The Melbourne to Warrnambool is Australia’s oldest cycling race and the second oldest in the world after the prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic. The gruelling 273 kilometre one day classic serves as a round of the Australian National Road Series (NRS) and is the longest UCI race in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the only race longer than it is the Milan-San Remo so it’s no surprise that it attracts many of the very best domestic riders Australia has to offer. The race has become somewhat of an icon amongst cyclists, both in Australia and abroad, largely due to its long history, the open and varied terrain it covers and the harsh weather conditions and punishing crosswinds that usually plague the route and make it a real hard man’s classic.
Earlier this year whilst discussing my goals and my race calendar with my coach David “Macca” Mckenzie, I was encouraged to give the ‘Warrnie’ a go and decided to make it a target to aim for. Having previously won the race himself in 2001, I could tell he was passionate about it and I think that passion must’ve somehow worn off on me. I’d been convinced and with a previous winner in my corner, I was confident he’d know how to prescribe the right dose of pain, suffering and long days in the saddle to prepare for the race.
The morning of race day arrived. With numbers pinned, tyre pressures double-checked, pockets and feed bags stuffed, I made my way to the start line and the sign on for the A Grade race which doubled as my debut in the National Road Series. After scoring a hand-shake and some brief parting pleasantries from the Victorian Premier (bonus!), I found my place among the many starters. A short time later and the energetic count-down began; the start gun cracked and was closely followed by the sound of two hundred odd cyclists clicking into their pedals. We were rolling! I really don’t think ‘neutral’ is an accurate descriptor for the first 10 kilometre ‘zone’ we apparently rolled through prior to the first kilometre of the race. I don’t know if it was over-excitement, nervousness, too much caffeine or a combination of the lot, but with traffic furniture, parked cars, roundabouts, corners, the squeal of brakes on carbon rims accompanied by the smell of burning brake pads and the odd sound of carbon hitting tarmac; utter chaos would be a far better way of describing it. I managed to lose one of my bidons (i.e. For anyone not familiar with ‘cyclist lingo’, bidon is a fancy French word for water bottle usually employed by ‘uber-euro’ cyclists) within the neutral zone when I was forced to hop a roundabout in order to avoid a competitor who it appeared got their ambitions and abilities all mixed up very early in proceedings. Despite all the craziness, I had Macca’s final words of advice in mind and managed to eat half an energy bar and take a few sips from my remaining bidon prior to the flag being dropped in case the pace was on from the start.
Kilometre zero; enter Sam Hill. The young rider from Paradice Investment Cycling Team is known for his early race attacks that I must admit sometimes leave me wondering if he is completely anti-social or just loves hurting from the start. This one was a good one and after being joined by 8 other riders, formed the main break of the day right from the get-go. Sam spent a long day in the break and went on to claim both the Sprint Jersey and the King of the Mountain (KOM) Jersey. Congratulations Sam!
Back in the peloton, the gas really wasn’t applied for long at all. Given it was going to be such a long day out, I think the general consensus was that everyone was quite happy to let the break do their thing and many used the opportunity to have a nature break. 30 kilometres into the race and the break was out to over 8 minutes. I got to the first feed station feeling like I hadn’t touched the pedals. I got my bag, ate and hydrated, my legs felt great and I knew I was on a good one. The steady pace to this point probably didn’t hurt the cause either. I found myself getting a little too excited and I was already recounting Macca’s description of the final kilometres of the race and thinking to myself how I was going to win it! I quickly snapped out of it... “Settle down Dave you idiot!” There’s a hell of a lot of racing to survive yet and you haven’t even raced at this level before!
