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FALLS CREEK, Australia (CT) – The honour roll will show that Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott) has now won two consecutive Herald Sun Tour titles. But that simplistic snapshot does little to capture the excitement and drama that played out on today’s second and final stage of the race’s 2020 edition.
It began with the stage-opening descent being chopped from the race due to the threat of inclement weather, and ended with a gripping battle on the 30 km stage-ending ascent to Falls Creek. And when the race arrived at the finish line it wasn’t the unbackable pre-stage favourite Kennedy that took the win. Instead it was up-and-coming climber Ella Harris, racing for the Kiwi national team, that took her first professional victory on her country’s national day, and all after being dropped multiple times on the final climb.
Just behind Harris in the two-up sprint, Australia’s most exciting young talent, Sarah Gigante (Tibco). In third, Kennedy, far enough ahead of her biggest GC rivals to finish on the top rung of the GC ladder by tour’s end.
With the stage shortened from 75 km down to 45 km it was always going to be an aggressive race. Particularly with two intermediate sprints inside the first 15 km of the stage.
A small break got up the road, with Kate Perry (Specialized Women’s Racing) setting sail from there as the climb to Falls Creek began. Perry was caught around halfway up before Bree Wilson (Roxsolt-Attaquer) set off on her own solo adventure.
As the kilometres-to-go ticked down, so did the number of riders in contention towards the front. As attacks flew, the group was whittled down even further. But through it all, overall leader Arlenis Sierra (Astana) somehow managed to hang on.
Wilson was caught, the attacks continued, and by the final 4 km, just seven riders remained. Among them: Gigante, Harris, Kennedy, Sierra and Jaime Gunning (Specialized Women’s Racing).
A soon-familiar pattern played out in the closing kilometres. Kennedy would attack, Sierra would mark her straight away, Harris would get dropped, the pace would slow, and then Harris would battle her way back.
By Harris’ reckoning, she got dropped as many as five times on the climb. But each time she was able to battle back on, even though she’d come into the stage feeling fatigued.
“Each time they attacked, I knew that they’d slow up eventually,” she said. “I don’t have too much of a punch on me and today, my legs weren’t feeling that great after a mammoth effort to try and cut my losses yesterday after I got completely nailed in the crosswinds. So I was feeling a little bit fatigued going into today. So each time they attacked, I just kept my own tempo and gradually TTed back to the bunch.”
Coming into the final few hundred metres, just Harris, Gigante, Sierra and Kennedy remained. It looked as if Sierra wasn’t just going to defend yellow and win the Tour, but that she was going to sprint to a second-straight stage win as well. But then, after such a valiant defence of the jersey, the lights finally went out.
“I thought Sierra would definitely be the one to watch in the sprint so I was on her wheel 500 metres to go,” said Gigante after finishing second. “I was just glued to it. And then she actually just almost came to a stop with about 300 meters to go, 200 to go. So I was like ‘Oh, change of plans! I can’t follow her anymore!’ And Ella was going up the right so I was able to jump on Ella.”
While Harris didn’t necessarily back herself in a sprint, she found the strength to put in one final effort.
“I got back on the wheel after [Sierra] dropped it and then I sensed that the others were slowing up and they didn’t really have much more to give,” Harris said. “And I felt like it was the diesel coming through in me. I thought ‘Oh, I can ramp this up a little bit and hopefully drive them off my wheel.’ And I sensed that they were breathing pretty heavily and I thought they we’re probably towards their max because Lucy was really driving on the front.
“So I thought ‘Just go around 300 meters to go and just not look back.’ With every pedal stroke [the finish line] kept getting closer and closer and I just couldn’t believe it, that I’d actually crossed the line and no one had overtaken me.”
Harris collapsed onto the tarmac about 30 metres past the line and wept, a flood of emotions coming over the 21-year-old.
“It’s been a goal of mine for the year to actually just win a race,” she said. “I haven’t really won a race before. And to win my first professional race is just crazy. It’s not a weight off my shoulders, but it’s just nice to tick that box. And it’s Waitangi Day as well — to win on New Zealand’s national day in the national kit’s pretty cool.”
Harris and Gigante finished on the same time, with Kennedy three seconds behind. Gunning came in fourth at 11 seconds, to wrap up second overall, while Sierra was fifth, at 31 seconds, to take third overall.
Coming into the final kilometres Kennedy didn’t just have Sierra to be mindful of. Several riders — including Gunning — had the same time as Kennedy after making the front group in a crosswind-affected stage 1.
“I think there was three or four left in that last selection that were still in the same time as me,” Kennedy said. “So it was really those were the ones that I had to look out for. And when I saw that it was Sarah and Ella that were in front of me there at the finish, I kind of looked around and there was a gap back to everyone else so I kind of knew I had the tour sewn up.”
For Kennedy, the overall victory comes as something of a relief.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous going into it, but definitely there was a bit of pressure on me,” she said. “I was absolutely a marked rider the whole way up. I couldn’t move without everyone trying to follow me. So, yeah, [it’s a] big relief to have it done and [a] big satisfaction.”