Grafton to Inverell: the hardest one-day race in Australia?

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The 53rd Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic will run this Saturday October 26 as the final race in the men’s National Road Series. This 228km ‘Mountain Classic’ held in northern New South Wales is considered one of the toughest races on the Australian road race calendar. Craig Fry delves into the race history, and highlights some interesting facts and figures that are part of the ongoing Grafton to Inverell story.

At around 8am this Saturday, some 251 cyclists will start the 53rd Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic. The 2013 start list is made up of 77 riders in A-Grade, 56 in B-Grade and 118 in C-Grade. The A-Grade field contains 11 teams from the National Road Series, of which the Grafton to Inverell is the final event.

This year’s race will pay tribute to the long-time Race Director and Inverell icon Jack Griffin who passed away in March of this year. A one-minute silence will be observed prior to the starter’s gun to honour Jack Griffin’s contribution to this famous Australian one-day classic.

How it started

Inverell resident Harold Strahley (1908-1979) conceived of the first Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic, which was held in 1961. His nephew, Don Strahley, was the 1970 winner.

Like other road races in Australia the Grafton to Inverell began as a handicapped event, and much of the course was unsealed gravel. The winner in that first year was Alan Grindal from Victoria (7:39:11 off scratch), a very well-known champion rider in his day.

Inverell bike shop owner Jack Griffin also rode in that 1961 race (and other editions). He went on to be Race Director from 1962 to 1993, and clearly made his mark on the Grafton to Inverell race and Australian cycling generally. His many contributions in the field of cycling (in coaching, race promotion and organising) were acknowledged with Life Membership of Cycling NSW (1982) and an Order of Australia Medal (2003).

Posters for the 1974 and 1975 Grafton to Inverell.

Speaking at the August launch of the 2013 race, his son Ray Griffin remembered how Jack Griffin and Malcolm Campbell decided to change the race from a handicap into a mass start format in 1979:

They were almost vilified for making this decision. But they had a vision — the vision was that this race should be run on the same basis as the European races; and their dream was realised in as much as it has become the number one, the hardest one-day race in Australia.

A race with class

The Grafton to Inverell has attracted class fields over the years, with Australian Champions, Commonwealth and Olympic medalists, and international stars all gracing the start line. Some of the better-known Australian names to stand on the podium in previous editions have included: Alan Grindal, Don Wilson, Remo Sansonetti, Wayne and Gary Hammond, Gary Sutton, John Trevorrow, Michael Lynch, Scott Sunderland, David McKenzie, Jamie Drew, Simon Gerrans, and Matthew Lloyd.

No doubt some of the young riders we see in the race tomorrow and in the coming years will emerge as some of our future Australian champions.

Still image of page 10 of the November 1984 edition of National Cycling and Triathlon magazine.

During the 1980s this race was also well attended by international riders from across Europe (e.g. Switzerland, Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Norway), the USA, and New Zealand. Indeed, the Grafton to Inverell was run as a UCI international event in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989. The international teams would use the Grafton as part of their preparation for the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic – a Brisbane to Canberra stage race which ran for 19 years before ending in 2000.

The record books confirm that the international riders enjoyed considerable success in the Grafton to Inverell. For example, the New Zealand Commonwealth Games road team (Stephen Cox, Jack Swart, Blair Stockwell) won first, second and third place in the 1982. In 1985, Paul Curran from Great Britain won and set a new race record of 6:00:49 before going on to win the 1986 Commonwealth games road race in Edinburgh.

Other Grafton to Inverell podium places have been taken over the years by riders from Uruguay (2003); USA, Germany and Switzerland (1989); Italy (1984, 1988); Norway, Germany and Switzerland (1987); Switzerland and Sweden (1985). New Zealand’s elite riders also have a long history with this race.

Interestingly, unlike other Australian one-day classics such as the Melbourne to Warrnambool, the Grafton to Inverell race has not seen many multiple winners to date. Jamie Drew (winner of the 1999 and 2002 Melbourne to Warrnambool) has been the only person to win the Grafton to Inverell more than once, doing so in 1997 and 1999. The course profile and impact of the prevailing weather conditions is a likely reason for this.

By the numbers

A complete list of past Grafton to Inverell Classic winners and fastest times from 1961 to 2012 is available here:

1961 to 2012 hon roll
The current race record is held by Tasmanian Mark Jamieson who won with 6:00:21 in 2011, beating a record that had stood since 1985. Prior to that the fastest time of 6:23:21 had stood since 1968, set by Kevin Morgan also of Tasmania.

The Grafton to Inverell has long been a popular race with the people, attracting large crowds to the finish. Available reports have estimated 6,000 people at the finish in 1961, 5,000 in 1962, 4,000 in 1967, 8,000 in 1980, and 10,000 in 1985.

Such is the difficulty of this race that the number of finishers has always been considerably less than the number of starters. For example, in 1961 around 17 of the 63 starters finished; in 1962 it was 26 out of 72; 24 from 77 in 1976; and 71 finishers from around 140 starters in 1982. In 2010, the 50th anniversary of the race was a standout year — some 344 riders across four divisions (A grade, Division 2, 3 and 4) finished out of more than 500 entries.

Other interesting figures include the rarity in 1977 when Gary Sutton won fastest time (7:33:00) in the Grafton, and had also won the Australian Road Championship and Tour of Tasmania that year. That impressive treble had also been completed by Remo Sansonetti in 1976, and Alan Grindal in 1961.

Race oddities

One of the most appealing things about cycling races like the Grafton to Inverell is the interesting and often humorous stories that emerge once you start digging through the archives. These stories reveal much about the character of such races, the competitors, and the communities surrounding them.

