By Peter Maniaty – @CarbonAddiction For all kinds of half-assed reasons I left my run very late in 2014, waiting until the final event of the NRS season to get out of Sydney and make my soigneur debut for the Cellarbrations boys in Saturday?s 54th running of the Grafton to Inverell. I?d heard all about the race, of course. What self-respecting Aussie cyclist hasn?t? But to watch this 228km epic unfold from the very heart of the race convoy was quite something. With so many stories and side-stories to tell, I really was like a pig in sh?? mud. Writer nirvana. Lucky I packed my note pad. With CRT having riders scattered all over the eastern sea board this year, five of our chosen six for the G2I race ? together with their extended family of helpers ? descended on Jacaranda Central, aka Grafton, from all directions on Friday pm. (Our sixth rider, Aaron, is a local boy and arrived early on race morning.) After a long drive, Friday night was pretty quiet. A quick chat about tactics, a big feed of spinach, prosciutto and pasta, and the boys were ready. For bed. I mightn?t have been riding myself on this particular Saturday, but biorhythms being biorhythms, I found myself staring at the ceiling at 4:45am. Not wanting to wake the team director and his missus in the adjoining room, I ushered in a glorious sunrise by instead pounding the local pavements in a two-legged search for a cafe. Eventually I found one that was open, hello fellow insomniac. Funnily enough I also found our team director out walking. Seems he didn?t want to wake the missus either, so he took his flouro orange Nikes out for a bit of a power walk ? the same orange Nikes he would later use to try and wind up St. George-Merida?s Jordan Davies at the post race celebration in Inverell. (Jordan?s are fluro blue in case you?re wondering.) After nurturing my daily caffeine habit I returned to the team hotel and quickly realized there still wasn?t much movement at the station. So I struck up a conversation with the first person I came across ? a somewhat nefarious-looking guy in a van parked right outside the hotel. At first I thought was casing the joint; pinch a few Ridleys and wheelsets and he could take the rest of the year off. Turned out he actually worked for a local helicopter business. I assumed they were covering the race. ?Race? Nah, what race?? After a quick explanation he confirmed he had no idea what the Grafton to Inverell Classic was. ?Mate, we?re on standby to do water-bombing for the fireys, the forecast is for the north of the state to burn today. High thirties, strong winds and tinder dry.? We?re going to need a bigger esky. The guys began assembling at about 6:45am, grabbing some brekky, making the odd last-minute adjustment to their bikes, talking a lot trash, cracking jokes and watching Katy Perry and Niki Minaj video clips on Raaaaaaaaage. The vibe within the riding group was surprisingly laid back. In stark comparison our team director, Rusty, was buzzing about like the Energizer battery guy, getting everything packed just right into the team car ? food, spares, ice, race radios. Yet despite the flurry of activity, he still managed to forget the orange roof light for the team car. Luckily a bit of last-minute scrambling at the start line saw us secure a replacement, however it sounded like a 2-stroke Victa whenever we switched it on. Anyone have a set of earplugs? As the boys made the short roll down to the start line, a mere skimming stone?s throw from the impressive Clarence River, the heat in the day was already beginning to make its presence felt, even though it was only 7:30am. Forecasts suggested oven-like conditions were possible up on the range later in the day ? and a fan-forced oven at that. Ultimately these conditions would have a major impact on the way things unfolded, but we?ll get to that in a moment. One of the things that struck me all weekend is just how well this race is run. It?s a pretty slick affair, especially given the core organising group is just three blokes. In fact, the comms and race committee were so organised the entire A-Grade peloton was fully assembled, ready to go, five minutes early. I took the opportunity to grab a few final photos of the boys, and Kris duly obliged by planting a sloppy good luck kiss smack bang on Josh?s cheek. What happens on tour stays on tour, right? Oh, except that I posted it on Twitter. Oops. There were plenty of pensive looks and sideways glances as the 90-strong A-Grade field waited for the official roll-out at 8am contemplating the next seven hours, including our NRS debutant, Greg Burgett from Sydney. Pretty brutal initiation into the top tier of domestic Aussie cycling. Heading into the Jacaranda-lined neutral zone in the team