The long history of the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic

by Craig Fry


The 98th edition of the famous Melbourne to Warrnambool one-day classic will be held this Saturday, October 12. It is Australia’s oldest road race still in existence, and the second oldest in the world behind Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The ‘Warrny’ is one of the enduring monuments of Australian cycling, with a long and rich history worthy of preservation and sharing. Craig Fry takes a look at this race and its past, and one family’s 80+ year connection to it.

Beginnings

The idea for the first ‘Warrnambool’ came from Don Charleston who, in the late 1890s, rode his boneshaker bike from Melbourne to Warrnambool intending to catch the ship home, but rode back to Melbourne instead after seeing the rough seas off the Warrnambool pier.

The first Warrnambool race took place on October 6 1895 with 24 riders setting off from the southwest Victorian seaside town on the 165-mile (265.5km) journey to Melbourne. Andrew Calder, the first in from only seven finishers, won off a two-hour start in 11 hours 44 minutes. First prize was a Raleigh bicycle worth £30, sponsored by the Scott and Morton bike shop in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.

This new race was so popular with Warrnambool locals that they quickly raised £50 of prize money so that ten or so weeks later another race was run, this time from Melbourne to Warrnambool. It was to be the beginning of a local affinity with this race that persists today.

On December 16 1895 13 riders set out at 4:30am with the winner, William Nicol (off a 90-minute start) arriving in Warrnambool just over 13 hours later – to this day it is the slowest time ever in the race.

The Warrnambool was certainly a very different event in those early days compared to the modern editions. In early years, competing riders were allowed to bring their own pacemakers to help along the way. The ‘road’ conditions were harsh over the first five or so decades of the race until the advent of bitumen roads, and the bikes and kit — well, you know the story — were heavy and uncomfortable by today’s standards.

The Warrnambool evolves

This Australian one-day classic has seen a host of other interesting changes over time. The Dunlop Tyre Company became race sponsor in 1897, promoting the event and providing food along the way (hot milk, bread, and Bovril), though official feed stations would not become routine until recent times.

Left: William Nichol, winner of the Melbourne to Warrnambool on December 16, 1895. This race was held just 10 weeks after the first “Warrnambool” which was raced in the opposite direction 10 weeks earlier. Right: Hubert “Oppy” Opperman rides in the 1924 Melbourne to Warrnambool.

From the 24 entrants in 1895 rider numbers rose sharply (125 in 1904, 235 in 1906, 436 in 1908, 355 in 1910), whereas these days the start list is usually around 220-230.

The Warrnambool did not run in 1899, 1900, between 1912-1921, 1927-28, 1934, and during 1940-46 (due to the World Wars, and periodic arguments between the League of Victorian Wheelmen and the Inter Club Cycling Association over control of road races).

The race has had a number of start locations over the years — Warrnambool, Port Melbourne, Southgate, Footscray, and Werribee since 2009. It ran from Warrnambool to Melbourne 32 times until 1958 after which it reversed, most likely due to Melbourne being regarded a more convenient start location for most riders.

The race length has also varied because of this. It was extended to 299km in 2004 by organisers to claim it as the world’s longest one-day road race, but it has since been shortened (this year it will be 256km). The Warrnambool was also a handicapped event until 1996 when it changed to the graded mass start challenge it is now.

Other firsts for this race included the combined professional-amateur edition in 1980. Today it is open to National Road Series registered riders, and graded amateur club riders. The first female starter was Pauline Walters in 1980, and 43-year-old English champion Beryl Burton was the first woman to finish also in 1980.

Amid the many changes, one thing that has remained constant in the Warrnambool over the years is the role of the weather conditions in determining the outcome. Ask anyone who has ridden this race and they will tell you about the October crosswinds of the Victorian western district.

NEEDS CAPTION
Left: Vin Beasley wins the 1952 Warrnambool off 50 minutes. Right: Russell Mockridge (fastest time) and Stan Bonney (winner off 36 minutes) in the 1957 Warrnambool.

