Down Under Digest #11: When the hitters come home

Keep up to date on all things Aussie and Kiwi cycling with our weekly round-up.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 22.11.2023 Photography by
Mark Gleeson
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G’day friends and thanks for coming along for the ride. It’s time to look back over the latest goings-on from the world of Aussie and Kiwi cycling.

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Alright, let us begin.

? The pros are back in town ?

Ah yes, late spring Down Under. A time of ever-improving weather, long rides in the sun, and plenty of pro-spotting on local roads. Most of the antipodean professionals seem to have come home for the off-season and it’s always a thrill to see the world’s best riding the same roads as us (or, in some cases, taking part in the same races).

So who’s back in town? Well, plenty of pros have been out in the hills around Melbourne; Sarah Gigante, Jimmy Whelan, and Neve Bradbury to name just a few. After a few rides since getting back, Whelan tagged an Instagram post with “#aussiedriversareterrifying”. Hard to argue with that.

Lauretta Hanson and Grace Brown have been spotted around the place, too, and then there are those plying their trade at local club races. Simon Clarke, Sarah Roy, and Jensen Plowright were all getting amongst it at Sandown over the weekend and Plowright has been out at Hawthorn Cycling Club crits as well. Speaking of Hawthorn’s infamous ‘Tear Drop’, Sarah Gigante won there last week.

Over in Adelaide, things got particularly spicy on a Saturday morning bunchy when no fewer than three WorldTour pros rocked up: Sam Welsford, Kell O’Brien, and Luke Plapp. Good luck hanging on if those boys decide to take it seriously.

Instagram user b_r_u_m_b_y summed it up well: “You can’t have a game of football with Messi or Ronaldo … cycling is so beautiful as we get to ride with the worlds best and have a brew with them afterwards ?”.

? Road Nationals out west? ?

Some fascinating news now from the world of Aussie Road Nats. Eagle-eyed Escape member Ben Jones pointed me towards some documents from the City of Perth which show that AusCycling has just been approved for a $750,000 sponsorship to host Road Nationals there from 2025 to 2027.

Does that mean the deal is done, and that Road Nats is heading out west? Not exactly. AusCycling executive general manager of sport, Kipp Kaufmann, told me late on Wednesday night that there’s a bunch of locations still in the mix and that while Perth is certainly among them, nothing’s been signed off yet.

You can check out the full story at Escape. If you’re particularly keen, you can also dive in the council documents. Page 100 is what you’ll be after.

? From pro cyclist to actor, via a near-fatal crash ?

Remember Keagan Girdlestone? The young South African/Kiwi who was on track to become a great pro racer, but who crashed into his team car during a race in 2016 and almost died? I had the great pleasure of catching up with Keagan this week, to hear about his transformation from rising star of the cycling world to aspiring actor, and how that crash in 2016 changed his life.

A screengrab from Girdlestone’s appearance in the 2022 amateur film, “Businessman”.

It was a stirring chat – Keagan was very forthcoming about his life today and the person he’s become. Best of all, he seems to be in a great place and loves what he’s doing. Here’s an excerpt:

“When it [the crash] first happened, everyone was like, ‘Man, you must have this great, profound appreciation for life.’ And the truth is, the second life goes back to normal, we humans are such selfish beings that we’re like ‘Life’s back to normal. I’m not going to remember or appreciate the fact that I was lying in bed for three months, unable to walk.’ So very quickly life gets back to normal. And then you’re complaining about stupid shit. The internet is not working and you’re like ‘This is so annoying.’ Just the most absurd things are now an issue.

“And I would say nothing changed up until recently. I’d say maybe a year and a half, two years ago I would say I had like a spiritual death, where I just … I really truly had this profound feeling of what my life was like. And I realised in that moment, I was like ‘Wow, life is very special and not guaranteed.’ And ever since that moment, I’ve always tried to, every day, be grateful that I’ve woken up in the morning, I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got food. And ever since then I would say I have a different outlook at life. Now I’ll see a cloud and I’ll be like ‘Wow, that’s an amazing cloud. It’s so beautiful. Wow.’ *laughs*”

You can find the full interview at Escape Collective.

