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The history books will show that Alex Edmondson was the winner of Sunday’s elite men’s road race at the 2018 Australian National Championships. What the history books won’t show are the names of other riders that helped animate the race and make it the thrilling spectacle that it was.
Among those protagonists was two-time Australian Superbike champion Troy Herfoss, clad in black and riding a bright red Cannondale SuperSix. In his third Australian Road Nationals Herfoss got himself in the day’s main breakaway, before attacking solo late in proceedings. The 30-year-old wasn’t able to hold on for victory, but he did light up the race in a way that caught the attention of many onlookers.
We caught up with Herfoss to get his perspective on the Nationals road race, to learn how he balances cycling with his motorbike racing, and to find out what his ambitions are when it comes to cycling. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
CyclingTips: Was it always the plan to get in the breakaway on Sunday?
Herfoss: Yeah, the plan was to get into the breakaway. With the top WorldTour guys there that can climb pretty phenomenally, I just wanted to get in the early break. I had a fair idea from the year before what sort of level was needed to compete in that race. And although I was climbing as good as I ever have, I still knew that to sit in with guys like Richie Porte and [Simon] Gerrans and them guys for the whole 16 laps was a bit of a gamble.
I spent a lot of energy in the first hour. I think the fourth lap I got away — myself and Dylan Newbery got away and started the breakaway and then from there on I knew I’d be comfortable riding at my own tempo.
You’d done the Nationals road race a couple times before this year, right?
Yeah, so I had my first attempt in 2016 and it was a bit of an eye-opener. I was too heavy and I didn’t pay enough attention to how bad the heat on the hill [Mt. Buninyong] would affect me and I ended up pulling out at 80km after eight laps. Although only 13 guys finished that year …
Last year I went in with a lot better shape and a lot lighter and actually missed the break but spent five or six laps on my own trying to go across to the break and didn’t make it.
Anyway I finished the race and that was a big achievement and a big goal for me to finish that level of race. And so we raised the bar a bit this year and prepared a bit better again.
What were you hoping to achieve by getting in the break on Sunday? Did you think that was your best chance of winning? Or were you just hoping to spend some time out front?
I didn’t tell a lot of people my goals but obviously you don’t enter a race like Nationals just to participate. The preparation was serious and I didn’t want to go there and just sit in the bunch and finish the race and say that I finished the race. I wanted to put myself in a position where I could maybe do something a little bit above average.
So for me the best option was to go in the break and save as much energy as I could and then hopefully have something in the end. But at the end of the day it was very close, but not quite there.
I think it was lap 12 that you attacked on your own from the break. What prompted that move? Was it just that the gap was coming down and you thought it was your best chance of winning from there?
Yeah to be honest … even earlier than that I really felt like I could tell that I was in a lot better shape than most guys in the breakaway. But I knew obviously you can’t underestimate the hill so I sort of waited and waited and tried to keep everyone rolling as much as possible. About four or five to go I just thought … I just had no choice really. I had to go.
I still had quite a lot of energy — to be honest, the last lap up the climb when Richie sort of attacked and stretched the bunch across the top, they come past me really fast and I still had energy. I got across the top of the hill and when I went to go from the small ring to the big ring, my chain came off and I had to get off the bike and pull my chain back on. Otherwise I would have rolled into the finish with the bunch. It wasn’t like I was spent, it’s just that I can’t climb as fast as them guys and I just had to limit my losses.
But yeah, if a few things had have went differently inside the middle of the race, inside the breakaway, we would have had a chance of staying away for sure.
By that do you mean there was like a lack of cohesion in the break, that guys weren’t working well together?
I think so, yeah. A lot of guys mentioned my inexperience when I was sort of floating off the front of the breakaway. But I mean honestly, at that point, it wasn’t that I was putting any effort in to do that, it was just that no one was really committed at that time and it was more just me rolling off the front and hoping they’d get things moving along a bit.
What was it like out there? Obviously there was a big crowd on the hill. Was it a good buzz each time you went up there?
Mate, I couldn’t even explain to you how unbelievable the feeling was going up that hill, especially as the laps rolled on. Once I was on my own … it seemed like the crowd started to believe that I might have a chance of actually doing something. I couldn’t hear a thing — it was even piercing my ears it was so loud. It was just … it was crazy.
It was the most amazing feeling going up that hill on my own, at the front of the race. I can’t even explain it.
I guess it’s something that’s quite different to when you’re on a motorbike, isn’t it? You’re much closer to the crowd on a pushbike and the crowd’s a lot louder.
That’s right. The motorbike’s a really big adrenaline rush, sort of like the feeling you get in a bunch sprint coming to the finish where it’s danger and speed and all that kind of stuff. This was just really feeling like the crowd was literally … you could reach out and touch them, you could hear every word they were saying. It was something like I’ve never experienced before.
You were saying that the crowd seemed to think you could get to the finish and win it. Did you feel like that yourself? You had a gap of about a minute there at one point …
Yeah. There was a point there where, I think three laps to go, they’d been chipping away at me and I knew that two laps to go they would really unleash up the climb. And I was just thinking if I can get to the top of the hill and they hadn’t caught me, then maybe I can just get caught in the last lap and then I’ll finish with the bunch.
Through the uni I had a lot of speed and there was a lot of tailwind and cornering was a big part of that and I thought ‘You know what, if I get caught and then it’s a small bunch, maybe I can sneak away through the uni’.