There have been some very tough years due to the weather. For example, in 1992 only 47 of the 139 starters finished the race, and the official results go so far as to mark those years where headwinds caused slow times. And consider this account of the 1910 race:

“Blood-shot eyes and parched lips were visible in discoloured visages, faces and bodies told an eloquent story of the north wind and dust…perspiration caught the dust and caked it hard and thick. Arms and legs were the same, the machines had lost all distinctive colour from the same cause…” – Charles, R. 2013. A Whirr of Many Wheels – Cycling in Geelong: A chronicle from 1869 to 1914. Charles & Co, Geelong.

The Melbourne to Warrnambool classic is regarded by many as the toughest one-day race in Australia, and amongst the hardest classics anywhere. But despite tough conditions and the distance, the records have tumbled as the engineering of roads and bikes improved, and with modern advances in sports science and coaching. Winners and fastest times from 1895 to 2011 can be found here, but it is worth highlighting some of the amazing feats.

Amazing feats

In 1909, 21-year-old Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro clocked a new fastest time of 7 hours 12 minutes and 51 seconds (beating the steam train from Warrnambool to Melbourne by 5 minutes), a record that stood for another 22 years – even withstanding Sir Hubert Opperman’s best efforts in 1924, 1926 and 1929.

Other astounding times were achieved by the likes of Russell Mockridge (who won the coveted ‘Blue Riband’ for fastest time in 1956 with 5:47:05, and again in 1957 with 6:06:12), and Barry Waddell (6:07:34 in 1964, and fastest times in 1965 and 1968). New Zealander Wayne Hildred (who now runs Bright Velo) set a new fastest time in 1980 with 5:37:10, which stood until Olympian Dean Woods’ blistering 5:12:26 off scratch in 1990 – a time not bettered since.

There have been the multiple Warrnambool winners over the years, most of whom who have had many starts: Stan Bonney (1949, 1957); Wally O’Brien (1958, 1962 from 36 starts); Bruce Clark (1971, 1973); Mario Giramondo (1970, 1975); David Allen (1976, 1979, 1982); Peter Besanko (1984, 1989, 1992); Jamie Drew (1999, 2002); and Joel Pearson (2009, 2011).

Big name winners have included Dean Woods in 1993 off scratch, David McKenzie in 2001, and Simon Gerrans in 2003. And then there have been the international raiders over the years, which started in 1903 with New Zealander Jack Arnst. Last year’s winner, Floris Goesinnen from the Netherlands, was the first international to win since Jonas Ljungblad from Sweden took 2005 honours. Only five international riders have ever won the Warrnambool.

Such facts and figures about who won past races, the fastest times, the most finishes, and so on are an important part of the Melbourne to Warrnambool story. But the history of the Warrnambool is about much more than the numbers, and the remarkable riders who have won the last 97 editions. In a race so old and steeped in history, no one victory or individual effort could possibly define the essence of the Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic.

Enduring family connections

Iconic races like the Warrny capture our imagination not just because of their age. What really brings races like these to life are the rich stories that develop over time in and around these events.

One interesting thing about the Warrnambool that is not that widely known is that it has long been a cycling race with enduring family connections. Down through the years successive generations of riders have been inspired by their forebears to start in this race.

Take for example, five-time New Zealand road champion Gordon McCauley who rode his second Warrnambool in 2012, some 15 years after finishing 12th in 1997. His grandfather A.N. Ralston was the first successful international, gaining the fastest time in 1901 off scratch.

There was also Patrick Shaw who attempted in 2010 to emulate his father Dennis Shaw’s win from four minutes in 1978.

And of course there were the Beasleys, a well-known Warrnambool classic family. J.J. Beasley rode in something like 21 races from 1906 (winning the 100 miles Championship twice and placing 10th one year). His sons and other family members continued this tradition with success through the years including third place (1930), a fastest time (1935), a 150-mile Championship (1950), and a win (1952).

NEEDS CAPTION
Left: Laurie Hately in second wheel in the 1935 Warnambool to Melbourne. Right: A Dunlop Tyres advertisement showing the winner of the 1909 Warrnambool (or Dunlop Road Race as it was known then), W. Knaggs (off 41 minutes).

One other family worthy of mention are the Hatelys from the Victorian town of Camperdown. The Hatelys and their relatives have their fair share of stories about the Warrnambool too. Theirs is a relationship with the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic that spans four generations and more than 80 years, from the 1930s continuing to the present day.

