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Down Under Digest #27: What if his sunnies stayed on?

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

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 20.03.2024 Photography by
Chris Ling
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Thursday. DUD. You know the drill. Unless you don’t, in which case, welcome! You’ve stumbled across the Down Under Digest, a weekly round-up of all things Aussie and Kiwi cycling, delivered fresh to your inbox (see the link below to sign up) and to the pages of Escape Collective every Thursday morning.

On that subject: next week’s edition might not arrive at the normal time – I’ll be flying to Belgium at that point, so the DUD might drop a little early, or a little late. To be determined. What even is time?

Alright, let’s get into what is another jam-packed edition.

😲 Nick Schultz’s ballsy breakout 😲

You might know Nick Schultz (Israel-Premier Tech) for his agonising second place on stage 10 of the 2022 Tour de France. Or, if you’re a real fan, for his stage win at the 2019 Jayco Herald Sun Tour. Or maybe you even know him for the muffin reviews he used to post on Instagram, or as a some-time guitarist.

Regardless of what you know about the 29-year-old Queenslander, you can now also remember him for his thrilling stage win on the opening day of the 2024 Volta a Catalunya.

Schultz was on the front of the thinned-down peloton with around 5 km to go, leading the bunch down the day’s final descent with team leader Stevie Williams on his wheel. With just over a kilometre to go, Williams told his Aussie teammate to keep pushing before dropping Schultz’s wheel, allowing Schultz to open a gap.

It was probably unlikely to pay off, but somehow Schultz managed to hold off a rampaging Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) on the uphill drag to the line, taking his first WorldTour victory and a surprising one at that.

“I’m really thankful to Stevie for letting that gap go because he could have won that stage in his own right,” Schultz said afterwards. “Maybe that was the beauty of not being the big leader: I had nothing to lose. In my head, I wasn’t racing for the win, I was racing to help Stevie. I think that ultimately meant I could leave it all out there.”

Schultz took the leader’s jersey to go along with his stage win. He’d have it ripped from his shoulders the next day when Pogačar won solo by like 15 minutes or something, but still, what a ride from Schultz. Maybe the best part of the whole thing was listening as Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby convinced himself that it was Williams riding to victory … while Williams was back in the bunch en route to third.

😎 Sans sunnies, another near miss for Bling 😎

I’m not saying Michael Matthews (Jayco AlUla) should have shut the door on Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in the sprint that decided Milan-San Remo; I’m just saying he could have, and that many riders would have.

There was definitely a moment where Philipsen was moving up the left and, with just a little movement, Matthews could have made things much harder for the Belgian. Instead the Australian held his line, and was ultimately pipped by Philipsen.

Second place on the day was Matthews’ third podium and sixth top-10 at the first Monument of the season. A terrific result particularly after Matthews left Paris-Nice due to illness 10 days earlier and wasn’t sure he’d be able to start MSR.

You might have noticed from the footage of the sprint, too, that Matthews’ sunglasses fell off with around 50 metres to go. He says he had to stop pedalling a little but I’m not sure it would have made a difference. Still, not ideal.

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🏆 A mudfest at Aussie MTB Nats 🏆

There were some familiar names on the podium at the Australian MTB Nationals at the Awaba MTB Park in NSW over the weekend. In the elite women’s XCO (cross-country Olympic) race, Bec Henderson won a ridiculous 11th-straight national title (every edition since leaving the U23 ranks), putting more than two minutes into runner-up Zoe Cuthbert in slippery conditions.

Remarkably, Henderson almost didn’t start the race. She missed the XCC (short track) a couple days earlier due to an ankle injury and seriously considered skipping Sunday’s XCO as well. In the end she started, got the holeshot, only had Cuthbert with her by the end of the starting loop, then rode away to win comfortably.

Heavy rain fell in the elite men’s XCO race, turning the slippery course into a veritable mud bath. 2018 winner Cameron Ivory excelled in the tough conditions, fighting into a lead group of five very early (which included reigning champ Sam Fox, gravel star Brendan ‘Trekky’ Johnston and others), before going it alone with two laps to go.

Ivory had dry-weather tyres on not long before the start, but at the suggestion of his partner Izzy Flint (who’d just won the U23 XCO title), he switched to wet-weather tyres. It turned out to be a great move.

Speaking of Flint, here are some other notable performers from the weekend:

️💨 Kiwis fly high in Hong Kong ️💨

From the mud of Aussie MTB Nats, to the boards of Hong Kong at the Track Nations Cup. Great Britain scored the most wins in the second round of the three-round series, but New Zealand were right at the fore with the equal-most medals for the meet (a total of six).

The Kiwis left Hong Kong with three gold medals. One came from Aaron Gate who continued his stellar 2024 with an unlikely win in the four-race omnium. A press release from Cycling New Zealand tells the story:

“Gate started strongly with fourth in the scratch race and second in the tempo race but made a made a mistake to be the first rider out in the elimination race, which would normally spell the end to any overall hopes in the omnium.

