Another year, another track season done. The final track open for the year was the Austral, and it showed all the hallmarks of coming at the end of a long season. The racing was hard, the racing was scrappy, and serious folks with longer-term objectives took home the goodies.
DISC filled up quickly. The smell of coffee was in the air, and the good folks at the mobile espresso machine were doing a roaring trade. I'd hooked up a Media Pass with Cycling Victoria earlier in the week, and so was able to wander aimlessly through the crowd, the infield, even once across the track itself. I shook hands, made small talk, inquired about the sensations riders were feeling in their legs. There was last minute gear changes occurring as folks got the feel of the track - it wasn't particularly fast itself, but the racing was hard, and those able to push bigger gears benefited.
The bookie was there and taking small bets. Ollie Phillips was starting the day at twenty-five dollars, and when word of this went around the track money was laid down until he found himself at ten to one. He seemed quite chuffed. Glenn O'Shea was at three to one, but had been backed into odds that made it not worth betting by the time the final started.
There were other races, however. The first was the women's scratch race, an alleged 'heartstarter', where Netti Edmondson set the tone for the rest of the women's races for the evening. Taking a lap early wasn't enough for the soon-to-be Olympian, and with six to go she began to set herself up for the sprint. A rider had fallen earlier, however, and in the process of rejoining the race spurted up on to the track, forcing Edmondson to take evasive action. This seemed to be her only concern in the race - five laps later she had taken it out.
The A Grade Scratch Race was up next - another 'heartstarter'. I still have no idea what that means. Were these races less important? Did they pay less money? I'll never know. This race was pretty mellow, though, as it seemed riders were saving themselves for the Austral. O'Shea showed his intentions, however, stepping out from thirty metres back to take the win by twenty. That's some fierce acceleration, alright.
In this race, however, is Adrian Sansonetti, one of the Sansonetti brothers who run BT. After a long layoff he has come back to the track, and it somehow seems like he has never left. Chatting to him later he tells me that his priorities have changed a little, that family and friends are probably more important to him now than racing is, but he needed to keep fit somehow, and loves to mix it up with the boys. He's modest about his earlier achievements, and talks openly about how much winning the Austral - which he was never able to do - means to people.
Interspersed with the graded races were the Junior National Scratch Race Championships, but I'm going to leave them out, because there were so many crashes in these races that it would've seemed more like a horror story than a race report. Some fast kids beat some other fast kids, and most of them fell over. It had been a long week of racing for the kids, and it sure as hell showed.
In the B Grade Scratch Ollie went on the whistle - a reliable move on his part, but it seemed to take the bunch by surprise. He's been doing a lot of motorpacing out on the road, and has the endurance to go it alone, but he was pulled back after a couple of laps and the bunch sat up. Ben Ables was sitting nicely on his wheel, and seemed to be itching to unleash the fury of his impressive sprint. Which, at one and a half to go, he does. And is untouchable. It's the only Brunswick win of the night, despite Matt Keenan suggesting that "Everyone racing for Brunswick tonight has been aggressive."
C grade were up next, and proved that crashing was not solely the province of the Juniors. For the first time in my experience of track racing, Stu Vaughn, the powerhouse from Hawthorn, hit the deck. When asked afterwards whose fault the crash was, Vaughn simply replied, "Not mine," his unwillingness to comment further speaking volumes. There were more serious matters at stake, however - in the crash a Warragal rider had lost a finger, which, while eventually located, was unable to be reattached later in hospital. An unfortunate memento of the Austral, sure, but they breed them tough down Warragal way, so he'll be back. Just a few grams lighter.
Then came the invitational sprint finals. While Azizul Awang showed that he was once again pushing close to peak "mono-across-the-line" form after his nasty splinter incident, it was Blackburn's Emerson Harwood who impressed the punters, shoving his way through an international field to take home second place. He's still very young, but is definitely going places.
The Austral Heats were up next, determining who had already wasted some money with the bookies. These were quickly followed by the Junior Australs, which were once again marred by a number of serious crashes. I wasn't paying attention at the time, looked away for a couple of minutes, and when I looked up again there were bodies laying on the ground everywhere. Safety obviously hadn't been a big issue for the kids in the week previous - there had not been a single crash until the Saturday evening, despite a full week's racing - but once they started dropping, they dropped like flies.
Sam Crome, all of 18 years of age, has been in blistering form this year, and last night was no exception to this rule. He had a hard time in the scratch races, battling it out with an almost entirely international field, but it's in the handicaps where he comes into his own. Looking more like a roadie than a trackie (despite allegedly not going so great on the road), he has the acceleration and endurance to push all they way through a handicap, then kick at the end. He made it through to the final comfortably, sitting up for fourth in his heat.
