Last Saturday was the annual pilgrimage from Melbourne to Warrnambool. Since I first did it in 2006 I’ve had a strange masochistic love for this race. If I could pick one race in Australia that I could win (within reason), the Wany would be it. This race attracts Australia’s strongest and most motivated cyclists who ride their hearts out for every last kilometer. If you win it, you are the MAN.
Its fascinating 115 year history is what makes this race is so special to me. It’s the second oldest race in the world behind Liege-Bastogne-Liege and used to be the longest race in the world at 299km. It’s now been shortened to 260km, but I think it’s much harder and better than the 299km version. The honor roll includes past and present legends such as Russell Mockridge, Snowy Munro, Sir Hubert Opperman, Don Allen, Simon Gerrans and too many others to mention.
Every year I’ve done the Warny we’ve had outstanding weather. I knew I was tempting fate by entering it again for my 5th time in a row. The night before the race I barely got a wink of sleep because of the wind and hail pounding against my bedroom window. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous…
I woke up at 4:30am and packed the car with all my food, clothing, wheels, etc. The wind was still howling and there was sleet built up on my windshield. Turning around and going back to bed might have been an option if I hadn’t already convinced Veeral to come and take photos and my mate Craig to help me out with my feedbags. I could already hear Craig’s voice in my head telling me to “toughen up princess!“. I can’t deny that there were doubts going through my head but I know from experience that it’s a gut wrenching feeling to pull out of a race before it’s even begun. I only regret the races I don’t start.
As we were getting ready in the carpark the rain started to settle down and there were patches of blue sky. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Even though it was 5 degrees outside with gale force winds, this was too good to be true! It just goes to show you, always start a race because you never know how it will turn out.
I’ve rarely done a race in Australia with such a civil beginning. Normally it’s 50km/hr from the getgo with the stronger riders trying to shed the packfill. This time was a nice roll out for the first 20mins, no crashes, and no dramas. I think everyone knew we were in for a long tough day and nobody was going to ride themselves into the ground straight away. That is, until the first corner into the crosswinds…
I had just driven this section of the course a short while ago so I knew it well. These were the the same roads as the pro men rode in the World Championships. We were riding straight into a headwind so those first corners that made it into a crosswind were going to be critical.
As everyone suspected, the change in course direction would put over 200 riders into the gutter and split the field into multiple echelons. There were lots of initial attacks but nothing was able to get too far ahead with the howling winds. There were lots of changes of direction in the course so as soon as we went back into the headwind the peloton would come back together into one. It wasn’t until about 60km in where the moves off the front started to stick. I could see the happening and knew they were good moves to be in, but I didn’t have the fitness (or balls) to go along with them.
Quite often what will happen is a break get away with the right combination of riders and it will stay away for the entire race. The teams who are represented in the break will sit up and control any chase efforts. Since there were only two teams (Drapac and Genesis) taking charge of the race I thought it would be over and we’d long boring ride into Warrnambool. Thankfully this was not to be. Corner after corner the crosswinds ripped the entire peloton apart and it was a constant fight to hold onto your position. Riders were battling for a wheel along the crumbling edge of road and every so often you’d hear the heart-stopping “CRACK” of carbon hitting the pavement behind you.
The sun didn’t shine the entire time either. Weather fronts would quickly move in and then a wall of 60km/hr winds and downpours of sleet and rain would hit us straight in the face. The moment the weather came in punctures and crashes started wreaking havoc. I had 4 massive stacks of riders go down in front of me and I somehow managed to avoid every single one. The feedzones were the most chaotic with bottles and musettes being dropped everywhere, riders switching directions without warning, and the pace increasing to ridiculous speeds so the guys who already got their feed could quickly get out of trouble.
I had wasted a lot of energy chasing back onto the bunch because of crashes and being caught in the back when the splits occurred. At about the ~180km mark I was lucky and it appeared that I had hung on long enough to make the front echelon of about 30 riders. All the breakaways had been brought back at this point and we were getting to the business end of the race. This is where it got really tough.
At the 200km point is where a couple tough hills were thrown into the course. Normally these wouldn’t be much to talk about, but after 200km of riding flat-out it became apparent to me that I hadn’t done nearly enough training. The crosswinds were still making things tough and as we approached the climbs my legs started cramping up. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to push it over these climbs with the leaders and all I could do was watch the race ride away from me. There were four others who lost contact (including Brendan Rowbotham who has done the Warny 15 times!) who I rode tempo with trying to minimize our losses and perhaps catch back on.
This is the point at which I started contemplating pulling out at the next feed station. All sorts of thoughts go through your head during the last 60km of the Warny. We were pushing as slow as 22km/hr into a block headwind without a change of direction in the road. This meant enduring up to 3 more hours of this torture for a 40th place finish. Was it worth it? It sure didn’t seem like it at the time.
Fortunately we saw a large group coming from behind. I’ve never been so happy to be caught by a bunch. We had the luxury of stopping for a much needed nature break before latching onto the group. DNF’ing was no longer on my mind and I happily sat in for the last 50km just spinning my legs to stop them from cramping. For the first time in the race we had a good chat about all we were going to eat at MacDonald’s and tipping who the winner was going to be. There seemed no doubt in our bunch that Pollock was the MAN. It sounded like an amazing fight to the finish and congrats to a great win by Rhys. This year’s Warny took nearly 8 hours to complete. Last year it took 6.5hrs. That shows you just how hard it was.
Photo from The Standard
Congratulations to ever last person who started the 2010 Melbourne to Warrnambool. There’s no shame in DNF’ing a race this tough. Starting was much more daunting than finishing. I also have to commend all my mates who achieved such great results. Will Tehan, Smacky, Nick Mitchell, Danny Kah, Alex Malone, and many others. Well done guys. You worked hard for it and suffered immensely.
Will I be back next year? I keep joking “never again”, but as long as I’m young, fit and healthy enough I’ll be there. I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be able to do a race like the Warny and I don’t take that fact for granted. There are very few things in life that make me feel so alive, and the Warny is one of them.