Regarded by many as the toughest one-day race in the country, the 57th edition of the race promises to yet again deliver a thrilling finish to the 228-kilometre trek through Northern New South Wales which includes a punishing 3383m of climbing punctuated by the epic 17km climb of the Gibraltar Range.
A cracking field of 113 of Australia’s and New Zealand’s best domestic based cyclists across 16 teams will battle for the title and an etching on the prestigious Jack Griffin Shield.
Reigning Subaru NRS team’s champions Isowhey Sports SwissWellness enters the Classic with a formidable line-up that boasts the defending champion and course record holder Pat Lane, 2016 runner up Nathan Elliott and back-to-back champion Sean Lake (2014-15).
“Grafton is a super hard race, for me it’s by far the most difficult in Australia, but having won it last year makes it easier mentally,” said Lane, who claimed a memorable victory in 2016 when he out-sprinted Elliott in the dying metres to claim the crown and become the first rider in the event’s 56-year history to break the six hour barrier (5 hours, 57 minutes and 55 seconds).
“To get the course record was a nice little bonus last year but it’s not something you target. If I can win in the slowest ever time this year then I’d be happy with that also,” Lane joked.
With the Andrew Christie-Johnston outfit dominating not just the recent 2016 season but much of the past decade, the team received a top up of talent for 2017 following the off-season merger with Swiss-Wellness – which finished sixth overall last year.
“Andrew [Christie-Johnston] and Steve Price do a great job every year putting the team together and it looks as strong as ever with Swiss Wellness coming on board to boost our line up even more,” said Lane. The complete line up will see Lane, Lake and Elliott joined by Robbie Hucker, Neil Van Der Ploeg, Sam Crome and Jeremy Cameron on race day.
“I think we will have a lot of cards to play and that will play into our advantage with seven potential winners lining up in Isowhey – Swiss Wellness colours.
“Sean [Lake] and myself have shown we can win at Grafton and compete over that time, Nathan [Elliott] is another one that can compete in these long races with second in Grafton & winning the Warrny [Melbourne to Warnnambool] last year.
“We have a great team lining up and I’m just looking forward to it. No pressure, it should be a really fun day!”
Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic Event Manager Chris Thompson believes local knowledge could pose a threat to Isowhey – Swiss Wellness’ dominance.
“Local Inverell rider Dylan Sunderland is hoping to capitalise on some great recent form to claim the first local victory in the ‘open’ history of the race,” Thompson said of Sunderland who will feature in a strong NSWIS team with Ayden Toovey who finished just off the podium in fourth in 2016, and Ryan Cavanagh who has also figured highly at past Classics.
“With a top ten finish as a 19-year-old in 2015, Sunderland has proven himself over the distance and with added maturity as a rider combined with his local knowledge of the roads he will be a real contender for the win.”
With April’s Battle on the Border, the scheduled Subaru NRS season opener, being postponed due to the devastating effects of Cyclone Debbie, the Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic will now kick start the season for the men.
“I am looking forward to the sense of enthusiasm and anticipation that comes with being the first event of the series,” said Thompson.
“Teams are keen to get off to a great start and this produces exciting racing. There is so much that can happen over such a long and testing course that the final outcome is often unexpected.”
The unexpected is always expected at the Classic, with the overall victory decided inside the final sixty kilometres that includes the formidable Gibraltar Range, in addition to the punishing climbs through Waterloo Range and Wire Gully.
“There is no real descent off the range as the riders continue along the New England plateau for another 140km over a succession of small climbs before reaching Inverell,” said Thompson.
“The race is inevitably a ‘race of attrition’ that sees the strongest riders prevail and it is rare to see a bunch of more than a few riders sprint to the line.”
In possibly the best pre-race news story, 20-year-old Keagan Girdlestone will continue his amazing comeback to racing in the Classic just ten months on from a horrific crash that nearly ended his life.
The Classic will also feature the Regional Australia Bank Grafton to Inverell des Femmes (not an NRS event), the first year that the women have had their own category in this race.