Super Sierra: How a little-known Cuban upstaged the favourites at Cadel’s Race

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Mitchelton-Scott had the best team on the startlist. They had the #1 favourite in Amanda Spratt. They managed to split the race exactly as they’d planned. And they had the numerical advantage in the closing kilometres. They even ended the day with two on the podium.

But despite everything pointing towards a Mitchelton-Scott victory in the elite women’s Cadel’s Race, that’s not what happened. What happened was a stellar ride from little-known Cuban Arlenis Sierra (Astana) who took the race to the favourites and came away with the ultimate reward.

It wasn’t until the final 10km that Sierra was even in the frame as a contender. An elite lead group had just formed on the race’s toughest climb — Challambra Cresent — comprising Spratt, Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott), Brodie Chapman (Tibco-SVB), Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (CCC-Liv) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo). As that group descended towards the final climb of the day, Sierra joined on from behind, making it a group of six out front.

In that moment, Sierra became a huge threat, even if her arrival didn’t ring any major alarm bells.

“I wasn’t really thinking about that at that point because I knew after Challambra we still had that other climb and then we still had the drag and there was still opportunities [to dislodge Sierra] after that,” said Spratt. “So I wasn’t really thinking about it at that point — I knew we had the numerical advantage.”

Mitchelton-Scott did have the numbers — two in a group of six — but Spratt and Kennedy probably should have been more concerned. The Cuban sprinter had made it up the brutal Challambra climb close enough to the front that a repeat performance on the shorter, easier final climb was a real possibility. And with Sierra being the best sprinter of the six leaders, going to the finish with her was unlikely to end well.

It looked like everything was still going to plan for Mitchelton-Scott when Kennedy soloed clear on the final ascent. But then Sierra battled her way across to Kennedy with 5.7 flat and downhill kilometres left and, again, the advantage swung away from the Australian team. Sierra was clearly the better sprinter of the two.

But it didn’t come to a sprint. Sierra could sense that Kennedy was struggling to hold on as the pair rolled turns into the final 5km. Rather than waiting for the sprint, or letting Mitchelton-Scott use their numbers against her, the Cuban opted for a more proactive approach.

“I was ahead with [Kennedy] and I told her to pull, but I don’t know if she was waiting for her team,” Sierra said. “That’s when I decided to go alone and I knew it would be difficult to win against two from the same team, so I went all or nothing.”

She quickly opened a gap as Kennedy flagged. And that was that.

Spratt attacked from the chase group a short time later, but just like at the Aussie Road Nationals, the 31-year-old’s move came too late. She caught Kennedy, before the latter led the pair across the line, 19 seconds behind Sierra.

“I could see ahead that Lucy had been dropped so I knew ‘OK, at this moment I have to go,'” Spratt said. “But I think Sierra already had a gap and she had a strong ride there today so I think I have to give her credit.”

Arlenis Sierra mightn’t have been a familiar name to many watching the race, but she certainly wasn’t an unknown to those in the bunch, and certainly not to those from Mitchelton-Scott.

“We know from Europe last year she was getting WorldTour podiums, she was up there in a lot of those really hard hilly races,” Spratt said. “She’s certainly a strong rider and she had an incredible ride today.”

Among the hilly races Spratt references is the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, a tough, one-day Women’s WorldTour event in which Sierra took second in 2017. Mitchelton-Scott had a more recent reminder of Sierra’s class, too, at last year’s Tour of Guangxi where the Cuban won the one-day Women’s WorldTour race in a bunch sprint. Both Kennedy and Spratt were racing that day.

Perhaps Mitchelton-Scott underestimated Sierra in the closing kilometres through Geelong today. Perhaps at the moment when Sierra got up the road with Kennedy, Spratt should have tried to bridge across, rather than sitting at the back of the chase group and backing Kennedy to bring it home.

Of course, it’s one thing to suggest what could have been done, several hours after the fact, knowing how things turned out. It’s another thing entirely to make the call in the heat of the moment, at the business end of the bike race.

And besides, the way Spratt sees it, Mitchelton-Scott did everything they could. They won’t leave this race with the frustration riders often feel when getting so close to victory.

“We’re not super frustrated,” Spratt said. “I think Arlenis Sierra had a great ride in the end. I don’t think we did anything super wrong in the race. The team rode brilliantly, we had a plan, we were really patient.

“You could see the way all my other teammates absolutely killed themselves to set that up for the final. I think we walk away pretty proud actually. Sometimes you’re really disappointed with a second place but I think we’re actually proud of the way we raced.”

Kennedy leads Spratt across the line for second and third.

And Mitchelton-Scott did race well. They were the ones that ignited the race after a relatively sedate first 90km. On the outskirts of Geelong, with essentially a full team on the front of the bunch, the Aussie team thinned the field down to barely 20 riders. It would be the first major selection, ahead of the two decisive climbs through Geelong. Everything was going to plan.

“I’m sure everyone was expecting us to make it hard and today with the team we had we needed to make it hard,” Kennedy said. “I think our best chance of winning the race was to make it hard. So that’s what we did and it nearly worked.”

It took an excellent ride to unseat the favourites; probably the best ride of Sierra’s career. But the Cuban’s win was no fluke — today’s victory is her 12th as a professional. Among her other conquests are a stage of the Women’s Tour of California, her Tour of Guangxi win, the GC at the 2016 Tour de Bretagne, and a host of Cuban and Panamerican titles.

Arlenis Sierra mightn’t be a household name yet but after her ride today, she really should be.

Race results

Follow the link to full results from the 2019 women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

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