In the main street of Hahndorf on Friday morning, Matilda Raynolds sat in the front seat of the Team BridgeLane minivan, a picture of relaxation as she waited for stage 1 of the 2024 Tour Down Under to begin. Raynolds spoke about how her road racing form was a bit of a mystery. She hadn’t raced a UCI-level road race in seven months, and she’s been more focused on long-distance gravel races in recent times.
She certainly wasn’t expecting a repeat of four years ago when she finished third in the bunch sprint in the 2020 edition, just behind world-class sprinters Chloe Hosking and Lotta Hentalla. She was hoping she’d have some impact on the opening stage, though. “I hope to earn a post-race interview,” she told me with a smile as our brief chat came to an end.
Three hours later, she’d certainly done that, finding herself on another Tour Down Under podium, this time in very different circumstances.
Raynolds’ stage began in frustrating fashion: with a mechanical just 3 km into the race. “The seat came loose straight away as soon as I hit a bump and yeah, I literally had to jump on a new bike,” she says in Campbelltown at stage’s end. “I was on a bike that was a little bit too small for me and so my hamstrings were screaming.”
Even on a bike that didn’t quite fit, it was Raynolds who made the first move of the day, punching away after the first intermediate sprint after just 12 km of racing.
“I wasn’t planned to go off the front, but I was there and you know, it’s an age-old playbook: you attack after the first prime, and I got a gap straightaway and they sat up and I was on my way,” Raynolds recalls. “When they don’t chase you down it’s a bit of an insult so I was gonna make them work for it all day.”
And that’s exactly what she did. She drew two riders out with her – Katia Ragusa (Human Powered Health) and India Grangier (Coop-Repsol) – and after a long solo chase, Kate Richardson (LifePlus Wahoo) also found her way to the front.
For Raynolds, getting in the break was about targeting the QOM jersey but when that didn’t eventuate – “I just didn’t have the kick in my legs” – she had to switch gears; to salvage something from a good opportunity. And so, on the second and final QOM, with 36 km to go in the 94 km stage, Raynolds waited patiently for her breakaway companions to fight it out for the points, and then she made her move.
“I just sat off them in that QOM and just as soon as they sat up I smashed them over the top,” she recalls. “At that point you’re just head down and it’s awful in that heat. It’s just awful. I was breathing through every orifice that I had, and I was just cooking.”
As hard as it might have been, the attack was an effective one. With Raynolds soon out of sight, Ragusa, Grangier, and Richardson sat up and drifted back to the bunch. And then it was just Raynolds on her own, with 35 km left to race, as temperatures approached 40 ºC.
“If you’ve ever opened up an oven with the fan turned up as high as possible …” a sweat-drenched Raynolds says with a smile. “It was just like a furnace through that gorge there.”
With around 25 km left to go, Raynolds still had nearly two minutes over a peloton that seemed in no hurry to get organised. And while Raynolds was bobbing up and down on the bike, seemingly uncomfortable, she says she was actually feeling better as the stage went on.
That’s no huge surprise for a rider who’s made long races her forte in recent years. After that Tour Down Under podium in 2020, she went on to win two consecutive editions of the infamously long Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic. Just last November she won the 246 km Dirty Warrny, a gravel race that also finished in Warrnambool.
Today, though, the deck was always stacked against her. Despite feeling good, she was just one rider against an entire peloton that eventually started getting organised for a bunch sprint. And yet …
“I still had a 1 minute 20 there with almost 11 km to go,” she says. “You dare to dream – you’ve got to really, and you’re on show to the world. There was the smallest moment that’s like, ‘If you go [on to win], this will change your life’, but you can only do what you can do.”
When the peloton started chasing in earnest – with AG Insurance-Soudal the most committed and most prominent – the remainder of Raynolds’ advantage started to tumble.
The 36-year-old Australian was eventually caught with a little under 10 km to go, the race resetting ahead of the sprint finish that many had predicted. As Raynolds settled back into the bunch – eventually finishing on bunch time in 37th place – pre-stage favourites Liv AlUla Jayco came to the front, riding for Georgia Baker in the sprint.
The Australian team hit the front a touch early, and when Aussie champ Ruby Roseman-Gannon pulled off, Baker was left with a little too much time in the wind on the uphill drag to the line. Kiwi champion Ally Wollaston (AG Insurance-Soudal) seized the opportunity, powering to her first WorldTour win and rewarding her team’s strong ride in the approach.
Raynolds, meanwhile, was awarded the most combative rider prize, and deservedly so. It was exactly the sort of ride that BridgeLane manager Pat Shaw had hoped for from his charges – a defiant ride by the Australian Continental team in a peloton featuring the most WorldTour teams in the race’s history (nine).
“She executed the plan perfectly,” Shaw tells Escape. “You know, we didn’t really know how long it was going to be until the peloton reeled it in [the four-rider breakaway] but I thought if we can get her out in front solo, it’s gonna make them think they’re a better chance to catch when they want to. So just tactically working off what the World Tour teams would think …”
For Raynolds, her day in the sun was a case of taking the opportunity presented to her. For years she’s been a rider that’s performed well on the Australian domestic scene and seemingly been on the cusp of breaking into the professional ranks. Getting the chance to show herself and her team on the world stage was one she wasn’t about to miss.
“You’ve got to pinch yourself every now and again, to think that you’re at the front of a WorldTour race and the very first one of the year,” she says. “I’m very proud to show my colors.
“I’ve been to Europe twice by myself the last two years and just hadn’t gotten the opportunity I needed to perform. I got the opportunity here and so I wasn’t going to waste it. I wasn’t going to roll around for 20th three days in a row. I just went all in as best as I could at the end there and obviously it was going to be a big ask to try to stay out that whole time.”
While Raynolds wasn’t thinking about the days ahead during her stage 1 solo adventure – “you’re really trying to go all in on today” – she’s thinking about them now. Expect more aggression from BridgeLane in the remaining two stages.
“We’ll keep showing our colors,” Raynolds says. “I don’t want to just be going off the front; I want to show everyone that we deserve to be here and that we can compete with the very best and take them on in the finish as well.
“So I’m looking forward to try and recover and hopefully I can come back and help the team and also hopefully get another good result.”
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