SPEEDWAY at Elite League level is very much a team game – and this year the Eastbourne Eagles have proved that.
They’ve no huge, stand-out star to lead them but are a group of honest, hard-working speedway riders who have just gelled. Their progress to second place in the league and into the end-of-season play-offs was testament enough to that.
But on Monday night the team ethic shone through.
They went into the second leg of the play-off semi-final just one point behind Lakeside after the first leg the week before in Essex. However, the Lifestyle Eagles were wary.
They had been tipped out of the KO Cup at the semi-final stage by Poole when similarly poised and Lakeside have, over the years, proved to be often be a tricky proposition at the Arlington Stadium.
And so it proved. Eastbourne quickly scampered off into the lead but the visitors would just not give up. They doggedly plugged away to ensure it was a nervy evening for the home fans.
In the Eastbourne side of the pits, the focus was clear. The riders were all talking to one another, helping, advising and encouraging. In groups of twos and threes they geed each other up for the races and in the end got the result they deserved.
As heat 13 started, the Eagles were six up but were facing the Lakeside top two of Lee Richardson and Peter Ljung in the next heat – both of whom had been winning races.
Mr Cool, Bjarne Pedersen, won the race to the first corner and eased away at the front, while the newly-crowned 2011 long-track champion, Joonas Kylmakorpi, was nowhere.
It looked to me that on turn two he was nearly off the bike and in the dirt. But the Finn recovered and worked his way back through the field, capitalising on mistakes by the Lakeside boys – and all of a sudden Eastbourne had a 5-1 heat win and were ten points up.
Then in dawned: the Eagles needed just one point from two races to ensure they would be in the Elite League Grand Final.
Game over. Two 4-2s in heats 14 and 15 gave the Eagles 53-39 win (99-86) on aggregate.
It was, as I said, a team effort. But if I were to pick one Eastbourne rider as the star of the tie, it would be Lewis Bridger. He was slightly disappointed with 11 points from five rides – a third in heat 14 rather spoiling his score-chart. But early on he didn’t flinch and scored points when you feared there might be a bit of a wobble on elsewhere in the home camp.
And you have to go back to the tie’s first leg the previous Monday. With the Eagles ten points down at Lakeside – and heading for a disastrous night – Bridger stepped up and took a tactical ride.
The double points for his heat win closed the gap on the night and was the turning point of the whole semi-final.
Eastbourne now meet Poole in the Grand Final.
The Dorset team drubbed King’s Lynn in the second leg of the other semi-final and look to be in awesome form.
As we saw at Arlington in the cup semi-final, Chris Holder and Darcy Ward are riding in a sensational manner and they will take some holding on any track in the world.
The first leg is at Arlington on Monday with a 7.30pm start. Fans are advised to arrive early as a big crowd is expected to pack the stadium.
It is Eastbourne’s first Elite League Grand Final since 2002, when they lost to Wolverhampton having come top of the regular league table.