Steven Roberts’ audacious bid for a medal in the under-19 road race, at the national championships at Ballarat, ended with a case of “jelly legs” – the thing he feared most ahead of the race.
But when that occurred at about the 75-kilometre mark of the 104.4km torture test in the shadow of Mt Buninyong, sending him plummeting back through the field, the 17-year-old had already won.
By claiming the first of eight hill climbs, finishing second in the second climb and third in the fifth one, he had accrued enough points to finish runner-up in the King of the Mountain classification, at his first nationals and less than a year after the champion mountain biker took up road racing. He finished on six points, two points behind Dylan Hopkins of Canberra Cycling Club.
He ended up finishing 37th – 15 minutes and 25 seconds behind the winner, Bendigo’s Patrick Eddy, whose elder brother, Sam, finished second.
In the under-19 criterium on Friday, Roberts, in Year 12 at Oxley High School this year, finished 12th – only 13 seconds behind the winner, Jesse Norton of Ballarat.
Roberts’ Tamworth Cycle Club teammates, Luke Deasey and Conor Noonan, competing in their debut nationals as well, also contest the under-19 road race. Deasey finished 30th and Noonan did not finish. The duo will compete in Monday’s under-19 time trial.
Roberts said: “I was looking good up until the eighth or ninth lap [of the road race] … I was in the front lot and I was doing a lot of work on the front of the peloton, right up until then [hitting the wall].”
“It was kind of expected,” he added. “I normally know that I blow up about the 80km mark. And sure enough, 75km in I just felt my legs turn to jelly.”
Roberts inexperience meant he wasted too much energy chasing breakaways who “died 500 metres up the road”, or as he put it: “I blew myself up a couple of times.”
With his race effectively over, Roberts decided to have “fun”. "It was a good ride and I actually did enjoy myself. Because after I dropped off the back, I had a lot of fun … it kind of went from race mode to bombing on the downhills. Like, jumping over speedbumps and stuff – stuff that you’re not meant to do on a road bike.
“I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Mind you, I was dropping back the positions pretty rapidly doing that, but it was good.”
Roberts is keen to return to the nationals next year, where he would compete in the under-23 category, but he remains “far more keen” on mountain biking.
He finished 11th in the under-19 cross-country Olympic race at last year's nationals, and second in that class at the state championships in Orange last month.
He used the road nationals as part of his preparation for the cross-country nationals at Bright, Victoria, in April. Road racing made him a more dangerous mountain biker, he said, adding: “I have better endurance.”