When things don’t go to plan: A tough day at the Sun Tour with the St. George Continental Team

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The back end of the team car loses traction as it slides around a tight right-hand bend. Olympic and Commonwealth Games medalist Brett Dutton is at the wheel, throwing the vehicle down Tawonga Gap in a desperate bid to regain contact with the Jayco Herald Sun Tour convoy.

As the St. George Continental Team car tears down the serpentine descent, tyres screeching at every corner, Brett is on the phone, yelling instructions to his soigneur up the road.

“We need the tackle box and we need a new chain out of the parts kit when we come past the feed zone!,” he says.

It’s a stressful moment and tensions are running high in the car. The team’s big hope for a result on the stage, Ben Dyball, has had an untimely mechanical and is engaged in his own battle to rejoin the race. He’s doing so on a replacement bike, his original machine incapacitated by a twisted chain.

The recovery plan is a simple one, in theory at least. Meet up with the soigneurs, get a spare chain, replace the chain on Ben’s bike, then get Ben back on the repaired back and back in the race. In practice it’s a tricky, time-sensitive manoeuvre that means catching and overtaking the peloton, finding somewhere to stop and remove the first chain, then putting on a new chain as quickly as mechanic Andy can manage.

To make matters worse, the soigneurs can’t find the box containing the spare chain and they’re only a handful of kilometres away.

Things aren’t going according to plan on what is one of the team’s most important racing days of the year; a day that had started in a much more relaxed fashion …

***

In a quiet corner of Wangaratta’s Apex Park, the St. George Continental Team riders are quietly getting themselves ready for the day ahead, kitting up, fuelling up and discussing the stage before them. Small crowds are gathered at the Orica-Scott and Sky campervans, keen for a glimpse (and photo) of Esteban Chaves or Chris Froome. There’s no such attention on the pink-clad St. George riders.

Brett Dutton gives his riders a quick pep-talk and then it’s off to the startline. After a few minutes the starter’s gun goes off and the peloton is away, cheered out of town by a group of local school children.

Behind the peloton, Brett slots the St. George teamcar into position 11 of 15, the order determined by each outfit’s highest GC placing from the prologue.

Brett Dutton (in the red shirt) chats to his riders before the stage.

On the outskirts of Wangaratta, race director John Trevorrow pulls in the flag, signalling the end of the neutral zone. As expected, there’s a flurry of activity as riders start attacking immediately. It takes 10km until race radio reveals that a group of eight has gotten away.

There’s a moment of anticipation as the numbers of the breakaway riders are read out over race radio. Brett chuckles when he hears “number 116, one one six” over the radio. That’s Darcy Ellerm-Norton, the 24-year-old Kiwi. Darcy loves to attack, loves to race hard, and loves to be in the breakaway. It’s no surprise to learn he’s on the move on stage 1.

The race is roughly an hour old when Darcy calls for the St. George teamcar to come up to the break. Brett gets the nod from the chief commissaire then passes the Orica-Scott-led peloton, before zooming up the empty road to the escapees. It takes longer than expected to drive across a gap of seven minutes.

Darcy wants a banana, but feeding doesn’t open until 50km have been completed. He’ll have to wait for now. Brett tells him to stick his hand in the air at 49.9km, so his team car can be first up to the back of the break when feeding opens.

When the time comes Brett gives Darcy his snack and some fresh bidons, then pulls over to the side of the road and waits for the peloton to roll through. He hands bidons to his riders in the bunch too, and then it’s back into position #11 in the convoy.

It was in 2012 that the team now known as the St. George Continental Team first came to be. Forming out of the St. George Cycling Club in Sydney, the goal was to give the club’s promising young riders a chance to race in the National Road Series.

Now in its second year as a Continental squad, the team is still about developing young riders, but it’s more or less moved away from the NRS. Brett cites the high costs associated with an NRS license and the uncertainty around the series’ calendar as reasons for that move. Instead, the team does most of its racing at lower-level Asian races.

For Brett Dutton, the team is an opportunity to pass on the considerable experience he accumulated in his years of racing. Primarily a track rider, Brett was a Commonwealth Games gold medallist in the teams pursuit, and an Olympic bronze medallist in the same event.

Brett recalls coming to north-east Victoria several decades ago to train with former team pursuit teammate Dean Woods. “There was nothing up here,” Brett recalls. Nowadays the region is a hotbed of cycling activity — teams come up to the Victorian high country for training camps, recreational cyclists visit regularly, and families take advantage of the rail trails in the area.

Darcy’s voice crackles over the radio. “I think I might give the KOM a nudge.” There’s a brief moment of hesitation from Brett as he considers his response. “Ok,” he says finally. “Remember to keep eating and drinking.”

Once through the popular holiday town of Bright, the day’s first climb looms ahead of the breakaway. It’s nearly 13km of climbing to the top of Tawonga Gap and the pace increases in the break as the road gets steeper. Race radio reveals that Darcy has been dropped from the break. “So much for the KOM!,” laughs Brett.

