Now in its 100th year, the 279-kilometre Melbourne to Warrnambool race is the longest-running Australian road race still in existence and second oldest in the world behind the Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The history of the race is dominated by tales of the hard men of the sport, and while women started creeping into the picture in 1979 when Pauline Walters became the first female to enter, only a small number of others have followed. However, the 100th edition of the race widely known as the Warrny could be a tipping point that finally establishes a regular women’s field in the gruelling long distance race.
“Do women race the Warrny?” is a question that has cropped up more and more frequently over the years. And while many recent editions didn’t boast so much as a single female competitor, after Saturday’s race, the answer to that question will be a resounding “yes.”
A women’s category was introduced this year and around 20 women are expected to take to the start line, four times more than ever have before.
There is no other race in Australia like the Warrny, which goes from Victoria’s capital of Melbourne to the coastal city of Warrnambool. With a length of 279 kilometres, it is almost double the UCI race distance limit set for women, so exemptions are required.
Racers participating come from a variety of backgrounds, with many coming from the National Road Series (NRS) and others having tested their limits with feats of endurance, such as the extreme climbing challenge known as Everesting. Despite the different paths the riders are tied by a common aim.
“We can’t change the sport by just having one person trying to do things. We change the sport when we have everyone rowing in the same direction and believing in it. These women are all doing it because they want the sport to grow,” Women’s Warrny spokesperson Monique Hanley told Ella CyclingTips. “It is really going to make a great statement to the world about what is possible for women.”
The new women’s category and its support program to help with preparation saw many more women register interest than could be accommodated on the start list. The combined men’s and women’s field was capped at 300, with previous finishers receiving entry priority. When it came to general entries they sold out in just minutes and many women and men missed out.
All but one of the 2015 female entrants will be taking on the challenge for the first time, with Nicole Whitburn (Liv Cycling NRS), who set the fastest ever time for a women in 2008, being the only repeat racer. The only women to have completed it twice is Kate Nichols and just 13 women have ever finished the race. That is a number that could potentially double in just one edition on Saturday.
In her first attempt to complete the race in 1979, Pauline Walters pulled out along with two-thirds of the race starters after being battered by fierce head winds. Her second attempt was successful. Walters and British former world champion Beryl Burton became the first two women to finish the Warrny in 1980. It was not until 1994 that another female finished the race and this was UCI vice president Tracey Gaudry.
“The Warrny is a very different race for females compared to males: it is far longer, faster and more intense than any other race on the women’s calendar.” said Whitburn in a statement. “For that reason alone I think it is a tough ask to expect to finish it on your first attempt. It combines so many unknowns into one race; weather, distance, pace, and stress from riding in a huge bunch.”
Those that are among the favourites to not just finish, but to battle it out for the top position include Whitburn, 2013 Oceania road race champion Amy Bradley (Total Rush NRS), Tour of Bright winner Miranda Griffiths (Holden Cycling NRS) and Laura Darlington (CBR Women’s Team NRS).
Read on to learn about some of the biggest female competitors, pick your favourite and cheer them on for Saturday’s race!
Bradley has been thinking about doing the Warrny for some time as the 31-year-old wanted a new challenge to train for. “I’d burnt out on ‘normal’ racing a bit and needed to fall back in love with riding … It’s worked! This year it was already on my mind, so the Women’s Warrny being on made it the perfect opportunity,” said Bradley.
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: Oceania Champion 2013. Future goals? Not sure, let’s get through the Warrny and see if I still like riding bikes!
Training: I train more based on time, than kilometres, because it’s easier to rack up ‘Beach Road K’s’ than it is to do climbing ones. Since May I’ve averaged about 15 hours per week, with my biggest week at 26 hours, and my smallest at five. There’s been a few five-and-a-half to six-and-a-half hour days in there, with my longest ride being about 200 kilometres.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: To be the first woman across the line in Warrnambool. This is not a Gran Fondo, I’m there to race.
The 39-year-old mother of four from Canberra races for the CBR Women’s Cycling Team and just started racing last year. She entered to help promote women’s cycling and challenge herself.