car with Rusty and Dylan Sunderland, we agreed it was a fair bet our team tactics were similar to most of the squads that had lined up under the giant inflatable McDonalds sign. Ride towards the front from the get-go and have someone in the break. At all costs. Our protected rider, as he?s been all season, was Josh Berry. Now Josh can take care of himself pretty well, so we weren?t too worried about sending boys up the road. The first significant move came at 18km, when a large group of about twenty riders rolled out to a 50-second gap. As race radio crackled out a long list of bingo numbers, we realised we had two boys in there, Joel and Matt, plus a couple of guys from most of the bigger teams. Encouraging start. Things began to really string out over those initial undulations, with some pretty serious splits forming and several guys no doubt wishing they?d stayed at home, or perhaps entered B-grade instead. It was to be a long day in the saddle for them. As things turned out a break of that size was always likely to be a little unmanageable, and Budget worked hard to bring things back together at around the 30km mark. It didn?t stay that way long, though, as two of the GPM boys, Ed White and Dan Bonello, went off the front and really threw down the gauntlet. Seven other keen souls jumped across to join them and the defining break of the day had been established, still about 40km from the bottom of Gibraltar. Getting race numbers in these situations is always a bit tricky, the comms do their best but the wait can be excruciating. Finally the lotto numbers came over the radio?43, 53, 18, 36, 124, 56, 33, 28 and?85. Bewdy, one of our strong U23 boys Matt Slee had made it across once again. This was good news, indeed, particularly as the break grew rapidly?2:20?.4:15?before blowing right out to over 15 minutes by the bottom of Gibraltar. Already it was going to tough ask to catch these guys. One poor bastard, Keegan Aitchison from Subaru-Albion, made a valiant/doomed/crazy attempt to bridge solo. Unfortunately, he only made it half way across and proceeded to spend about 50km perfectly dissecting the break and bunch on his Todd Malone. Not entirely sure why he didn?t just sit up and wait for the bunch when it was clear he wouldn?t make it. But tapping his way up Gibraltar, solo, he sure looked like he needed a big hug. That said, he finished. Chapeau to you, young man. One of the great things about having a rider up the road is we had free reign to move back and forth in the team car to service the lads in the various bunches. It certainly made for a more interesting day in the team car, although it will take some time to recover Rusty?s from driving. He?s a bona fide nut-job behind the wheel. Although I?m sure he tell you otherwise 😉 As we hurtled forward to check in on Matt, easy to spot in his fluro yellow socks and helmet, he looked strong. But as we quickly found out, things were not going as well as they seemed. He?d been riding towards the back for several km, which we assumed was tactical. Turns out his Di2 was playing up and he was running out of gears. He?d charged it the night before, but it was flashing red and draining fast. He?d already lost the use of one of his chain rings, and by the first feed zone at about 120km he was stuck in 39-14. F@#$. Clearly this wasn?t great news for the break either, as they needed Matt to work. Kristian Juel from Budget even dropped back and asked us, with a big smile, if we perhaps had a spare Di2 battery. Sorry Kristian, but no-one in the convoy did, despite a frantic flurry of pleading and phone calls whenever we had mobile service. That Matt lasted as long as he did with the leaders is testament to his courage, it was genuinely excruciating watching him rock and roll his way over some of those hills past Glen Innes. We stopped half way up the Gibraltar climb to check in on our other boys. The ever-smiling Josh Berry was safely ensconced in the main chase bunch of only about 35 riders, nearly 16 minutes behind the break, with a steady line of guys being shelled off the back. Sadly our third man on the road, Joel, was one of them. With no sign of our other boys, we needed to get back to the head of the race, if for no other reason than to keep Matt?s spirits up. One of the curiosities is the KOM point for the 18km Gibraltar climb is actually about 500m past the summit, on a speedy downhill stretch. The break was really flying at this point, and it was quite fascinating to watch one of the lads in the break demonstrate the fine art of pissing at 90+km/h. Glad the windows were up. After hanging tough for over 30km with one gear, Matt finally lost touch with his break companions coming into the first feed at Mt Mitchell when Avanti?s Neil Van Der Ploeg launched a series of attacks which did little to encourage harmony in the break. The eventual winner, Lake, joined him, which was quite impressive considering he?d seemed to be cramping up just moments earlier. Along with Matty, Jake Magee fell off the pace, and by the time the Charter Mason man rolled through the feed zone you could say he was not a happy boy, having been unceremoniously 1-2?d out of the break. 