⚔️ The rematch is on ⚔️

The Tour Down Under is really just around the corner, which means we’re starting to get our first rider announcements from race organisers. This week we got confirmation that a great rematch is headed our way in the women’s race – a battle between last year’s winner Grace Brown, and runner-up Amanda Spratt.

Spratt – the most decorated rider in the history of the women’s race – was helping to build the hype herself. 

“Overall, I have great memories of this race having won it three times and I am eager to try to replicate that success this time,” she said. “I was close last year, agonisingly close you could say, so I am really motivated to come back to race for the victory all over again.”

Spratt’s got her eye on the Willunga Hill uphill finish – a first for the women’s TDU at international level (the race went up there a few years back when it was the domestic-level Santos Festival of Cycling). Brown will have to be good up Willunga too if she wants to win again … which she does. 

Adding an extra level of spice to the whole thing is the return of Ruth Edwards (née Winder) who won back in 2020. She’s coming out of retirement in 2024 so it’s not clear how she’ll be going, but either way, it’s shaping up to be a great race. Eight Women’s WorldTour teams are already confirmed: Jayco Alula, FDJ-Suez, UAE Team ADQ, Jumbo-Visma, DSM-Firmenich, Human Powered Health, Lidl-Trek, and Canyon-SRAM).

Got a story tip? I’d love to hear from you! Please reach out via email.

? No Giro for Jai? ?

When it was announced that Primož Roglič had signed with Bora-Hansgrohe for the next few years, we speculated about what that could mean for his new teammate, Australia’s top Grand Tour contender Jai Hindley. Would Hindley get his chance to ride the Giro – a race he won last year, remember – if Roglič was focusing on the Tour? It seems that might not happen.

In a chat with GCN, Bora-Hahsgrohe general manager Ralph Denk revealed that Hindley might well skip the Giro in favour of racing the Tour, presumably in support of Roglič (or as a backup GC option if Roglič falters).

“I see Jai more at the Tour,” Denk said. “We have a long TT in the Giro and it could be a big benefit for us to have him with Primož at the Tour instead.

“It’s not decided yet but to win the title from 2022 is super hard for Jai because of the super long TTs in the Giro and, to be honest, he’s a pure climber and the third week in the Giro is not as hard as before. There’s no Mortirolo or Zoncolan, so the really hard climbs that make the difference are not there. The steep climbs are missing, where Jai can make the difference, as he did in 2022.”

So that’s a bummer. Definitely a story to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.

✂️ Snippets ✂️

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? Big Things Down Under ?

For today’s Big Things Down Under we return to Woombye in Queensland for another perspective of the Big Pineapple. This shot from Escape member Struan Hijner really gives you a sense of how big the bloody thing is. And how big is it exactly? Just a lazy 16 metres high.

Thanks for sending through your pic, Struan!

Have you got one of Australia’s Big Things close to you? Or travelling past one? We’d love to see a photo of your bike parked up against it. Bonus points if you can snap it in landscape mode – perfect for the feature image up top of this newsletter! Hit us up here.

? And finally … ?

As usual, we’ve got a couple of interesting bits and pieces to round out this week’s newsletter. First up, an eye-watering training session from Kiwi Sam Gaze, Alpecin-Deceuninck road pro and MTB short-track world champ. As @AtlantaRouleur pointed out on X (formerly Twitter), Strava shows Gaze doing 1.5 hours worth of 7-10 second sprints in what looks like a truly un-fun way to spend a morning.

Speaking of beastly efforts, here’s Aussie sprinter Matt Richardson demonstrating the rigours of track racing in a video he captioned “Tell me your Aussie without telling me your Aussie” (errors his).

And finally today, something that looks far more enjoyable. Former Aussie road champ Nicole Frain and her partner Sven are currently in the midst of a multi-day bikepacking trip through her home state of Tasmania and boy does it look stunning. Amazing coastline, temperate rainforest, quiet gravel roads, stunningly blue lakes – yes please.

? Until next time … ?

Thanks for reading! This and every other Down Under Digest was made possible by our wonderful members here at Escape Collective. If you’ve already signed up, thank you. If you haven’t yet, but you’d like to, please do. Just click the link in the top right of the page to get started.

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