Copyright Bruce Wilson/Veloshotz

In one of the most thrilling finishes in the race’s 57-year history, Victoria’s Neil van der Ploeg (IsoWheySports-SwissWellness) powered to victory in the 2017 Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic in race record time.

The epic 228km trek through Northern New South Wales ended in a scintillating sprint finish, with van der Ploeg edging fellow Victorian Mathew Ross (Carnegie Caulfield CC) by less than a bike length. Ayden Toovey (NSWIS) was only metres behind the pair in third.

“At the end of the Grafton to Inverell, it is just a case of who has some legs left in the final sprint,” said an exhausted van der Ploeg after crossing the line in a time of 5hours 46mins 26secs which smashed the 2015 race record by twelve minutes.

The win sealed back-to-back victories for the strong IsoWheySports-SwissWellness outfit after Patrick Lane claimed an emphatic win just twelve months ago.

“Special thanks to the whole team, we have a great team and they all did really well. I have a lot to be thankful for,” said van der Ploeg, who praised Lane who was just edged off the podium in fourth “Big thank you to Pat (Lane), he had some mechanical trouble today, but he put in a great effort and basically set me up for it.”

Calm and mild conditions greeted the 133-rider field in Grafton for the 57th edition of the Northern New South Wales epic 228km trek to Inverell.

Arguably Australia’s toughest one-day race, the pace was on soon as the Chief Commissaire waved the peloton out of race neutral on the Gwydir Hwy.

Three riders, 2016 runner up Nathan Elliott (IsoWheySports-SwissWellness), Leighton Cook (Veris) and Toovey broke away early, however with mist failing to shroud the severity of the punishing Gibraltar range, the trio was  bsorbed by the peloton shortly before the top of the climb.

In quick reply, Sam Crome (IsoWheySports-SwissWellness) and Sean Trainor (AMR Renault) attacked, with the evergreen Peter Milostic (Rauland) joining the pair shortly after the feed zone (halfway mark of the race).

Over the next thirty kilometres, the trio established a maximum margin of just over three minutes.  But with an animated main bunch ramping up the pace behind them, Nathan Elliott plus locals Dylan Sunderland (NSWIS) and Ryan Thomas (Olivers Real Food) bridged to form a six-rider leading pack.

With the race splintering as they exited Glen Innes for the final 50 kilometre run to the finish, the race exploded with a litany of attacks and counter attacks with riders seemingly dropped with every pedal stroke.

A group of nine riders including dual champion Sean Lake (IsoWheySports-SwissWellness), Lane, Toovey, Ross and van der Ploeg remained in contention as they made their way up the final climb – the Grindal-Griffin Hill.

However it was van der Ploeg who proved too strong in the race of attrition, prevailing in a sprint to the line. His time of 5hours 46minues 26 seconds smashing the 2017 mark set by team mate Lane (3:57.55) by twelve minutes.

“There was a lot of action in the last few kilometres, in the final club a group of four that emerged over the top of that last climb, we hand some pretty handy riders,” van der Ploeg said.

“Toovey is always really strong, and he did a heap of work today as he in the early break earlier in the race.  You could tell that he was really on some good legs. And Mat Ross, I have raced him a fair bit, he has a kick.

“But full credit to my team, we had such a quality team here. Sean [Lake] has won it twice, Nathan [Elliot] has finished on the podium, and of course Pat won last year.

“We worked really hard in a few moves throughout the day, and fortunately one paid off towards the end of the race.”

Ten months on from a horrific crash that nearly ended his life, 20-year-old Keagan Girdlestone capped his remarkable comeback to racing with 55th overall.

In 2015, Girdlestone’s debut Pro season turned to horror in June when he crashed into a team vehicle during a race in Italy in June 2016. The accident severed his carotid artery and jugular vein, paralysed his right arm, caused brain bruising and resulted in several strokes and a cardiac arrest on the operating table. With a third of the right side of his brain was declared ‘dead’ due to oxygen deprivation, the teenager was told by doctors that he would not race again.

However, the South African-born and now New Zealand based cyclist who made his NRS debut as a 16-year-old in 2014, surprised and inspired everyone in Inverell today as he finished the race just 30 minutes behind the winning group.