I don’t know what I was thinking. I just wanted to give my best result but then once I got to three [laps] to go I think something happened in the peloton. Maybe when [Alex] Edmondson and [Chris] Harper attacked the peloton may have sat up a bit and I got a time check to say that it had gone back out 30 seconds. And then going up the climb with two or three to go I thought to myself ‘Maybe they are stretching themselves a bit.’
But at first I thought maybe I was just that poor guy sitting out there, dead man walking sort of thing. Definitely when Edmondson and Harper got across [ed. the winning move] I knew it was pretty serious business then and that maybe I was a chance.
Because you managed to stay with them for a lap or so, didn’t you?
Yeah. They were too strong on the climb for me and I sort of just limited my losses a bit. I was just running out of time.
Taking a step back, how did you get into cycling and into bike racing to begin with?
It’s funny. I think I was maybe 20 years old, 19 years old or so, I broke my arm on my motorbike at the end of the season. I was in a cast for two months and put on a little bit of weight — got a bit lazy. I was probably going out with my friends too much. It was my first big injury. Basically I got the cast off and started getting prepared for my next season of motorbike racing and I was pretty out of shape.
A friend of mine in Goulburn, Con Toparis, had a bike shop — The Greengrocer in Goulburn, a pretty big bike shop — and he got me onto a cycle bike and to be honest I absolutely hated it. I think my first ride he told me to ride my bike in from my parents’ [house] and he’d fit me up. It was a 14km ride and I got seven k in and thought ‘Bugger this’. I went home and jumped in the car and drove down to the bike shop. It was literally like that.
I just done it because I had to. I probably spent that next year with the bike sitting on the wall once I got into a decent shape … or what I thought was a decent shape. Then when I got home at the end of the year I thought I’d better dust it off. I actually used it for a Wednesday night race in Goulburn at the local club and got my butt kicked by a couple of 60-year-old guys and thought to myself ‘That was more fun; competing was good.’
From then I basically just started entering the Wednesday night races. I think I was 20 years old and the competition sort of excited me and then once I realised I was my own engine and the harder I worked the better I got, I got bitten by the bug and I’ve been pretty well addicted to cycling since. The last three or four years I’ve sort of taken a few races seriously and really enjoy it.
How do you balance your cycling with the Superbikes? Both are time-consuming I guess?
It is tough. In the last few years where I’ve become a bit more competitive on the bicycle, it’s tough to switch one off and go to the other but basically I’ve found a good medium. I’m really lucky my [Superbike] race season goes from February through to mid-October so I don’t get to do a lot of NRS [National Road Series cycling] events, or any really. I do the odd state championship race or state open or stuff like that, but I mainly focus on the motorcycle and just use the bike for training.
But then once the [Superbike] season finishes in October that gives me 10 weeks until [cycling] Nationals so I figure [I’ve got] two and a half months to prepare for the biggest race in Australia … So I drive my girlfriend and friends and family crazy for the two months and train like a professional cyclist. And that sort of sets me up well — I get January … I’m in good shape and then we start testing for the motorbikes. So it all works pretty well.
For readers that aren’t familiar with the Superbike scene can you talk a little bit about the racing you do and how it differs from other motorcycle racing?
Superbike racing is road racing, so just on tar only — no jumps or dirt. Superbike stands for a production motorcycle you can buy from a shop. You hear of MotoGP and Superbike. MotoGP is basically a Formula 1 car of motorbikes and the Superbike is a touring car or a supercar like we watch on TV.
So I race Australian Superbike, so basically the NRS level of Australian Superbike. I’ve won our national championship two times and finished third last year. That’s what I’ve done as a career since I was 17 or 18.
And the Superbike championship — that’s a multiple race format isn’t it?
Yeah, so that’s a seven-round series starting in Phillip Island and we race all around the country, accumulate points in two races over each weekend. So you’ll qualify, which is a one-lap time attack to get your grid position for the races, and then you get points on each race. So 25 points … for a win down to zero for 15th and beyond.
What are your ambitions for cycling going forward? What do you want to achieve?
It’s a tough question. I definitely don’t look into my performance on the weekend too much. I know I done a good job on the weekend and stuff like that but that was two months of my life. It was a lot of work, you know what I mean? Not that I don’t like the work — I like the training — but I would never go and say ‘Hey, I could be a pro cyclist’.
I can’t imagine the amount of work that those guys go through 12 months of the year and at the end of the day motorcycling is a massive passion for me too and it’s my bread and butter. I make a living out of that and I’d be foolish to leave that at 30 years old to try to pursue a second career.
Definitely from the weekend I’m excited for next year and it would be nice to get a start at TDU [Santos Tour Down Under] since it’s only a week away and I was one of the top guys at Nationals. But that’s about as far as I imagine I’d go, unless I was getting a WorldTour contract waved at me which is probably not going to happen at 30 years old. I won’t be going anywhere from the motorbike scene.
What would happen if that did happen, if perhaps a smaller team came to you and said ‘Look we’ll give you a gig for a year, do you want to come race for us?’ Would that be tempting?
Like I said, it’s a tough one. Financially I can’t afford to do it unless I’m getting paid, basically. That sounds a bit greedy but that’s basically where it’s at at the moment. Cycling’s a tough sport — to do it properly you’ve gotta be doing it full time. I definitely feel for the guys trying to make it.
I do have an opinion on Nationals and I don’t understand why a lot of the NRS guys don’t take it a lot more seriously. I mean, it can change your life, that race. Some guys don’t target Nationals which is strange. In motorcycle racing you would never miss out on your national championship to target a smaller event. I’d just encourage the younger guys to be at Nationals in top form.