Darcy manages to catch back on as the break descends the other side of Tawonga Gap. By the time the peloton gets there, things have taken a turn for the worse for the St. George Continental Team.

The convoy hits the bottom of Tawonga Gap.

Race radio crackles to life. “Number 111, mechanical. Number 111, mechanical.” Team leader Ben Dyball has run into trouble on the Tawonga Gap descent.

By the time Brett pulls up behind Ben, a neutral support motorbike is there. But there’s little that neutral service can do — Ben has twisted his chain and the moto only carries spare wheels.

Team mechanic Andy jumps out of the back seat of the team car and pulls Ben’s spare bike off the roof. Ben is calm as he takes the head unit off his damaged bike, slots it onto the replacement and continues descending.

It takes a moment to get the damaged bike on the car roof and then it’s back on the road, driving at breakneck speed to try and join the peloton.

While Ben is back on the road, the incident is a minor disaster for the team. The stage ends with a 30km climb to Falls Creek and for a lightweight climber, this stage is his chance to stake a claim on a good overall placing.

Ben’s presence on the St. George team gives his teammates a focal point for their efforts. In the past the team has been concerned with simply getting to the finish of each stage or being represented in the breakaway, but in Ben they have a genuine chance of a high placing.

For Ben, too, this year’s Sun Tour feels particularly significant. While widely regarded as a rider too strong for the domestic scene, and with promising results throughout his career, Ben has struggled to land a big international contract. His third place in the Australian time trial championships last month seemed to be the start of something big; the Herald Sun Tour was another chance to impress on the international stage.

Up in the feedzone, the St. George soigneurs are searching frantically through the team van for the spares box. They’re looking for a chain to pass into the team car in just a few minutes’ time. Meanwhile Ben is expending precious energy at the back of the race, trying to reach the convoy and the back of the peloton.

He finally makes contact with about 70km left to race but he’s had to ride hard to do so. Will it cost him on the final climb?

A few minutes later, at the feedzone, Andy grabs the spare chain and the tackle box and Brett drives on. He passes the peloton again — Orica-Scott is still on the front — and once he’s got a big enough gap he stops the car. Andy jumps out, pulls the twisted chain off Ben’s bike — which is still on the roof — and gets back in the car.

As Brett drives on, Andy’s in the back measuring out the new chain. Brett continues up the road to the break and gives Darcy another drink before ploughing on ahead.

“What’s happening in the peloton?”, Darcy asks through the team car window. “We’ve got a problem,” replies Brett, before pushing on ahead. Darcy can take of himself for now — the main mission is to fix Ben’s bike, in case he needs another replacement on the all-important final climb.

A few minutes ahead of the break, Brett pulls over again and he and Andy jump out. Andy springs into action, replacing the chain on Ben’s original bike as quick as he can. Brett gets on the radio, letting the team know that they are waiting. There’s also a directive for someone to stop with Ben, to help pace him back to the bunch.

The change-over happens seamlessly. Ben dismounts calmly again, head unit in his mouth, before stepping back onto his original bike. And then he’s off, making his way back to the peloton in no time flat.

Brett and Andy can breathe a sigh of relief. But not for long — the final climb of the day is approaching and getting Ben into position is key.

“Try to have Ben up near Chaves and Froome if you can”, Brett tells his riders over the radio. As the race reaches Mt. Beauty and the stage-ending climb begins, Brett adds “Get in position! Get in position!”

The road tilts up to begin the 30km ascent to the Falls Creek ski resort and it’s not long before the race is torn apart. The breakaway splinters and Darcy again loses contact with the front of the race. This time he doesn’t get back on.

The peloton, too, breaks apart as the climb wears on. Ben is able to stay with the likes of Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves as Damien Howson rides off the front with Kenny Elissonde.

The peloton splits apart on the Falls Creek climb.

Two kilometres from the finish line, race radio bursts into the car to deliver the news Brett didn’t want to hear — that Ben has lost contact with what remains of the peloton. The attacks are coming thick and fast and Ben simply can’t hold the pace.

The New South Welshman eventually crosses the line in 20th place, 2:25 behind stage-winner Howson and 1:14 behind Froome and Chaves.

“Not the result we were after,” Brett says, as he pulls up in the ski resort to debrief with his soigneurs and, later, his riders.

Ben had done everything right. He’d marked the right moves, been there when it counted, but simply didn’t have the legs when push came to shove. Perhaps his chase back after the mechanical has cost him, perhaps not. Either way, it’s a frustrating result.

Poor luck might have cost Ben Dyball a better result on stage 1 of the Sun Tour.

***

By week’s end, Ben Dyball has worked his way up to 16th on GC, three places higher than a year previous. He’s been aggressive where he can, and has attacked the favourites on stage 2 and stage 4.

For the St. George Continental team as a whole, it’s been a good week. Darcy forced his way into the break on three of the four road stages, including the final stage which was televised live. This sort of exposure is important for the team and its sponsors.

With the Australian summer races now complete, the St. George Continental Team turns its attention to racing in Asia. There will be other chances for Ben Dyball and the team to shine.

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