It was a day for the U23 riders in Napier as Georgia Christie survived a blisteringly strong display of breakaway riding to cross the line solo as winner of the U23 title and the New Zealand national champion’s jersey. Christie won ahead of Deborah Paine and Michaela Drummond with Holly Edmondston taking the gold medal for the elites ahead of Sharlotte Lucas and Georgia Williams.
The Elite & U23 women’s road race at the Vantage Road National Championships got underway in near perfect conditions. Clear blue skies but slightly breezy weather greeted the field as they left Marine Parade and headed out on the 109km of racing lying ahead of them.
Early racing was aggressive with a few riders prepared to throw caution to the wind on the first big rural loop; including defending champion Georgia Williams of Mitchelton-SCOTT. But it was Libby Arbuckle of Mike Greer Homes Womens Cycling who laid down the early gauntlet in a lone breakaway attempt that saw the rest of the peloton happy to let her go up ahead. Racquel Sheath of Waikato Bay of Plenty sat on the front of the peloton, with Kirstie James also near the front; while Georgia Williams and Sharlotte Lucas sat towards the middle of the pack in the early stages.
Arbuckle’s lead built to 55 seconds and the U23 time trial bronze medallist appeared to content to push the tempo solo around the back end of the course. Eventually, towards the end of the rural lap the lone leader found company in the form of Kirstie James of Cycling Southland. The latter was in the middle of a big building phase towards the track World Cup in Cambridge and the World Championships beyond that; and so was unsure of her condition heading into the race.
As Arbuckle and James continued to press on towards the end of the rural lap they were pursued by former U23 champion Georgia Christie. Arbuckle picked up QOM points on the opening big lap of the course but as they went through the Napier city circuit for the first time it was Georgia Christie and Kirstie James who had the lead with the peloton sitting at about a minute behind them; and Arbuckle about 15 seconds ahead of the bunch with all the favourites gathered. Across the next lap though Christie began to show her mettle, pulling away from James and leading through the end of the next lap with a 20 second advantage to the track specialist. Arbuckle continued to keep pace between James and the bunch, but there appeared to be no serious degree of urgency in the peloton at this point as they crossed the start/finish line with a little over 2 minutes deficit.
Around the back end of the course Kirstie James was in time trial mode, calling on her track prowess to try and bridge back to Georgia Christie who was tapping out a very smooth pedalling technique that looked confident and calm. Behind them Arbuckle drifted back to the peloton but also in pursuit was none other than Bronwyn MacGregor; getting ready for another season in Europe with MEXX-Watersley International alongside Amanda Jamieson, Rylee McMullen and Kate Smith.
As MacGregor caught Kirstie James and the two of them proceeded to try and limit their losses to Georgia Christie, Rushlee Buchanan launched a big attack from the bunch at the start of three laps to go. It was a stinging move that suddenly injected serious pace into the bunch; but Buchanan had a gap as she went in pursuit of MacGregor and James. The bunch were wise to the move though and Buchanan was brought back to heel; leaving Christie to continue out ahead with a lead that at the end of the penultimate lap stood at 1.05mins to the chasing bunch.
Back in the pack Kirstie James and Bronwyn Macgregor were also brought back into the fold, but an attack was launched by U23 rider Deborah Paine of Waikato Bay of Plenty. Also of note was that Kerri-Anne Page had made a move behind the still quite compact bunch; stretching the field out to full capacity and lifting the tempo once again. In the peloton Georgia Williams continued to pay close quarter to the goings on at the head of the race but for now she was still content not to show her hand just yet. But this time up the major climb Williams launched a big move, putting the pressure on the group around her and charging away.
Gradually a small group chased her back in time for the final lap but the gap to Christie was now just a handful of seconds; as the bell lap sounded. Christie still led but some 10-15 seconds later the group led by Williams crossed the line. Williams big move had fractured the bunch, with Rushlee Buchanan on the wrong side of the split and now chasing around 20 seconds behind the Williams group.
The final lap was a phenomenally close game of cat and mouse; with Deborah Paine on the offensive between the chase group and Georgia Williams and her group containing Michaela Drummond, Holly Edmondston and a surprisingly large number of contenders chasing but not gaining significant ground. The final time over Hospital Hill was where the winning move would surely come from the group chasing, but it never arrived as Christie just dug deep and held on.
The final kilometres saw Deborah Paine come within seconds of her fellow U23 rival, and well within sight, but Christie was just able to hold on and claim a famous victory after the huge majority of the race spent out in front of the field. Paine was well clear for second place, but it would be a bunch sprint that would decide third place and the podium for the elite race.
Michaela Drummond had the pace to take third place across the line, and complete a clean sweep of U23 riders at the head of the results sheet. In the fight for the elite race it was Holly Edmondston who took first place with Sharlotte Lucas second and the defending champion Georgia Williams rounding out the top three.
More to come . . .