30km further down the road he?d had enough and hauled his bike on to the roof of the team car. The other thing that became hard to ignore around about now was a seriously nasty headwind that, together with temperatures approaching 34-36 degrees, ensured things weren?t about to get any easier for the leaders. 30km from the next feed zone at Glen Innes the gap had been whittled down to about 10 minutes, still a lot of course, but significantly a chase group had moved off the front of the main bunch and had a 1:30 gap of its own to Josh?s bunch, which also included Joe Cooper and Tim Roe. Cooper knew full well he only needed to finish with Roe to secure the overall NRS title for 2014, so was more than happy to mark the Budget man out of the race. It was already becoming pretty clear Josh had backed the wrong horse. As the SBS chopper buzzed overhead, and a bird nearly flew straight in the car window (WTF?!), we gorged ourselves on some of Donna Sunderland?s home-made fudge in the team car as the riders called a nature stop. Josh came up alongside for a bottle, and told us he was feeling fantastic, but bored out of his mind. He posed for a few photos and Rusty suggested he have a final crack to try and catch the chase group. Josh wasn?t at all impressed with that idea. No-one wanted to work, and in such brutal conditions trying to jump across on his own was guaranteed suicide. We agreed the best course of action was to work on his tan-lines for the summer. Time to go forward to check in on the one-cog wonder Matt once again, who was firmly stuck in no mans land for the second time today, about three minutes ahead of Josh?s bunch. We gave him a coke and an ice stocking to shove down his jersey and chatted to him for a while, really just to keep him in the race. Considering what he was going through, his spirits were bloody high. It was impressive to watch. Rusty (who suffered through the race himself last year) assured us all he was feeling much better than 12 months ago at the same stage. Not sure Matt thought that was very funny, mate. We dropped back once again and heard that Joel was out of the race, as were Kris and Aaron. Confusingly we then heard that Aaron was still going. Greg had been riding with Joel and Kris for a while, but we couldn?t get confirmation of exactly where he was after the first feed zone almost 100km back. It was tough having guys spread over so much distance, because we couldn?t drop all the way back to check in on them. We just had to hope they were okay with neutral spares and water (as it turned out, they weren?t ? Greg ran out of water at one stage). Finally, mercifully, Matt was caught by Josh?s group, and again, he tucked in and hung on for as long as he could. The climbs were tough enough. But the descents must have frustrated the hell out him, because without a big chain ring he had no choice but to freewheel and lose ground. His legs were spinning faster than a vomit comet at the Easter Show. Race radio suddenly crackled to life near Glen Innes. ?Comm here, just be careful everyone, there could be cattle on the road.? Awesome. Since we?d passed the superbly named Bald Nob Road there was also no longer a full road closure, just a rolling one, which meant the riders also had to negotiate the occasional passing semi trailer and impatient 4WD.? Fortunately we never saw the cows. After the second and final feed through Glen Innes, the race had come down to three groups. The break of six riders had 6 minutes on a chasing group of eleven, which in turn had about four minutes on the third group including Roe, Cooper, Josh and the rapidly spinning Matt who we decided to call ?Cadence? or perhaps ?Eveready.? After a superhuman effort for over 150km, he lost contact for the final time on the third KOM at Waterloo, but somehow managed to grind his way over the top in his 14-tooth sprocket. The temperature kept on rising with plenty of motor pacing and sticky bottles on show. In fact, we?d given out so much water ? to our own guys and others ? we were beginning to run out and had to ration what was left. No doubt feeling sorry for the bunch, and knowing their chance of victory had long since evaporated, the comms turned a blind eye to most of this activity. However they weren?t nearly as tolerant of the echelons