At almost exactly the 120 kilometre mark, I felt that awful feeling where your bike gets a little spongy and you realise you’ve got a tire going flat. Even more annoying was the fact I’d stayed up later than desirable the night before the race putting sealant in my tubular tires in an attempt to avoid such an occasion. I found my way to the side of the road and the SRAM Neutral service car was on scene very quickly to assist me with a wheel change. After a quick change, and a short roll beside the car whilst the mechanic adjusted my brakes and gears, I was back into it. Unfortunately by this point I was in no man’s land and the race convoy was up the road in the distance. I popped a gel and put in a big effort to get myself to the back of the convoy. To my dismay, the cars at the back of the convoy kept speeding up suddenly, not allowing me to get back through the team cars to the peloton. This must have happened 5 or 6 times and I was really ‘yo-yoing’. Now I won’t get into the nitty gritty but apparently the ruling is, or was at that particular point anyway, that only riders in NRS Teams are allowed to be paced back to the peloton by their team vehicles. Despite entering as an individual, I was still a competitor in the same A Grade/NRS Race. Go figure?
At this point, with the peloton and the convoy disappearing into the distance I really thought my day was done. I had a little chat with myself. To put it mildly, I was really angry! I had done a lot of hard work and put a lot of time and effort into my preparation for this race and I knew I had good legs. I decided I wasn’t giving up. I got myself into Time Trial mode and hoped the feed station at the 141 kilometre mark would slow the peloton enough to be my saving grace. What I didn’t know at this point, was the gap between the break and the main peloton had stretched out to 11 minutes. Apparently police and commissaires were threatening to shut the race down if the gap wasn’t closed due to the rolling envelope of the road closures being too big. Drapac with the help of some others took control on the front of the peloton and were setting a tempo to bring the gap down. This wasn’t great timing for me! Somehow, I think thanks mainly to a number of crashes (I hope all riders and bikes involved are ok and weren’t too badly hurt, but thank you!), as well as the second feed zone, I managed to eventually claw my way back to the convoy and started leapfrogging through the cars until I found the back of the peloton. At approximately the 154 kilometre mark I finally got myself back. It had taken me 34 kilometres, 40 minutes with an average 190bpm heart rate to get there. Needless to say, I’d burnt a match or two! I’d also punched straight through the second feed zone without grabbing my bag of goodies in the process.
The gap to the break was now down to around the 6 minute mark and the pace was picking up. I found my way back to the front of the bunch and started stuffing my gob with the remaining food I had in my pockets and made short work of whatever I had left in my bidons. I knew the KOM was coming and I needed to recover fast! My ticker got another workout when we got there, but I positioned myself well and managed to get over without too much drama.
The race was now on. Narrow roads, plenty of direction changes and the gap to the break being significantly reduced all added up to equal a recipe for attacks. Ultimately, the wind wasn’t strong enough and the race didn’t end up as selective as I’d expected or hoped. Although, at that point I must admit, I was really hanging for that final feed zone; my reserves were running low and I knew I needed to refuel! Of course, once we got there it was game on. An aggressive attack went off the front and we hit the feed zone at 55km/hr. I had to follow the race and for the second time my feeder was left with one hand holding my bag out and the other probably scratching his head.
A dangerous group of 12 established off the front. It included some big names and plenty of strong legs. The gap was really hovering around the 50 second mark for the last 20 kilometres. I’m certain at this point the refresh button on many a twitter feed was copping an absolute flogging by those following the race. Under 10 kilometres; 40 seconds… Peloton strung out… Break attacking each other… 7 kilometres… peloton hitting 60km/hr… 5 kilometres; 30 seconds… Agonisingly close, but just not quite enough! The bunch hit the line a mere 6 seconds behind the eventual winner Oliver Kent-Spark (Search2Retain) followed by Alex Edmondson (SASI) and last year’s winner Sam Horgan (Budget Forklifts) in third.
I must thank my coach David Mckenzie, my personal soigneur (feeder/driver) for the day Geoff Straub whose experienced words of advice before the start were much appreciated, and the guys at Drift Bikes Newcastle for always getting my bike back to mint condition after I’ve neglected to give it the love it probably deserves. All things considered; my first Warrnie, my first NRS outing, my first time riding that distance let alone racing it, a 40 minute mid-race Time Trial, 7 hours in the saddle, a 39km/hr average, missing two feeds and doing the whole thing on 3 bidons; I am pretty happy to have rolled in at the front of the race just 6 seconds behind the winner in 36th place. At the same time, I really can’t help feeling I’ve got unfinished business… this might be crazy, but Warrnie, we’ll meet again!
- Dave Rugendyke