Round three of the British Cycling Women’s Road Series, the Hillingdon Grand Prix was won in a thrilling sprint finish by Grace Garner (Giordana Triton) on Sunday.
Garner’s trademark fearsome kick from a fast-moving bunch on the final straight saw her cross the line ahead of Louise Mahe (IKON-Mazda) with Garner’s team-mate and defending series champion Nicola Juniper rounding out the podium after 80km of intense racing.
With most of the riders in the series top ten absent, the race was a real opportunity to take over the lead, particularly for Juniper and the rider ahead of her by just seven points in the standings, Charline Joiner (Team WNT) - a situation underlined by the hard work evident by both teams in the first hour of the race.
And so it proved, with Juniper jumping to the top of the Series standings on 76 points, but just one point ahead of Joiner while King drops to third on 58 points.
Under a canopy of dark grey clouds which fortunately never delivered their threat of rain, the first 60 minutes was run of at 25mph, making it virtually impossible for any meaningful breaks to stick. It wasn’t for lack of trying though as Giordana Triton particularly seemed to have a rider dangling 20 metres off the front in an attempt to break away.
The peloton was always wary though, and as Juniper and Joiner and their respective teams marked each other closely, other teams came to the fore. Time trial specialist Hayley Simmonds (Team Velosport) looked amazingly strong in chasing down anything that looked like staying away, protecting the interests of her local team-mate and Hillingdon sprint specialist Abigail Dentus.
A three-up break of Rose Osborne (Team WNT), Beth Hayward (Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International) and Ellie May Dickinson (Giordana Triton) did manage to open a small gap and sustain it for over a lap, but it was quickly snuffed out when the chasing pack decided they’d had enough and this formed the pattern for the first half of the race.
Two solo efforts then lit up the middle section of the race as firstly Ruth Summerford (PMR Toachim House) and Rebecca Mackey (Aprire Bicycles/HSS Hire) attempted long solo breakaways.
Summerford has won more than once this season in similar circumstances on this circuit, and powered away into the nagging headwind down the course’s back straight. After a couple of laps she opened to 16 seconds before the peloton realised that, given her previous form at this venue, they had better respond and spent a couple of laps gradually clawing her back.
Mackey though was a different story as the chasing pack will have known little of her pedigree – the 21 year old from Wanneroo, Australia, is the current under-23 time trial champion in her homeland and she quickly demonstrated those talents in opening up the race’s only break that looked anywhere near like it might stay away.
Her team mate Lucy Harper impressively jumped all over the back of anything that moved near the front of the peloton in an attempt to disrupt any developing chase groups as the Australian powered out to a gap approaching 25 seconds at one point.
Eventually the pack did manage to respond, with more than one team prepared to sacrifice riders to the chase. Hannah Walker (Team WNT) particularly stood out with one massive effort to close down on the front but she wasn’t the only rider willing to sacrifice her chance of race glory in pursuit of the team’s greater good.
With only a few laps to go Mackey was eventually caught and the pack kept the pace high enough in the remaining time to deter any further escapees, before Garner emulated her sister Lucy a former winner of this event, by sprinting to the win.
For a closed circuit race on a short, none too technical circuit this was fascinating tactical racing and the sizeable crowd on the finishing straight and around the circuit were treated to some high-octane riding. For Garner, still a junior and riding restricted gears, this is the latest of many big wins against the seniors.
“We just got back from a week’s training camp with the Olympic Development riders so I felt really strong from that,” she explained. “We just wanted to protect Nicky early on, cover WNT and be a bit on the defensive then see how the race unfolded. Then in the end I felt really good when I had to open it up.”
Defending series champion Juniper revealed that a cleat issue mid-race had left her unsure of her ability to contest the final sprint and explained her team’s tactics.
“I told the girls I’d look after myself today and if they wanted to go for any primes I’d help them. But they were really good - we always seemed to have somebody up the road.
“In the sprint at the end, Grace is more of a fast leg sprinter where I’m more of a power sprinter, so I said to her I’ll go for the line as hard as I can then you just take over and go for the win.”
It was a tactic which resulted in podium places for both riders.
Following her win in the women’s Tour de Yorkshire a few of weeks ago, second place in the sprint also underlines that Louise Mahe is in a rich vein of form and another rider to watch for the remaining races.
The British Cycling Women’s Road Series moves to Northumberland on Sunday 21 June for round four of the series, the Curlew Cup, a race that could hardly be more different. 100 kilometres on the open roads awaits the riders there, including one fearsome climb of the Ryals.
1. Grace Garner (Team Giordana- Triton)
2. Louise Mahe (IKON - Mazda)
3. Nicola Juniper (Team Giordana- Triton)
4. Lucy Shaw (Matrix Fitness Development)
5. Abigail Dentus (Team Velosport)
6. Flora Gillies (Project 51)
7. Charline Joiner (Team WNT)
8. Jessica Roberts (RST Racing Team)
9. Elizabeth-Jane Harris (Army Cycling Union)
10. Anna Marie Hughes (Bonito Squadra Corse)
11. Eleanor Dickinson (Team Giordana- Triton)
12. Keira McVitty (Team Giordana- Triton)
13. Bethany Taylor (Bonito Squadra Corse)
14. Annasley Park (Team Giordana- Triton)
15. Clemence Copie (Pearl Izumi Sports Tours Int'l)
16. Lauren Dolan (Giant Cycling Club - Halo Films)
17. Bethany Hayward (Pearl Izumi Sports Tours Int'l)
18. Rose Osborne (Team WNT)
19. Emma Cockcroft (Bikeshed - Exeter Uni)
20. Louise Borthwick (Project 51)
British Cycling Women’s Road Series provisional overall (after three rounds):
1. Nicola Juniper (Giordana Triton) 76
2. Charline Joiner (Team WNT) 75
3. Dani King (Wiggle Honda) 58