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“I’ll try not to cry too much,” says Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott), his bottom lip quivering as he addresses a small media contingent. He’s already been crying by the looks of it. Bike racing can be brutal.
So often in this sport, the difference between glory and heartbeak can be a single, fleeting moment. One decision among thousands. A few seconds among hours. One kilometre among a great many.
Meyer knows this all too well. He’s just finished third in the Australian Nationals road race, adding to a second, two fourths and a sixth. In his words, “I think I’ve been in every position bar first, and had every opportunity.”
The pain of today’s near miss is amplified by the fact he did have a real opportunity. A golden one.
For the last 37km, from the moment Meyer bridged to the front of the race, he seemed like the rider to beat. He looked fresh, he had teammates working for him, and he was the most experienced rider there.
On paper, he probably should have won. But as we all know, bike races aren’t decided on paper.
At the top of the final climb, with less than 10km to race, just two remained in the lead: Meyer and Chris Harper (BridgeLane), the latter having spent the vast majority of the day out front. The pair looked to be riding to gold and silver after dropping the fast-finishing Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) on that final ascent of Mt. Buninyong.
That was until the final 2km; that seemingly innocuous downhill run to the finish line in Buninyong. It’s a finale that’s disrupted the plans of many a would-be winner in recent years. And so it was again this afternoon.
As Meyer and Harper lead into that final stretch, the intensity of their effort fell away. Meyer, on the front with 1,600m to go, turned around to talk with Harper. Harper took to the front before flicking his elbow, trying to get Meyer to back come through. The veteran responded with a shake of the head.
They’d opened the door for the tenacious Freiberg to battle his way back into contention.
And so it was that, 800m from the line, Freiberg flew back up to the pair. He’d hoped to shelter in their wake for a brief moment, to catch his breath, but quickly decided against it — he’d approached with too much speed. There was nothing for it but to power on.
“Coming down the home straight, coming up on the boys, I didn’t really expect it,” a jubilant Freiberg said after the race. “And then I hit them with a bit of speed and I got a gap and I was like ‘I’m going to have to go real deep here. I know how quick Cam is.’”
Quick Meyer might be, but the multiple-time track world champion was caught on the hop. He and Harper tried scrambling to catch on but it was too late. Freiberg crossed the line with a one second lead, leaving Harper to sprint for silver and a cramping Meyer to take bronze.
To the casual onlooker, it looked Meyer and Harper had erred terribly. That a lack of willingness to drag one another to the line cost them the victory.
From Meyer’s perspective, the hesitation was a matter of necessity — a case of meting out what limited resources he had left.
“I’ve seen guys come back in that final if you fox too much,” Meyer said. “The problem is I didn’t have anything to really push to the line. So I had to play cat-and-mouse and it didn’t work.
“I knew the legs had one kick in them and Freiberg went early and I was hoping he wouldn’t. When he was coming I tried to play the bluff on Harper and I had to get to as close to the line as I could with one kick and it was too much for my legs today.”
Harper’s tactic was to hope Meyer would back himself in a two-up sprint; that he’d be willing to do the bulk of the work in those final two kilometres.
“I think he would have been confident going to the line with just me,” said a composed Harper after the finish. “I put him on the front and and if ‘Freibs’ came back then that just adds another person for him to worry about, really.
“I wasn’t thinking of attacking — I don’t think I would have been able to get rid of Cam. He was riding super-strong all day so [I was] more just trying to conserve and just give 100% in the finish.”
We now know that neither Harper nor Meyer’s tactic worked. That by hesitating in that moment, they opened the door just enough for Freiberg to leap through and slam it shut behind him.
Freiberg’s tactic, meanwhile, had been very simple: just keep on fighting, and don’t stop until the line.
Like Harper, Freiberg had been part of the long-range early breakaway with two former winners: Luke Durbridge and Alex Edmondson (both Mitchelton-Scott). And as one of the biggest riders in the field, on a hard and hilly course, that took its toll.
Twice the AirHUB inventor had to battle back to the front: once when Meyer bridged to solo leader Harper on the penultimate climb, and again when the pair dropped him on the final climb. At times he was beset by cramps that, he thought, had scuppered his chances.
But still he kept on battling, ultimately earning his greatest career success on the road.
Just one second separated the three podium finishers, but their emotions couldn’t have been further apart. For Freiberg, the jubilation of a long-held goal finally achieved. For both Harper and Meyer, the devastation of another near miss.
That’s bike racing.
Follow the link for full results from the elite men’s race at the 2019 Australian Road Nationals.