In the first ever Women's Austral Netti Edmondson was the obvious favourite, but was stuck at the back of the bunch with a handful of sprinters, so there were some definite doubts about the likelihood of making up the ground. And for a while this was how it worked out - the front group were working well together, and when Apryl Eppinger hit the bunch on the bell it looked like she would stay away. The former sprinter Edmondson had other ideas. From the back of the scratch bunch, fifty metres behind Eppinger, she hit the gas and ran past Apryl with barely a blink.
I'd seen her earlier in the crowd - her family was sitting next to some friends of mine. They'd gushed over her performance in the scratch race and she'd blushed a little, shying away from the compliments. This season has been her breakout season, still in progress, and it's almost as if it has taken her by surprise.
In the 118th Men's Austral Final (anyone else see an issue there?) Ollie was off 165 metres, with only three guys in front of him. One of them was Stu Vaughn, always a handy bloke to work with in a handicap, if he had recovered fully from his earlier time on the deck. Sam Crome and Adrian Sansonetti were off 90 and 95 respectively, and were definitely working together for the win. With them was VIS rider Luke Parker. O'Shea was riding off scratch, and had a gap of twenty metres to make up before a big line of riders, all of whom everyone in the house assumed were working on O'Shea's behalf.
Riders leaned against their pushers, clenching their fists and taking final deep breaths. The commissaire clipboards rose into the air one by one. Matty Keenan called, "Attention Riders!" and the gun went. The front group, Ollie leading the way, were together and rolling half lap turns before the echo subsided, but there were six middlemarkers, including Crome and Sansonetti, all together and gaining fast. The backmarkers looked a little disorganized, and weren't with the bunch until two to go. The catch was on, they were all together, but O'Shea was still at the rear of the bunch. Ollie had popped, spent too much time trying to keep the frontmarkers away. Sansonetti had disappeared, his job done for the night. Sam Crome was still in the mix, Luke Parker hot on his wheel. With 80 metres to go Parker hit them and hit them hard. Crome chased him and O'Shea tried to do the same, but was pushed high on the banks, the traffic conspiring against him. At the front of the race Parker kept pushing until the last five metres, when he looked around, saw that there was only Crome behind him a few metres back, then raised his hands in celebration. Switzerland's Franco Marvulli, continuing his rich vein of form, came home in a rush to take out third.
It was an interesting win for Parker, who is perhaps the journeyman of the VIS squad, often overshadowed by his world champion teammates Alex Morgan and Jaron Gardiner. But he is, occasionally, able to pull out unexpected victories. Tonight was one of those nights.
Unusually, there were still more races to come. In the C Grade scratch Stu Vaughn made up for his crash in the first race, staying at the front and out of trouble until the last lap, where he used his sheer power to blast away for the win. The B Grade scratch race was the only race of the night to feature a successful breakaway, and again it was Ollie the aggressor, with Josh Harrison and Japan's Iyori Nishizawa first going with him, then both outsprinting him.
Two invitational Kierin races followed, with the women up first. You already know who won. She went on the bell, sat up a little out of turn two, saw Malaysia's Fatehah Mustapha coming at her, then hit the afterburners to win by a bike length. With the men up next it was expected to be an all-Malaysian affair, and the crowd was not surprised when Awang hit out with a lap to go. It was hipster favourite Josiah Ng on his wheel, though, and with fifty to go the more experienced Ng hit his teammate and didn't look back, taking another win out of Awang's hands.
The final race of the evening was the Victorian Men's Scratch Race Championship. I did this race last year, and was aiming at it again this year, before I pushed things a little too hard and ended up on my back for six months. The bunch was largely the same - a smattering of internationals, a sprinkling of riders from state institutes, a couple of randoms, and Glenn O'Shea. And the race generally followed the same pattern as last year - a few breaks, not much getting away, then an O'Shea attack that screws everyone else out of the win. This year he hit them with five to go, and quickly had one hundred metres on the bunch. The race seemed over, until the big Swiss Marvulli started chasing. He hadn't seemed in the greatest of shape until now, his head wobbling, his elbows and knees flailing about at all angles. But chase he did, and gained on O'Shea until the Bendigo boy only had fifty, then forty, then thirty metres. There simply wasn't enough track for Marvulli, however, and O'Shea crossed the line with his hands in the air, adding another couple of hundred bucks to his appearance fee.
Matty Keenan grabbed O'Shea quickly for a post-race interview, but the night had stretched out a bit, and the venue emptied quickly. In the back straight there was talk of gathering to watch Milan-San Remo, and eventually a plan including live internet streaming and copious amounts of coffee was hatched. Four hours later Simon Gerrans would take the win for GreenEDGE, and the doubters - including me - would once again be silenced.
Pics C/O Dave Hogan. At the point of writing these pics were used without permission, but I'm sure he'll be fine with it when he gets back to me. More available here.
For more Austral results see here.
For MSR results see here.