The Nationals win that almost was: A chat with Brendan Canty

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On the slopes of Mt. Buninyong yesterday afternoon, Brendan Canty (Cannondale-Drapac) put in his second attack of the Australian Nationals road race and broke away solo. The roadside crowd erupted in support of the Victorian, so too did Canty’s many fans who were watching the race live on TV and commenting on social media.

The 24-year-old, in his first road race since joining the WorldTour, powered around the back of the course, holding two-time Australian time-trial champion Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) at bay. Canty rolled into the finishing straight, sat up, smiled at the TV camera and got ready to celebrate … until he realised he still had one lap of the 10.2km circuit to go.

Having emptied the tank on the previous lap, Canty ran out of legs and was caught by Durbridge and then the peloton on the final ascent of Mt. Buninyong. He went on to finish in the chase group, in seventh place, as Miles Scotson blasted away to an impressive solo victory, he too in his first race as a WorldTour rider.

For Canty, it was a case of what could have been. But the Melbourne local, whose rise through the cycling ranks has been so rapid, hasn’t let the mistake get him down. Instead, he’s seeing the positives — the fact he was able to animate the race in a most spectacular fashion and that his progression as a cyclist shows no signs of slowing down.

Sitting at Melbourne Airport, about to fly to Adelaide for the Tour Down Under — his first WorldTour race — Brendan Canty spoke to CyclingTips about his dramatic day at Mt. Buninyong and the road ahead.

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CyclingTips: You seemed pretty comfortable in the peloton throughout the race yesterday. Was that the plan — to stick with guys like Simon Gerrans and Nathan Haas until it lit up in the last few laps?

Brendan Canty: Yeah. I mean, it’s an interesting one because if it comes down to a sprint finish … I’m not going to be competitive there. Obviously I’ve got to get away somewhere and for me it’s on the climb. I think if you do leave it till the last lap everyone’s so attentive and they give it their all but unless you’re significantly stronger I think it’s actually sometimes hard to get away on that last lap.

Obviously I look at Gerrans and Haas and think, ‘If they’re with me at the finish I’m not going to be able to win’, so that’s something that’s on your mind. Whereas it’s almost the opposite for them – they’ll sit there for as long as they can, hoping it does stay together. Kind of has an interesting impact on the race.

You made your first attack on lap 16 of 18 when you managed to drag Sam Crome with you and then picked up Caleb Ewan. How did that move come about? Was there a moment that made you go ‘Right, this is the time’?

Yeah. I mean we were getting close to the breakaway and we could kind of see them up hill and I was feeling pretty good. I just thought I’d give it a bit of a shake on that hill and see what happened.

When I went initially no one really came and I was thinking ‘This might be the move where I can slip away in and I get up to that breakaway not long after the climb’ which I think would have been really good. Because then they [the riders in the peloton] would have had to chase and I could recover a little bit potentially and go again on the next lap.

But obviously having those two guys, Sammy Crome and Ewan sitting on me — obviously they were not going to pull a turn which is fair enough. But that just meant I didn’t really want to drag them back up there and when I looked over my shoulder at the peloton, they were still there [so] I backed it off a little bit.

But I think that helped to reduce the time down to the breakaway significantly as well so it meant that second last time up we were already there which meant that my attack was … I guess it’s much more exciting being off the front rather than between the brakeaway and the peloton.

And so when you made that attack on the 17th lap, I guess you thought it was the last lap?

Yeah exactly.

So you put in this huge attack, you give it everything and you get this decent gap. What was the emotion like as you were riding down into Buninyong on your own?

I mean, it would be a dream to be able to wear the green and gold jersey so to have that feeling of thinking that it might be possible … And you’re staying away and you don’t have long left to race, and my legs still felt pretty good you know — that’s an incredible feeling. Anybody that ever has a dream and then to realise that it might be possible and you get so close to it? But then, you know, obviously it doesn’t quite work out like that.

It’s an extreme high and then it’s a big low. But at the same time I put my head back down and tried to give my all on the last lap.

You can discuss it as much as you like and say ‘If you had waited till the last lap you would have won’ or ‘If you saved yourself a little bit more around that lap you might have been able to go harder on the final lap’. Or just mentally knowing that I did have another lap could have changed the way I rode. You can discuss all those different variables but at the end of the day I gave it a really hard crack and that might have been the way that I won the race.

I drilled as hard as I could on that second last lap. And Durbo [Luke Durbridge] was still only 20 seconds behind me so if I didn’t ride as hard as I could then Durbo would have closed the gap even earlier. And then it would have been hard for me to try and do anything on that last climb anyway, unless I could get away from him.

As embarrassing as it might feel I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of or dwell on too negatively.

I think for me it’s also exciting with the progression. A couple years ago I got dropped with a few laps to go. Last year I was there in the small reduced field but I didn’t really feel like I had anything in my legs — I was kind of just hanging there for dear life and then had to ride in the last lap and nearly got dropped, and got back on, and was kind of more or less a passenger there.