that were forming as relentless cross winds forced riders to the wrong side of the road. After a lot of radio chatter, horn honking and threats from the police and comms, Saxon Irvine from Subaru Albion became the sacrificial lamb and was DQ?d for crossing double lines. He dropped back to argue his case for a bit, and then kept riding anyway. I guess you can?t be DQ?d twice from the same race. And he had to get to Inverell somehow. No doubt more out of tedium than anything else a couple of riders, including Josh, decided to have a little dig with about 38km to go on one of those long grinds that lead into Inverell. It didn?t last long and from that point the group sat up and assumed grupetto mode. With all impetus gone, Joe Cooper knew he?d soon be hailed as 2014 NRS champion on arrival in the Sapphire City. Well done mate. Back in the convoy we were beginning getting a bit bored ourselves. Even worse, we?d run out of home-made fudge. We listened to Dylan?s dad, Pete Sunderland, do his race updates on the local radio station (1188AM) in between New Kids on the Block and a host of other one-hit wonders from years gone by. The next A-Grade update confirmed the chasing group of 11 would run out of road, which meant it would be a rider from the day?s original breakaway that would win the 2014 G2I Classic ? the very same break Matt was in until his Di2 troubles. Arghhh. Budget?s Kristian Juel had won the KOM title for 2014. GPM?s Ed White had claimed the Sprint King title. Now all that was left was to crown the overall race winner. Jordan Davies attacked and was brought back. Kristian Juel was pretty feisty. But ultimately it was the move from African Wildlife Safaris rider, Sean Lake, on the final run into Inverell which proved decisive as he opened up a break that would never be closed. As the former U23 Australian rower rode towards the biggest win of his short career, we were snapped back to action as Josh held up his hand wanting service out on the rather rustic Elsmore Road. As he rolled alongside we handed him a bottle. ?Nah, I?m not thirsty boys, I?m just bored again.? He proceeded to listen to the finish on the radio with us, before rolling in with the Roe/Cooper bunch about 15 minutes later in 29th and, frustratingly, with plenty of petrol still in the tank. He?ll be better for the experience next year and ? given this was his first ever start here ? I wouldn?t be surprised in the slightest if he came back and won. But to the victor goes the spoils. In the end Sean Lake, who was surely 50-1 at the start line this morning, won by an impressive 31 seconds. Warney winner, Oliver Kent-Spark took out the sprint for second from Juel, Van Der Ploeg and Davies, with Ed White a couple of minutes back in 6th. Like many, I knew pretty much nothing about the winner, so I sniffed about a bit to fill in the gaps. How new is Lake to the sport of cycling? Well they tell me the powerfully-built 22-year old Victorian only rode his first serious race 12 months ago. Even better, Google him and ?Swan Lake? comes up a whole more than he does. That may be about to change, mind you. As for the rest of the Cellarbrations boys? Well Joel and Kris were DNFs. Matty rolled in with the next big bunch in 44th about 27 minutes after Lake, a simply incredible effort. Aaron had a much tougher time of things than 2013, but still managed to crack the top 50. That still left one CRT rider unaccounted for and as we began to pack up the team car (and a few of the boys took an impromptu bath in a nearby fountain) I couldn?t help but worry what had become of our NRS debutant, Greg. We hadn?t heard of him withdrawing, so he must have still been out there somewhere. And he was. Almost 90 minutes after Lake had received his champagne and flowers, I spotted our team colours rolling into the finishing straight. I bolted to the barricades and screamed as loudly as I could, rushing over with a can of coke to grab Greg?s bike after he crossed the line. I?ve know GB for a few years now, and he?s a seriously tough hombre. But I?d never seen him so spent, or so emotional. He?d clearly gone to places he never knew he had today. He told me he?d been cramping. He told me he?d run out of water for more than 40km at one stage. And he also told me there was no way he was living the rest of his life with ?DNF? alongside his name in his first NRS race. What a bloody inspirational human. A few minutes later, still barely able to walk, I interviewed him in the fountain as he clutched his finisher?s medal to his chest. I?d seen some truly epic things out on the road today, but between Matt and Greg, I can?t imagine ever seeing anything quite as impressive as these two. What an effort. What a day. Now, please, where?s the pub?