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: In my first guest ride with my current team at the Canberra Tour de Femme I came away with the win thanks to my amazing teammates. Having started in racing very late my goal is to be able to keep up with the main bunch and be a great support rider for my team. I also want to be a good role model for my kids – leading by example in having a healthy lifestyle and good work/family/life balance.
Training: I have been training five to six days a week with local bunches and friends. I have mixed the training with short hard and fast rides, hilly rides and some longer rides of four hours plus.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: My goal would be to get into a good bunch at the start, work hard and make it to the finish before the time cut.
The CBR Racing Team member had other big goals in mind for the next few months but the 31-year-old Darlington couldn’t resist the chance to be part of this special Melbourne to Warrnambool.
“I wanted to be part of the history, and when I heard that there was going to be a women’s race I thought, ‘This is my time. How can I miss out?’”
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: Two years ago I won the ‘Strade Nero’ road race at the Sam Miranda Tour of King Valley, which was my first NRS win, which was super exciting. Since then life hasn’t played out how I had planned and cycling has taken a bit of a backseat. My future cycling goals are to win another NRS stage, but at the moment I’m balancing that with my other sporting aspirations of summiting Everest next year, which is a feat that I can’t take lightly.
Training: Currently I have been trying to balance my time between working full time, building up my strength and stamina for Everest in March, and cycling. So it hasn’t been the most traditional lead up to a cycling race, but has consisted of hours and hours of long walks in snow, for stamina, mixed with a few hour long rides a week, with a long one on the weekend, plus interval training at F45 most days of the week for strength.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: Finish! And use my amazing wind avoidance, sitting in and grovelling skills to hopefully finish as one of the top three women.
The 30-year-old, who theoretically retired from racing in 2014, has been living in the Northern Territory, but as soon as she saw the news that there was going to be a women’s category in the Warrny this year there was little doubt she would make the effort to come to Melbourne for the race. “I thought what an amazing opportunity to be a part of showcasing women’s cycling in another new way,” said Finegan.
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: My greatest achievement would be taking myself to Europe to race two seasons over there, living in the Netherlands. I did this when it was a lot less common for females to go over on their own. In terms of cycling goals, I want to continue to love riding my bike and inspire, work with and coerce as many other females as possible to get on bikes. This might be racing, riding their children to school, for transport, or just going for a social 5-10km ride on town bikes finishing at the coffee shop.
Training: Living in Katherine with a small population, flat roads and not really anyone to ride with, the training has been quite hard. Most of my days have been solo, with the longest being a 180km day. It has definitely toughened my head if nothing else. I only saw my name on the start list seven weeks ago, this has meant I have had four quite heavy weeks to try to get ready, and now a two week taper.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: I would be kidding myself if I was to say I didn’t want to win the women’s category, but at the same time, without having ridden with any of these riders for so long it is hard for me to ascertain where I am at. I definitely want to finish it being happy with how I have done, and not take myself out with a feed bag. I also want to be able to support any other females I may be riding with whenever it may be needed.
The Holden Cycling Team rider has long wanted to be a part of the Melbourne to Warrnambool but her racing in the US meant the 33-year-old was usually due for a much needed training break at Warrny time. An injury changed the pattern this season. “I broke my wrist in a race in the US and flew home for surgery, season over,” said Griffiths, who had put her name on the Warrny waiting list, just in case she could get back in time, before breaking her wrist.
“I completely forgot about putting my name on the waiting list until the entries came out and I saw I had been given a spot. At that point I was still just able to ride on the trainer and was far from fit, however it was a great motivator to get my fitness back. Not the preparation I would have liked for the race but how can I miss out on the first year we have a recognised women’s race?”
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: It’s hard to choose a greatest achievement on the bike. I feel like I have had a lot of top 10 results in big tours and one day races but haven’t quite had the big win I’ve been chasing yet. The main goal that still drives me is to win a national road race championship.