And then this year I actually animated the race and attacked the front. And I feel it with my training and progression — with more racing that I do that I’m just getting better and better.

It is disappointing to not get a better result yesterday but it’s also extremely exciting to see the progression’s still there and people say I’m rising so quickly. I’m still progressing and it’s like: what’s going to happen next year?

Do you have an idea of how you got the laps mixed up? Did you just miscount them in your head?

I wasn’t even really counting most of the day, as funny as that might sound. When you’re sitting in the peloton it’s kind of like ‘There’s not so much I can do right now.’ You just sit there and try to conserve yourself and you monitor the time to the breakaway. Laps nine, 10 11 I kind of knew ‘OK well we’re halfway now. You got six or five to go. Something like that.’ But for some reason on the second last lap, I don’t know, I just didn’t really check.

A lot of people think I’m so addicted to Strava and stats and power and all that kind of stuff. But I mean I wasn’t actually really looking at my Garmin all that often in the race to be honest.

So obviously a mistake on my behalf but I guess it’s a lesson learned and I think if I take something away from it and it doesn’t happen again … In the scheme of things the national road race is a big deal but I think there’s bigger things to come as well. So hopefully it happens here and and not somewhere else in another big race.

Was it the commentators on the finish line that kind of made you realise that there was one lap to go?

Not too sure actually. I think I might have heard someone somewhere. And it hit me pretty quickly that I did have one left to go.

And you spent so much energy riding what you thought was the last lap. So when you hit the hill again, not expecting to have to …

Yeah, thinking that was the last one and then to mentally have to say ‘Ok, I’m going to have to do this six-minute climb as hard as I can again and I’ve only got 20 seconds over Durbridge and the legs are already pretty sore …’ I mean, that’s hard. I think my head was still there but there’s only so much that your body can keep producing.

I think a lot of people in that situation would have just lost their cool and instead you kept fighting and you managed to finish a very respectable seventh.

Yeah I think that’s something in my character that I’m always proud of – the way I go about racing my bike and the positive attitude and just always pushing as hard as I can. There was never a thought in my mind, when I had another lap to go and the guys caught me, that I wasn’t going to try and stay there as long as I can. Who knows: maybe there was another chance to attack on the last lap potentially and slip up the road again?

But the reaction from my supporters and family and friends has has been overwhelming. A lot of people have mentioned that I made a mistake but I was the most exciting thing about the nationals race this year and the way I conducted myself in the post-race interview and my attitude towards what happened was really great. I think that’s an important thing to take away and I think if I can grow and learn from the experience then I’m going to be a better person from it.

I think it almost looked like I was crying in the interview but I wasn’t it was just my eyes were really red and sore from the effort level. I mean I am disappointed but I definitely don’t have my head down.

So looking ahead to the Tour Down Under, you’re obviously in good form. What’s your role going to be there? Are you guys riding for Michael Woods?

There’s a lot that can happen in Tour Down Under. We’ve got a few riders — obviously Michael Woods had a really really good performance there last year [ed. Woods finished third on the two climbing stages en route to fifth overall]. He’ll be a guy that’s planning on going really well again this year.

For me, it’s my WorldTour debut, it’s going to be a big race, it’s going to be exciting. There’ll be a lot of things for me to take in and deal with while I’m there. So I think there’s a little bit less pressure on me from that end. But at the same time you know there is pressure for me to go really well and I want to perform and do what I can.

So I won’t have a specific GC role or anything like that but I’m expected to go really well in the hills. So hopefully I can be there and help out and if we have numbers later in the race who knows what’s going to happen.

When the race ends, what do you want to come away from it having learned or having done?

Well for me to be experiencing racing at that level. I mean I did a few big races last year but not a WorldTour race full of the big teams and big names in all of the teams. So that’s going to be big and just seeing how I cope with that.

And you know the pressure of a big race and the media and the crowd and the expectations and the pressure from the team to perform is always going to be different than a smaller race.

But in terms of my own performance out there and stuff — as you said my form’s pretty good and I can take confidence away from the National Road Race. So I would like to be there on the climbs and if there comes a point where I can do something for one of my teammates, for example Woodsy or whoever it may be who’s trying to win … [if] I can do something for them that impacts the race then I think I’ll take a lot away from that tour, having done my job.

Beyond TDU, are you doing Cadel’s Race?

Yeah that’s the plan. Obviously things might change between now and Cadel’s but I mean yeah, we’ll keep pretty much the same squad.

For me I’m really looking forward to doing Cadel’s again, if that’s the case, because I didn’t get to do it last year and two years ago I was pretty happy with my performance there [ed. Canty finished 18th in the first edition of Cadel’s Race in a chase group nine seconds behind the leaders.]. Although it doesn’t have a big climb there’s a few things out there that might suit me. And the more I race the more I find that I can go pretty well on those small lumpy climbs.

So yeah there’s a lot to look forward to. And then after that I’m off to Europe.

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