“But Gate is no normal human, amassing a remarkable 71 in the points race, including 60 bonus points for lapping the field three times, claiming the overall honours by a single point.”

Gate and teammate Campbell Stewart also won gold in the men’s madison, and the Kiwis also took out gold in the women’s team pursuit (with Bryony Botha, Samantha Donnelly, Emily Shearman, and Nicole Shields) by catching the Irish team in the gold-medal race.

In other notable Down Under results:

The final round of the Track Nations Cup will be held in Milton, Canada from April 12-14. The major goal, though, is coming up later in the season: a little event called the Paris Olympics.

⌚ Jack Bauer’s time is up ⌚

For a while now it’s looked like Kiwi veteran Jack Bauer’s time as a professional bike racer is over. His contract with Q36.5 wasn’t renewed for 2024, and he hasn’t raced since October 2023. This past week, we got official confirmation that the 38-year-old has indeed retired.

In a story on the Cycling New Zealand website, Bauer said that he’d hoped to race for one final season, but that it hadn’t quite worked out that way. He’s hoping to still be involved in the sport in some way.

“To be honest, with the sport growing back home and such incredible talent coming through, I was hoping to find a role with more of a Kiwi connection,” Bauer said. “Especially with the rise of Black Spoke over recent years, it seemed like there was momentum, and there would be options off the bike with young Kiwi athletes.

“I am open to any opportunities that might arise, but it was disappointing to see that Blake Spoke project come to an end.”

Bauer turned pro back in 2012 with the Garmin-Barracuda team and achieved six wins throughout his career, including a stage of the Tour of Britain, the Tour of Utah, and the Herald Sun Tour. He is arguably best known, however, for his plucky but heartbreaking ride on stage 15 of the 2014 Tour de France when he spent around 220 km in the breakaway and was the last man to be caught, mere metres from the finish line. That’s Bauer in the blue of Garmin-Sharp in the video below.

👍 On Aussie women’s MTB 👍

Remember a little while back we were reporting on the poor turn-out of elite riders at the opening rounds of Australia’s MTB National Series on the Gold Coast? At the time I reached out to the two elite women who did turn up and this week, one of them got back to me. Here’s what Luca Turton, winner of round 2, had to say about the poor numbers:

“Yeah it was pretty disappointing to not have a stacked field for the National Series at Nerang, but round 3 and 4 at Canberra had a heap of Elite and Under 23 female contenders which was awesome to see!! I have been quite used to being the only, or one of few, competitors at events in QLD from when I started racing in Under 15s, and now there is a really strong field of young girls coming up who are super competitive!

So while it is disappointing to sometimes have fluctuations in female turnout at races, I am very optimistic for the future of female MTB!

✂️ Snippets ✂️

🍌 Big Things Down Under 🍌

To be honest, I’m not sure how we’ve managed to get 27 editions into the Down Under Digest without using a photo of perhaps the most popular of all Australia’s Big Things: the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour. It’s even there in the emoji I use each week to announce this section.

Well, we finally got there, and it’s all thanks to Escape member Chris Ling who grabbed the shot below “on the way home from Brisbane to Sydney after masters track champs”.

The banana in question is located outside the Big Banana Fun Park which is home to a huge host of attractions including a water park, ice skating, laser tag, escape rooms, and a whole lot more. As for the banana itself, it measures some 13 metres in length and was opened in 1964. Some (including the Visit NSW website!) claim it was the first of Australia’s Big Things, but apparently The Big Scotsman over in Adelaide actually holds that honour.

Thanks for your photo, Chris!

If you’ve got a Big Thing (or similarly interesting thing!) in your neighbourhood, or you’re heading past one, I’d love to see a photo of your bike and the Big Thing in the same photo! You can email it through to me at [email protected].

❤️ And finally … ❤️

A couple of enjoyable clips from social media to round out this week’s edition. The first comes from Aussie Continental-level rider Brady Gilmore (ARA-Skip Capital) who recently headed into the lab for some VO2max testing before heading over to Europe.

The footage of him monstering the bike is entertaining enough, but in the caption he claims he achieved a final score of 92 mL/(kg·min) which, if accurate, puts him at the upper end of what’s been seen in elite cyclists

The 22-year-old rode for Israel-Premier Tech as a stagiaire last year and is the reigning U23 Oceania time trial champ. While a high VO2max isn’t a guarantee of success in the pro ranks, you’d certainly rather a high VO2max than low. Hopefully Gilmore is right and “2024 will be a good year” for him.

And finally, there’s this banger from the AusCycling Instagram which shows the end of the U19 men’s XCO race at the recent MTB Nationals. Lots to love in the celebration from Harry Doye, here – the wheelie, the overcooking said wheelie on the slick ground, and then the bow to wrap it all up. *chef’s kiss*.

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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