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It was a dry and dusty start to the season of mud and cowbells as one of the world’s most enthusiastic cyclocross newcomers, Australia, closed out its local season by opening up the international one.
The UCI C2-ranked Airport Toyota Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross launched into its second year of international racing with a growing contingent of overseas riders. That contingent included the biggest name yet to race on Australian shores: 2016 junior world champion Jens Dekker.
The Dutch rider, with Australian family connections, may be just 19 and racing in the under 23s but there was no doubt he would be a powerful challenger. In the women’s race, Japanese national champion Miho Imai was in the mix, joining a contingent from the United States plus New Zealand’s unofficial national champion.
For the riders travelling from bigger cyclocross nations, racing CX in Australia is a chance to grab some valuable early-season points in the thinner fields. For locals — both fans and riders — it’s an opportunity to finish off a season that is out of sync with the heavy-hitting nations, with an entree into the bigger world of cyclocross.
“I learnt a lot from last year and then took that experience and really built on it in the States,” said New Zealand’s leading female rider Kim Hurst, who made it onto the podium both days. “To realise I’ve stepped up that bit is just fantastic and you can’t really do that without exposure to the depth and getting that experience racing women of equal caliber.”
In this gallery we bring you all the action from the steep descents, tight corners, steps, and sand of the Essendon Fields course, from behind the lens of the Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross’ official race photographer, Ernesto Arriagada.
The locals may have been incredibly accomodating to their international guests off the course, but they certainly weren’t going to give up any ground on it. South Australia’s Natalie Redmond (Ozriders-Cannondale-SRAM) hit the front early, seeming determined to make up for a less-than-ideal national championships two weeks earlier when she was knocked out of contention with a mechanical only moments into the race. Again, though, things weren’t running her way, with an unfortunate flip into the sandpit setting her back.
There was no stopping American Sammi Runnels (Squid), who knew she had it in her to take victory on this course after winning at the Essendon Fields venue last year. Runnels dug in early, pulling out a gap that just seemed to keep stretching. Imai (CO2 Bicycle) was on the chase but the Japanese champ couldn’t bridge the gap. In the meantime, the determined Kiwi Hurst was closing in to set up a scorching sprint for second place.
At the start line, on an uncharacteristically dry and sunny Melbourne winter day, all eyes were on the two young Dutch riders in the field: 19-year-old Dekker and 23-year-old Gosse van der Meer. They may have been close to half the age of some of the top competitors, but no one was foolish enough to disregard the riders coming from a nation so steeped in generations of cyclocross history. Dekker made his mark early and just kept stretching out the lead thanks to his smooth lines, impressive acceleration, and clean runs through the obstacles. That was until he crashed.
To be fair, his gap was so big by that point that even a tumble wasn’t enough to look like threatening his lead. He rolled on to take a dominant win, while van der Meer powered his way into second. The green-and-gold-clad Chris Jongewaard (Flanders-health.com.au), who won his fourth national cyclocross title two weeks ago, was, fittingly, the first Australian rider across the line.
It was another flying start for Redmond, but again it wasn’t long before Runnels was out front with Imai on the chase. This time, though, Redmond didn’t have any mishaps to slow her down so before long she had pulled herself back to Imai and the pair jockeyed for position lap after lap until finally the elastic snapped.
Redmond was in second, and as she pulled away from the Japanese rider the gap to Runnels seemed to be closing in. It was a long shot, but the crowd and Redmond were fired up by the chance of a local win. With half a lap to go it looked like she be in with a chance of not only her best international result yet, but a victory as well.
As the men lined up again on Sunday to take on the course in reverse, there was no doubt that Dekker would be the rider to beat. Australia’s Jongewaard started hard, and was dicing with the Dutch rider but all it took was one little mistake and off Dekker went to build his formidable lead. But the tight competition wasn’t over for the Australian champion, first getting the upper hand in a battle with familiar rival Chris Aitken (Focus-Attaquer) and then taking on a charging van der Meer.
The Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross also counted as the final two rounds of Australia’s 2018 National Cyclocross Series, with overall honours going to Natalie Redmond and Chris Jongewaard.
You can find full results from the weekend’s racing here. For more information, head to the Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross website.