Training: I haven’t really altered my normal training too much for the race. I have made my long ride each week a bit longer than normal. My goal for training has been to regain my fitness after my surgery with the aim of being in good shape by Nationals in January. My weekly volume would be around 12 to 20 hours a week with my longest ride being six hours. I just have to hope that my natural endurance level and my race experience is going to get me through on the day.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: That’s really hard to say. I have never attempted the race before and have never raced over anywhere near that distance. I just don’t know how my body will react. I’ll be disappointed if I can’t get to the finish line in Warrnambool but I realise that it is a super tough race and that being a small climber is not going to make it any easier.
The 36-year-old mother of two who first started racing on the mountain bike had thought she would do the Warrny eventually, but with young children it probably would have been later if not for her determination to be part of this push to build female participants. “A few years ago some people indicated that women don’t race the Warrny because it is too long and hard. This got my goat up, and I’ve intended to do it ever since,” said Jobling-Baker.
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: Coming from a non-sporty background, every achievement I have feels like the greatest. I have had a few mountain bike wins and podiums that I’m proud of, and I Everested Mt Donna Buang in February and though it wasn’t a race, I was very happy with the way I planned and executed the ride and proud to finish just within a few mins of my goal time of 17 hours. Next year my focus will return to XC mountain biking and I have a few mountain bike goals in mind.
Training: I have some endurance experience in my background so my main focus was building intensity and efforts into my rides (no more social cruising). I did around 300 kilometres a week over June and July as the kids and I were constantly quite sick, and that increased to 400 kilometres a week over August and September.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: My practical goal is to stay with a good sized bunch as long as I can and not end up battling alone in the headwind. Given the number of top A grade women in the race, it would be naïve of me to hope to podium. I would be stoked with a top 10 but it is really hard to judge when I’ll be riding against so many women I’ve never ridden against, and in a unique race that I’ve never done before. My other goal is to not beat myself up to hideously if at the end of the day things don’t go as well as I hope…
The mother of two was part of the women’s mass Everesting of Mt Donna Buang earlier this year, when she went rode the required 8848 metres of vertical ascent along with 19 other women and then pushed on to take it to 10,000 metres. Joining and supporting another ground-breaking women’s challenge is what attracted the 48 year old Marr to take on the Warrny. “Before I knew it I was signed up for it. It was only after I signed up and started to read more about the Warrny that I realised what I really was in for. But then, I do love challenges. I never thought I could do the Three Peaks or an Everesting until I did. Up until a couple of weeks ago I didn’t think I could do the Warrny – but I’ve done as much training as I can manage with a busy life and I’m as ready as ever. I will give it my best shot. It’s a once in a life time opportunity.”
Greatest cycling achievements and goals: Achievements include the Three Peaks 2013 in 9.25 hours and Everesting (10,000 vertical metres) in February 2015, while a future goal is to go and cycle the Swiss and French Alps.
Training: For the first time in my life I have used the services of a coach and have followed a structured training program to give me to the best possible preparation for the Warrny. It’s been a combination of specific ergo sessions and targeted group rides. I’ve been packing most of my kilometres into the weekends with 150 to 200 kilometre rides on Saturdays followed by 100 kilometres plus on Sundays. In the last six weeks the weekly kilometres have been between 300 to 450 kilometres, with a longest ride of 226 kilometres.
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: Stay upright, finish the race within the time limit. Find a good pack to race with – enjoy the pain and hopefully ecstasy once I cross the finish line.
Ever since the 37-year-old Whitburn finished the Warrny in 2008 she has meant to do it again but something or other always got in the way. “This year being the 100th I thought ‘why not’. I signed up early so that the excuses couldn’t creep in along the way,” said Whitburn.
Cycling achievements and goals: Finishing the Warnie in 2008 would be one of my greatest achievements and hopefully I can add 2015 to the list as well. I would like to do a bit more cyclocross racing in the future.
Training: I have been only doing around 350km a week but with most of it on the weekends to try to gain some endurance. My longest ride has only been 160km so let’s hope the wheels don’t fall off at 161km mark!
Melbourne to Warrnambool aim: My main goal is just to finish. There are so many other factors that can influence the race at the Warrny, with the biggest being the weather. I am under no illusions that if the weather is terrible I may not finish, but I will be giving it my all out there to get that second finishers medal.