Left: Cover of the August 1984 edition of National Cycling magazine, showing the 1983 Grafton field. Right: Remo Sansonetti wins the 1976 Grafton with first and fastest time (Photo: Ray Bowles, October 1976).

Consider this example from the Grafton to Inverell website:

Moree cyclist Noel Mathiske is the only rider to finish the G2I on a BMX dragster! Mathiske was in a bunch of 10 fighting for line honours in 1979 when he and Victorian Wayne Deller clipped wheels just 2km from the finish. As the bunch rode off into the distance, and Mathiske eyed his crumpled wheel, he noticed a youngster with a BMX standing nearby with his Dad. Noel asked if he could borrow it to finish the race, and after a bit of persuasion the youngster agreed.

Mathiske rode into the finish straight and initially officials thought he was a practical joker and were about to have him removed from the course, until race official Jack Griffin noticed the Moree club colours and asked that he be allowed to ride across the finish line.

At the presentation dinner, Commissar Ray Godkin told Noel that under the rules he had received outside assistance and he should be disqualified but added “if I do that there’ll be a riot!” In later years at the finish a young man walked up to Mathiske and said to him “Remember me, I lent you my bike to finish the race”.

There was also this report from the 1962 race from the October edition of The Australian Cyclist:

Star of the presentation was the old boy himself, Roy Still. 27-years-old (so he says) and rarin’ to go, he wasn’t satisfied with the 17th, Oldest rider and 1st Ex-serviceman prizes. He wanted the models that presented them. For your sake, Roy, we hope Mrs Still doesn’t read the “Cyclist”.

And there was this remarkable show of bravery in 1977 – Don Nutley rode the race with an artificial limb (he lost his left leg at age 18 after it had been crushed by a truck in a 1976 race fall). Could this be the first example of an amputee cyclist in Australian road racing?

Left: Still image of page 16 of the October 1967 edition of Road & Track Cyclist. Right: An advert for the 1976 Grafton to Inverell.

The Grafton to Inverell challenge

Looking back through the race reports from past Grafton to Inverell races the common factor highlighted is the impact of the climb over the Gibraltar Range. While the range is only a modest 1,020m above sea level, some profile indicators put the average grade at 5.6% and the maximum grade at 24%.

1961 winner Alan Grindal, who apparently entered the race after seeing a cycling magazine advertisement, was quoted as saying “The ad mentioned the 10-mile climb up Gibraltar Range. What it didn’t mention was the climbs up Cattle Creek, Jackadgery and other sharp climbs that took the fizz out of your legs before you got to the Mountain”.

Another person well qualified to comment on the race is Andrew Logan who is currently Deputy Director of Athlete Coaching Leadership at the Australian Institute of Sport, and has an impressive list of achievements and contributions in elite cycling both in Australia and abroad.

Logan rode in the Grafton to Inverell six or seven times, and won it in 1986 (in 6:37:27), the year that current Race Director Scott Sunderland took third (Sunderland was Australian Road Champion at the time).

The thing about this race is because you start at sea level and finish much higher, the riders can experience large climatic changes. It might be around 30 degrees at the start, but will have dropped significantly by the finish. Then there is the 18km climb over the Gibraltar, which is very similar to some of the European style climbs. And you’ve also got strong winds and rolling hills, and the dead roads due to the course gravel mix. These things all take their toll.

Still image of page 21 from the October-November 1980 edition of National Cycling.

And Scott Sunderland said this about the race at the August launch:

The toughest bit I think is the run in to Glen Innis because there’s a lot of wind. Once they get to Glen Innis it’s back to team tactics – which teams will try to unhitch any sprinters left in the bunch, and which teams will try to protect their fastest men.

The future?

Notwithstanding the usual challenges and demands that come with organising a road cycling race on the scale of the Grafton to Inverell Classic, it appears the future of this important event is in excellent hands.

Race Director, and well-known ex-professional cyclist, Scott Sunderland is an important part of the Grafton to Inverell story. Being a product of Inverell himself and a past entrant, Sunderland knows the race intimately. He is doing his bit to secure its future.

Some of the changes Sunderland has overseen this year to keep the race flowing and minimise the impact on traffic and residents include sending the B and C Grade field off together 15 minutes behind the A Grade bunch, and reducing the hill climbs down to four.

Grafton plaque

The affinity the people of Inverell and surrounds have with this race is clearly evident in the ways in which they celebrate its history and their connection to it. On an Inverell street close to the race finish line, you will see the names of all past winners since 1961 engraved on pavers.

There is also a public commemorative plaque (see photo above) from the 50th edition in 2010. Race winners will also now have their names inscribed on the Jack Griffin Memorial Shield, newly commissioned by Cycling NSW.

And the Grafton also has its own website, which is an excellent source of accessible information and historical facts.

Other innovations around this event worthy of mention have included the 2010 veterans cyclo-sportif ride from Glen Innes to Inverell (67km), the women’s Celtic Country Classic de Femme also from Glen Innes to Inverell (as the sixth round of women’s NRS), the first Ladies Challenge from Grafton to Glen Innes in 2004 (won by Olympic gold medalist Kathy Watt), and the Grafton to Inverell cyclo-sportif trial that started in February 2007.

Good luck and safe riding to all starters in the 2013 Grafton to Inverell Cycling Classic. Long may it continue.

Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. You can follow him on Instagram at Pushbikewriter and Strava.

If you have stories or photos and other memorabilia to share about the Grafton to Inverell race, please get in touch with Craig via email or feel free to comment here. Craig would also like to know who holds the record for the most number of finishes in this race.

Interested readers can find a selection of race photos and other historical items here, and here. The feature image comes from page 16 of the October 1967 edition of Road & Track Cyclist magazine.

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