The New Caledonian women's team gets the green light to start after their first two men crossed the finish line down on the Wollongong foreshore.

The mixed team time trial relay, a road cycling curiosity

Other events are bigger and more prestigious at Road Worlds, but the mixed TTT relay has plenty to offer.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (CT) – There’s confusion as the riders amble into the press conference. The table on the stage has nine chairs arranged behind it, but 18 riders are filing in. The Australian team tries to work out which three of its riders will get a seat and who will stand. It takes a moment for the directive to come from off stage: women at the front, men sitting on the platform behind them.

The mixed team time trial relay is something of a curiosity at the Road World Championships. Nestled between more established and more prestigious events, the TTT relay is only in its infancy. This is just the third time the discipline has been contested at Road Worlds and the kinks are still being ironed out.

The press conference MC, Matt Poyner, directs a question at the entire Australian team, bronze medalists on the day. There’s a pause for a few moments as riders look at each other, trying to decide who will answer. Luke Durbridge takes one for the team.

Moments later Poyner throws a question to the entire silver-medal-winning Italian team. There’s another pause, before a decisive Elisa Longo Borghini jumps in. “The boys are too shy to speak,” she begins.

Later, Marlen Reusser, key player in the victorious Swiss outfit, leads an impromptu round of ‘Happy Birthday’ for Australia’s Georgia Baker (28 today). Poyner joins in on the mic, picking up the tune one whole phrase behind the rest of the press room. It’s the wonderful sort of unbridled chaos you might expect in a press conference with 18 athletes on stage.

The day itself will ultimately be remembered for a different sort of chaos; for the dual dramas of Bauke Mollema’s mechanical and Annemiek van Vleuten’s horrible crash which, together, sank Dutch chances of repeating their victory from 2019.

But there was more to this day than Dutch disappointment and Switzerland riding to an impressive victory. At the other end of the field, the smaller teams were having the ride of their lives. 

On an overcast and windy day in Wollongong, it was the men from cycling minnow Tahiti that were first down the ramp. When their female counterparts completed the team’s combined 40-minute effort, the six-rider squad made its way to the podium in Lang Park, clearly thrilled for opportunity to race Worlds, and to lead the event, if only momentarily.

It was a similar story for the sextet from Samoa. While the riders representing the tiny Polynesian nation would finish last by a considerable margin, there was much to celebrate from an “unbelievable” day.

“We loved it,” said rider Raea Khan. “In Samoa, the roads are generally dead. Just being out there on this course, those roads, [they’re] relatively fast. It’s fun. It’s the first time that we’ve had a Samoan team in the World Champs.”

In Khan’s words, Samoa had “scrambled” a team together on just four weeks notice, from what is a fledgling cycling scene. 

“It’s pretty small,” he said. “It’s a handful, but it’s mainly … they’re developing like a triathlon type of scene. And so the cyclists are from the triathlon, so they’re sorta intertwined. But numbers wise, you could nearly say it’s 10, 15 people. So not many.”

The Samoan team had started on a variety of bikes, including one rider on a Giant Contend AR road bike without any sort of aero accoutrement. Their preparation: riding laps of a local circuit back in Samoa.

“Back home, we have this loop,” said Urlin Mulitalo. “We did it like eight times, which was like equivalent to the 14.1 km. It was kind of hard because the road isn’t as smooth as it is here. So there are a lot of potholes and bumps along the way. But we managed.”

The bike used by one of the Samoan riders.

Even for the big teams, preparing for the mixed TTT relay isn’t yet a dialled science. The Australian male trio of Durbridge, Luke Plapp, and Michael Matthews, for example, only rode together for the first time yesterday. The women did a few training sessions in Girona several months back, but not with the final squad that took to the roads of Wollongong.

It was a long stint in the hotseat for that Australian team on Wednesday, having set off early and having easily eclipsed the times of the smaller outfits before them. At times the six Australian riders would stare off into space, clearly bored by the experience of waiting around. At other moments, they’d lean forward, peering at the TV screen in front of them as their biggest rivals reached time checks and the finish line. When Mollema dropped his chain Michael Matthews threw his hands on his head. When Van Vleuten crashed in spectacular fashion, he did the same.

When Australia was finally ejected from the hotseat, deposed by eventual winners Switzerland, they left the stage to appreciative cheers from a solid Lang Park crowd. When a jubilant Swiss contingent arrived on stage, the six riders sharing congratulatory hugs, they too were welcomed with a hearty round of applause.

Vacant stares and time to kill.

It’s the elite road races and time trials that tend to define a Road World Championships; the events that offer the most prestige to their winners. But nestled among these marquee events are other, small moments with plenty to offer the interested observer. Moments like the mixed TTT relay.

This event is a road cycling curiosity; a fledgling discipline in a sport dating back well over a century. Who knows whether it will last. But on this overcast Wednesday in Wollongong it offered plenty to the interested observer, regardless of which end of the leaderboard you focused on.

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