Laurie Hately and family

It all began with my grandfather Laurie ‘Pop’ Hately (1913-2000). He would have turned 100 two or so weeks after this year’s race. Laurie’s interest in cycling began when he left school at 14 and started working in a local bike shop. He joined the Camperdown cycling club at age 15-16 and started racing.

He rode his first Warrnambool to Melbourne a short time later in 1931 as a 17 year old, finishing it and gaining a time medallion. His second bid was in 1935 for sixth in 6:52 on a wet and miserable day finishing at Deer Park.

Those two rides by Laurie Hately were the beginnings of a remarkable family relationship with this one-day classic. Laurie’s many nephews went on to ride the Warrnambool, for example: Alan and Clive McLennan in the 1960s; Ken Evans (finished second in 1985); Kevin Bradshaw (four starts and a third place in 1982); and Max Pickles (eight races including third in 1968, and top 10 five times). Max’s sons Tony, Stephen and Mark also rode this race.

Laurie Hately’s own sons were accomplished Warrnambool classic riders too. His youngest son, Ken Hately, started 13 Warrnambools and finished 10 between 1982 and 1995, with 14th in 1982, 20th in 1989, 9th in 1991, 21st in 1992, and around 20th in his last year. He still remembers the emotion of the day his eldest sister passed on his father’s 1931 and 1935 Warrnambool medals. He had thought they were long lost.

Left: Camperdown brothers Ken and Colin Hately before start of the Warrnambool. Right: Some of the Hately family Melbourne to Warrnambool time medallions (top 10: Colin Hately; middle two: Laurie Hately; bottom nine: Ken Hately)

Laurie’s second son, Colin Hately, finished the race 10 times during the 1980’s, with a third place in 1981, seventh in 1985, and sixth in 1986 before retiring in 1988. He remembers the lead up to his third in 1981 well:

We’d start training in about May, and in the last six to seven weeks built up to 500-600km per week … down through the bush through Timboon and so on. I just looked at what others were doing. John Hine won it in 1980, and I was in the same bunch as him that year when he went away at Garvoc and caught the leaders. He just took off and left us. Anyway, in 1981 I rang him up and had a talk to him. He told me all about carbo-loading. I did it every year after that.

Such is the connection with the Warrnambool that it has been said of this family that, “Rain, hail or shine it would take a lot for someone from these cycling families to not line up for a Melbourne to Warrnambool” (The Standard, 6/10/1992). It is certainly a tradition that has continued to today.

In recent times Colin Hately’s son, Wayne, entered and finished the 2010 Warrnambool to ride with his own son Dylan Hately. Dylan, the fourth generation of Hatelys riding the Warrnambool now, is currently with the National Road Series (NRS) Target Trek Racing Team and has started the race four times so far with a promising 15th in 2011 – half a minute or so behind the winner.

The Warrnambool allure?

For many elite riders in the NRS teams, the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic is probably about the personal challenge of working to get a teammate on the podium, or maybe taking a top 10 or place themselves as a stepping-stone to bigger things ahead. The Warrnambool is certainly an important proving ground for our young elite riders on the road to higher goals.

But the interesting thing about iconic races like the Warrnambool is their resonance with a much wider group of amateur club level riders who enter each year not hoping for the podium, but aspiring to get a time medallion for finishing within the cutoff. For many of these riders the Warrnambool represents no less a challenge.

Interesting and worthy stories and motivations are carried on the shoulders of every single rider who has ever started in the Melbourne to Warrnambool road race. For some this race is about the numbers – the training effort to get to the start line, the results and other outcomes. As clichéd as it sounds, for others the Warrnambool is all about the journey, and it’s a way they can connect with family history and inspirations. And for others still, it’s about making their own history.

Whatever the motivation to ride the Warrnambool, these things are all an important part of the continuing story of Australia’s oldest one-day classic road race.

So, good luck to everyone riding in this year’s Melbourne to Warrnambool on October 12 – the National Road Series teams going for the win, and the amateur club riders in B through D grade aiming for a prized time medallion.

Click here to see photos from last year’s race.

About the author

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. Follow him on Instagram at Pushbikewriter and on Strava.

If you have any interesting stories to share, or photos of memorabilia about the Warrnambool, please get in touch with Craig or feel free to comment below.

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