Victorian Christmas Carnival Lowdown

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CyclingTips reader Brendan Bailey shares his journey and insights into the Christmas track carnivals that has been such a big part of of Victorian cycling history. Over Christmas Brendan made the rounds to Horsham, Bendigo, Shepparton and Wangaratta to bring you delights of the recent Christmas track scene.

The day after Boxing Day, when most people are still gorging themselves on leftover Christmas Pudding in front of the cricket, also marks a mass exodus of Victorian track cyclists from their Melbourne abodes. Over the next four days they will journey across the rural country side, stopping to race first in Horsham, then in Bendigo, then in Shepparton, and finally in Wangaratta.

In doing so they are following a tradition that stretches back decades, and that is mirrored in both Tasmania and New South Wales. While the Tasmanian Carnivals are more lucrative, and the New South Wales Carnivals more centrally located, this year the Victorian Carnivals underwent something of a resurgence, with increasing numbers across the grades and genders. Despite occasional reports to the contrary, track cycling is booming in Victoria, and the four days ‘out bush’ were no exception.

The first stop is Horsham. The landscape is flat and dry, with the hot wind usually blasting down from the deserts to the north. This year, however, the wind is coming from the south. The Horsham velodrome is flat, considerably different from the indoor velodromes city cyclists are accustomed to, so wind direction is important, playing a role in both gear selection and the timing of attacks. Each of the carnivals has its own program, and these inform each rider not only what races they will be riding in, but also how much – or how little – of a head start they will have in the richest race of the day, the wheelrace. These handicapped races include everyone across the grades, with heats in the earlier sessions and the final towards the end of the day. The handicap marks are always controversial, and this year is no exception. Riders are complaining to their mates, or mocking them about their poor chances, or sitting quietly content with the 100 metres head start they have on the rest of the field.

Perusing the program in Horsham. Image by Gavin Sittampalan

As the first stop on a long journey, Horsham is a day of much catching up and reminiscing. Everyone seems to still be feeling the post-Christmas buzz. The racing is fast and fierce, sure, but seems to come second to mates chatting with mates, parents and partners procuring and sharing food, and folks helping each other out. Not everyone signs for money at the end of the day, but everyone looks pretty relaxed and comfortable as they head into town to search for a hotel.

The next morning country drivers are surprised by the sudden influx of high-end road bikes along their backroads and laneways. It’s important to get in one or two hours of easy pedaling each morning, and this is probably the most pleasant part of the week. Rolling out through empty paddocks, state parks and grazing land, chatting amiably with your mates and breathing in the country air certainly does more than just work the lactic acid out of your legs.

Bendigo is the next stop, and in Bendigo, track cycling is big news. Unlike the other destinations, in Bendigo the track is spitting distance from the centre of town. There’s a significant crowd in attendance, a coffee cart and a genuine family fun times atmosphere. The numbers in Bendigo are stronger than anywhere else, with enough riders for three women’s grades and five men’s grades. The track is big, open and slightly D shaped – local knowledge counts for a lot. A rider has to lean right into that final corner, or they’ll drift up the track and out of the sprinter’s lane, leaving the door open for one of the Bendigo boys to come through and take the win.

Strong field in Bendigo. Image by Gavin Sittampalan.

Local hero Glenn O’Shea is not in attendance, but in his absence Beijing Olympian Daniel Ellis has shown up. The carnival is no doubt simply part of his training, but he certainly knows how to put on a show for the crowd. In the first race he sits in the pack until the last one hundred metres, then blasts through the pack with ease, taking the win and leaving the rest of the race in awe.

It seems most of the riders linger in Bendigo the next morning, as it is difficult to walk down Hargreaves St without bumping into a fellow cyclist. The previous night’s wheelrace winner, Tyler Spurrell, is seen reading about himself in the local paper. Slim blokes with smooth legs quiz each other on the whereabouts of the best coffee. No one seems particularly keen to hit the road towards Shepparton, known colloquially as “Shep.”

Tyler Spurrell took out the Bendigo Wheelrace. Image by Gavin Sittampalan.
Tyler Spurrell was interviewed at length about his victory. Image By Gavin Sittampalan.

The Shep track is a few kilometres out on the edge of town – looking away from the back the view is paddocks, orchards and cows. It’s dry and dusty in Shep, and the riders are starting to get tired. Shep offers more races for slightly less prize money, and the commissaires have been inventive with the formats, offering elimination races, progressive points, and win-and-outs, among the common handicaps and scratch races. Ellis is again in attendance, showing all and sundry how to win a keirin, but today he is joined by Seoul Olympian and Shep local Stephen Fairless. The local migrant community is catering, and the smell of exotic spices wafts over the track. The night ends with the Men’s Victorian Five Kilometre Track Championships, and here Blackburn’s Brent Nelson shows his dominance, defying significant opposition and sprinting to the gold medal.

Signing on for prize money at the end of the night. Image by Gavin Sittampalan.

By way of contrast, the Wangaratta track is down by a river, with grass and trees around the outside. The track itself is around the outside of a footy oval, and consequently is huge – around five hundred metres, or twice the size of DISC. It’s also flat, which wreaks havoc on the riders, who skip wheels at speed and generally float up the track coming into the final straight. To further complicate matters, as the sun goes down seasonally appropriate Christmas Beetles invade the track, making a frightening crunching noise as they are crushed underneath the spinning wheels.

By the time Wangaratta rolls around everyone is relaxed – spectators, riders, and even officials. Birthday boy Stu Vaughn is allowed to jump into the final race, which is written in the program as a points race, but which chief commissaire Ian Notting decided will instead be a motorpace. The ensuring race was perhaps the most intense of the carnival, with riders rolling turns behind a motorbike doing fifty, then sixty, then perhaps even seventy kilometres per hour. Legs are hitting one-fifty, one-sixty, then perhaps even one-seventy revs per minute. By the time the motorbike pulls off only Spurrell and Nelson are left. The two teammates roll up the track and have a quick chat, before Nelson hits the gas and takes the win.

Driving back to the city that night the cars smell of tiredness, sweat, unwashed lycra, staminade powder and dust. The vans and station wagons immediately in front and immediately behind are also fit to burst with hastily packed frames, race wheels, spare wheels, rollers, dirty clothes and weary bodies. As the city comes back into view thoughts turn to the future, both cycling: the Bay Crits, Bendigo Madison weekend, the Austral; and personal: a shower, loved ones, and the comfort of their own beds. When they pull into the driveway, finally home at last, most of them will leave unpacking the car until the next morning.

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For more information on track cycling in Victoria this summer, check out the Cycling Victorian summer calendar.

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