March 26, 2006 (Melbourne, Australia) — Australia once again showed it has the Commonwealth’s number one cycling team, with Matt Hayman and Natalie Bates winning respective gold medals at the Games final road races today.
Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens was the perfect host to the Commonwealth Games’ final cycling event. Beautiful surroundings and a stunning day saw a large crowd line the 11K course.
Natalie Bates superb solo victory in the women’s 100K race was a testament to the Australian team’s tactical superiority. Bates, sister of Kate who was track silver medallist at the Games individual pursuit, was part of an early breakaway but went clear with 25K to go, finishing 3:05 ahead of teammate Oenone Wood who won the bunch sprint ahead of Nicole Cooke (Wales).
Gina Grain was Canada’s top finisher in fourth, just out of the medals for a second time at these Games.
“We came here to win gold and we came away with gold and silver,” said Bates afterwards. “I’m so stoked right now.”
The five-strong early break which included Canada’s Mandy Poitras, Emma Jones (England), Toni Bradshaw (New Zealand) and Noor Alias (Malaysia), built up a three-minute lead but it was Poitras, Jones and Bradshaw who were doing the bulk of the work.
Jones attempted to get Bates on the front, but she refused, citing team orders to merely mark the escape as Australia’s strongest riders were still in the peloton.
However, with the big teams represented, the bunch was quite happy to watch the gap get bigger. A crash on lap six saw Olivia Gollan (Australia) touch a wheel and hit the deck only to see Melissa Holt (New Zealand) plough into her and go straight over the handlebars.
Holt was taken to hospital with a collarbone fracture but all others involved in the crash remounted and eventually rejoined the field.
Sole Welsh representative Cooke mounted several attacks from the bunch and at one point reduced the gap to just 1:27, but was ultimately chased down by either Kiwis, Aussies or Canadians.
With two and a half laps remaining, Bates, who hadn’t yet done a turn on the front, made her move and easily established a one minute lead ahead of a rapidly tiring break.
She soon had an unassailable four-minute lead by the bell lap, and her breakaway companions were swallowed up by the peloton. Why the other big teams in the peloton didn’t start chasing when they heard Bates was ahead isn’t clear.
If they had hit the front when it was obvious the break was spent and the time-gap was still manageable, they may well have caught the flying Aussie.
As it was Bates cruised through the finish customarily waving the Australian flag in a time of 2:56.8.
“We were totally confident Natalie could get a medal,” said Wood after the rest of the Australian team joined her and Bates on the podium during the presentation ceremony. “She had good legs today.”
“It is a team effort,” said Bates, “and we are a fantastic team. The last kilometre was so special.”
Grain wasn’t overly disappointed at missing a medal. “I’m suffering from a severe case of fourthitis. It was tough out there today so I’m happy.”
An attack by Scotland’s Duncan Urquhart on the first lap of the men’s 166K race saw him quickly gain 30 seconds before he was joined by Canada’s Dominique Perras, Englishman Robin Sharman, Jeremy Maartens (South Africa) and David Kinjah (Kenya).
The group worked well together and soon had a two minute lead, but the gap was closely monitored by the Australian team who rode tempo on the front of the peloton.
Kinjah, riding at his third Commonwealth Games, was somewhat a revelation. Finishing 32nd in Tuesday’s time-trial, he also competed in the mountain bike race on Thursday and rode strongly throughout the road race placing 27th, never missing a turn at the front.
After 100K of racing the escapees were tiring and their lead only 40 seconds. But South Africa’s David George impressively shot out of the bunch and bridged across to the break.
The extra man increased their impetus and the lead stretched back out to one minute with Australia still chasing hard on the front.
On lap 10 of the 15-lap race a series of ferocious attacks by Australian, English and South African riders saw the break crushed and the peloton decimated to about 25 riders.
After more attacking and leg-burning chasing, Hayman, along with South Africans George and Ryan Cox, made his move with 25K left to race.
The trio held a slender 45-second lead going into the final lap, with the bunch led by New Zealand and English riders were chasing hard. Hayman launched his winning move on a sharp incline, just 4K from the finish and the two South Africans were unable to match him.
To tumultuous applause he crossed the line in 4:5.9 followed by George. Australian Allan Davies claimed bronze after catching Cox in the race’s dying moments. Gordon Fraser was the top Canadian in fifth just behind New Zealand’s Greg Henderson.
“I can’t believe it,” an overjoyed Hayman said. “I’m not supposed to win this race. I’m somebody who normally rides for other people, that is what I do. I feel like I am watching myself from somewhere else, it’s an out of body experience.”
Davies, who started the race as favourite was rapt for his team-mate. “I knew it was going to be hard out there for Matt. Two South Africans against one, that’s a big feat (to win).”
“He did it in the best possible way. Full credit to him and the rest of the Australian team.”
As the Games end with tonight’s closing ceremony, Australia showed what a team sport cycling is — they have the strongest team, and as a result won the most medals.
Cyclist Alhassan Bangura was today confirmed to be the 12th member of the Sierra Leone team to go missing. The remaining ten Sierra Leonans flew home last night and their Chef de Mission, Mohammed Alpha Kaba, refused to comment. The whereabouts of bicycles leant to the team by Australian donors is also unknown.
The absent athletes have valid visas until April 26th and until then the matter will not be investigated by police. The situation replicates Manchester’s 2002 Games when 70% of the Sierra Leone team failed to return home.
Sierra Leone is considered to be one of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries where male life expectancy is just 38 years old.