification came at 8km into the racing, with Josie Pepper (Butterfields Racing) leaping out of the peloton to claim them and then also jumping into the break of four that was established under 50km into the race.
That group of Lucinda Stewart (ARA Skip Capital), Sophia Sammons (Cycling Development Foundation), Amanda Poulsen (BridgeLane) and Pepper quickly established the gap, with individual rider Marion Mundt also attempting to bridge, but getting stuck in the middle.
At 95km to go the lead group of four had a 3.20 advantage and this crept up to around four-and-a-half minutes by 80km to go, with Pepper making the most of her position out the front of the race to sweep up the rest of the top points in the Queen of the Mountain classification as well. Poulsen, on the other hand, dominated the intermediate sprints to claim that jersey.
At around 60km to go it was clear the pressure was on in the peloton behind, with it beginning to stretch and drop riders as it hit the coast. The gap to the front riders started to drop quickly too, shedding almost a minute within 10km, but then the break dug in its toes to slow the tightening, particularly with some chaotic moments behind.
At 42.5km the winds and pace meant splits galore were occuring within the peloton and Brown was happy to keep pushing the pace at the front and whittle down the strength of the teams around her. Though, then at 39 km to go there was a big crash in the lead split of the peloton on the thin rural roads, with more than a dozen riders coming down right behind the front layer. Most got up quickly and continued on, but not all.
In the meantime the break was holding firm with a gap of about a two-and-a-half minutes but at 35km to go it looked like the lead four would drop to three. The 18-year-old Sammons fell back as she fought intense leg cramps but despite crying out with the pain she determinedly battled on and latched on to the front three once again and held firm till the final stages.
Inside 20km Lauren Thomas (Lochard Energy Composite team) launched out of the peloton to try and bridge to the front group but there was no dragging it within sight and it soon became clear that the race would be decided from among the lead four. The impetus in the reduced peloton wasn’t there either, with the two strongest teams of the race, ARA Skip Capital and BridgeLane with riders out the front, and few keen to help a strong rider like Brown – who was constantly near the front – drag the gap back within launching distance for the powerful time trialist.
At 6km to go, Stewart launched from the break, which had been starting to play games given it was clear the win was at stake. The ARA Skip Capital rider quickly got the gap when she delivered a powerful surge, though Pepper and Poulsen got together to try and drag her back in while the cramping Sammons finally had to relent. At around 2km to go Pepper then struck out alone to continue the pursuit and while she pulled the gap to within seconds Stewart ultimately held firm.
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