It’s official! They’re always great events but last Sunday’s Autumn Festival Criterium has been judged the best ever. At least that’s what Bullo and I reckon, and based on the feedback we’ve got from many of the onlookers, it might not be far off the mark.
Of course the highlight was the return of Peter McDonald, this year decked out in his Australian Road Champion’s kit. Having Pete come back to race was a terrific coup for the Autumn Festival, and he once again showed what a great ambassador he is for cycling and for Armidale. He happily mingled with the crowd autographing kids’ jerseys and doing various media interviews before putting on an awesome display of riding to win the main race.
This year a field of 13 riders lined up in A grade, featuring each of the previous winners, Ben Clarke of Tamworth (’04 and ’05), Peter McDonald (’06 and ’07), and defending champion Geoff Straub. To add interest, 18 riders joined the race in a B+ grade.
Predictably the race broke up almost from the start, with Peter quickly building up a big lead together with youngster Ethan Kimmence from Inverell. Unfortunately Geoff Straub missed the jump but set out in pursuit working with Dan Alcock from Coffs Harbour.
The rest of the A grade bunch then distanced themselves from all but one of the B+ riders, Ben Fox, another impressive youngster from Inverell who looked very comfortable with the A graders.
Although they failed to make any ground on the leading pair Straub and Alcock soon lapped the main B+ field. At this point, Mitch Sozou of Armidale was able to make the jump out of the B+ bunch to join up with the A grade pair, a move that eventually earned him second place in B+.
An accident involving a number B+ riders stopped the race just after the half way point. Most were able to continue when the race restarted, but unfortunately one Coffs Harbour rider was sidelined with a broken arm, and Gunnedah rider Steve Murray’s bike was too damaged to continue.
After the restart the race stayed pretty much in the same order, until a few laps from the end when Pete unhitched Ethan from his wheel and took off at great speed, soloing to victory. Ethan Kimmence rode very well all day to come home in second place, with Straub winning the battle for third place ahead of Alcock.
Ben Clarke led the remainder of the A grade field home in 5th place, and out of that group came the winner of B+, Ben Fox. Mitch Sozou also rode very well to take second place in B+ with Sam Horwood of Inverell third.
A number of Armidale riders rode strongly in the B+ grade, including Andrew Kirk (4th), Dave Munday, John Scott-Hamilton and Mick Hoult who continued after coming down in the crash. Pat McMillan was also going well, but unfortunately had to retire due to an injury sustained in the crash.
B grade was another good race with Peter Schultz of Tamworth and Matt Vagg of Coffs Harbour breaking away in the early stages. Riding very well together, they built up a such a big lead that the main bunch stopped chasing. Schultz eventually took the win in a close finish from Vagg. This was a very impressive effort, and form like this has probably earned the pair a start in the main race next year! (Only joking guys … sort of).
There was also a crash in B grade, with Peter Wilkinson and Phil Hess coming down. Luckily in this case there were no serious injuries, although Phil was unable to continue after coming down pretty hard.
C grade was a very competitive race with a fast early pace leading to a number of riders losing touch with the main bunch. Big Dave Jenner tried his luck early on and stayed away from the field for a few laps. Lachie McPhie did a power of work at the front, but in the end the race came down to a bunch finish, with the win going to the evergreen Don McKenzie (Tamworth), with Erin Hennessy (Grafton) in second place, and Jacob Murray (Gunnedah) in third. Dave Jenner was best placed of the Armidale riders in fourth place with Reece Robinson (Hunter) in fifth.
D grade also came down to a bunch sprint, taken out by Rikki Corcoran (Grafton) from Graham Lee (Gunnedah) and Pat Corcoran (Inverell). Armidale riders also did well with Steve Dignam fourth (just needs to work on his uphill sprint!) and Tom Cooper fifth. Bob Murison stretched his legs leading for almost half of the race and winning the intermediate sprint as a result.
Armidale juniors dominated the Junior and Novice races. In the Junior race, Rogan McPhie and Ben Castle worked hard on the front, which set up the finale for Angus Swan and Cody Burton. Angus took off along Rusden Street on the final lap with Cody on his wheel and built up a big lead over the rest of the field. Cody came off his wheel in the finishing straight for the win, a very good effort from both boys. Tom Apthorpe (Inverell) rode very well to finish in third place, also winning the sprint.
The Novice race provided another win for the Burton family, this time for Kirk who just pipped Kyle O’Hara on the line. Troy Hardaker (Coffs Harbour) prevented an Armidale clean sweep by taking third place. Sam Jenner rode exceptionally well to finish fourth, as did Karlee McMillan in fifth place.
First timers Will Allom, Reece Burton, Harrison Munday, Jack Parker, and Naran Singh also enjoyed themselves and will no doubt improve with more racing experience.
But as ever, one of the best rides of the day came from the world’s most experienced novice, octogenarian John Bentley, who rode happily around the circuit before making a dignified exit at the suggestion of chief commissaire Jock Bullen, just before the end of the race. Hope I can do the same when I get to that age.