A week ago, almost to the hour, Laurence Pithie took himself away from the gathered masses atop Mt. Lofty, found a quiet space to sit down, then berated himself vigorously. “Idiot!” he yelled, as a handful of journalists watched on.
Pithie had just finished fifth on the tough final stage of the Tour Down Under, after a late surge that saw him take the lead with around 1 km to go – too early. The 21-year-old Kiwi felt like he should have waited and backed his sprint.
Fast forward to this afternoon on the Geelong Waterfront and the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. This time after the finish, Pithie’s yells were those of joy, surrounded by teammates, members of the media, and chaperones from the race organisation, ushering him to the presentation podium.
This time, in a flat finish, Pithie had waited for his sprint, and this time he didn’t have to settle for fifth place. This time he proved strongest and wiliest in a reduced bunch of 13 riders, taking his first WorldTour victory and confirming himself as an exciting, emerging talent.
It was close though.
“After the finish line, I wasn’t too sure if I had it,” Pithie told reporters a short time later. “I really had to wait for multiple confirmations. But yeah, I’m super happy. Can’t believe it.”
There was a moment when it looked like Pithie wouldn’t even get the chance to sprint; that waiting for the final kick would work against him.
He’d come over the fourth and final ascent of the punishingly steep Challambra Crescent climb in the right position – in a lead group of 19 with less than 10 km to race. But after a series of unsuccessful attacks from that group in the closing kilometres, a surge from the dangerous Quinn Simmons (Lidl-Trek) with 3.8 km to go looked as if it could go the distance.
Pithie admits he thought Simmons might have stayed away.
“There weren’t many people riding,” he said. “Luckily, all the Israel[-Premier Tech] boys came from behind and instantly went to the front. They really backed in Corbin [Strong] and why wouldn’t you? He’s so quick, [my] fellow Kiwiman. I knew I just had to profit from their work and stay patient.”
Simmons was only brought to heel inside the final half-kilometre, paving the way for an immediate counter-attack from his teammate Bauke Mollema. As the only Groupama-FDJ rider up front, Pithie again had to bide his time and hope that others would do the work.
“Those attacks were going and I knew I just had to be patient,” he said. “I couldn’t be the one that closed them otherwise I wouldn’t have the legs for the sprint. I just had to wait, wait, wait.”
And then when Mollema was caught with little more than 200 metres remaining, the final sprint, too, proved tricky for Pithie.
“I got a little bit boxed in towards the end when everyone opened up around the outside,” he said. “But yeah, I managed to find a gap and work my way back.”
In the end Pithie won it with a bike throw, edging out Natnael Tesfatsion (Lidl-Trek) and Georg Zimmerman (Intermarché-Wanty).
The early accolades in today’s race all went to the event’s two Australian wildcard domestic teams: BridgeLane and ARA-Skip Capital. After being allowed to compete in the season’s first WorldTour one-day race via an exception to UCI rules, the two Continental teams duly served to animate the early goings.
Both teams got two riders up the road – Jackson Medway and Zac Marriage from BridgeLane; and Josh Cranage and Dylan Proctor-Parker from ARA-Skip Capital – and the quartet led for well over 100 km. Medway took out the sprint classification and Marriage claimed the KOM competition, and it was that BridgeLane pairing that lasted longest out front, only getting caught with 25 km to race, just after the penultimate ascent of Challambra Crescent.
It was the final ascent of the steep suburban climb that shredded the bunch to just 19 riders, after which the attacks started to fly on approach to the finish.
The fact that Pithie made it to that lead group speaks volumes of his talents as a rider. Indeed, his performance today, and on the hilly final stage of Tour Down Under, speak of a rider who’s not just a handy sprinter but also a talented climber.
“I worked on my sprint over the winter,” he said. “I think as you can see, today, I’ve showed that I’ve got a bit more speed than I had last year. My ability to get over some of those climbs has really increased as well, which is really cool to see.”
Pithie’s win today rounds out an impressive Australian campaign for the young Kiwi. He was top five on three Tour Down Under stages – two bunch sprints and the Mt. Lofty uphill finish – and fifth in a reduced bunch kick at the Surf Coast Classic earlier in the week. Now he’ll head back across the ditch to race his national championships where he’ll surely start as one of the favourites in the road race.
And then it’s off to Europe to begin the bulk of his season.
“I’ll start the Classics at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and then into Paris-Nice with the big goal for the first half of the season at the Giro,” he said. “I’ve got some leadership there. So it’ll be nice to do my first Grand Tour and experience what three weeks of racing is like, and see how I can go there.”
Pithie will target the “harder stages that will end in a small group sprint, like today.”
“Those are the ones that will really suit me,” he said. “I like to mix it up in the bunch sprints as well. But yeah, I’m still learning about that. It’s a new role for me in the team this year, sprinting.”
And after the Giro, well, there’s the small matter of the Olympics to consider. The road race course, with its short climbs and flat finish, could well suit Pithie.
“I’d love to be there in Paris,” he said. “As you’ve seen there’s a strong Kiwi contingent in the WorldTour now, a few guys who could be there. But yeah, I think if I continue to race like this, for sure, I’ll have my spot there.
“Going there with a rider like Corbin would be really amazing. We’re both aggressive racers who can really take it and [with] a small field like that it’s quite a unique race. So yeah, my eyes are on the Olympics for sure.”
It was in France, in March last year, that Pithie scored his first professional victory. That day he won the lumpy one-day race, Cholet-Pays de la Loire (UCI 1.1) in a reduced bunch sprint. That win, as a 20-year-old, spoke of a talented young rider on a promising trajectory. His ride at the Tour Down Under last week, while leaving him without a victory, was perhaps even more impressive, and again showed him as a strong and versatile rider capable of mixing it with WorldTour hitters.
With his win today, though, Pithie has taken another step up, properly announcing himself as a multi-talented rider who will be well worth watching in the months and years ahead. Perhaps more impressively, he’s also a rider who’s capable of learning and adapting from his past performances, if the way he bounced back from his Tour Down Under disappointment is anything to go by.
“I think every cyclist loves to win and that was an opportunity missed for me, but for sure it was great learning,” he said. “I knew I could back my sprint a little bit more.
“That’s part of the sport. It’s all about reflection and learning from possible mistakes and how you can move forward.”
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