Opinion: The Melbourne to Warrnambool is edging towards extinction

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Over the weekend was the 100th edition of the Melbourne to Warrnambool; The world’s second oldest bike race, behind Liege-Bastogne-Liege. As with most editions, the front end of the race was chalk full of talent, but to many, the goal was just to finish within the time cut. Some have called it “the World’s most dangerous Gran Fondo.”

Dave McKenzie, who won the race in 2001 (a year after he won a stage in the Giro d’Italia) has a passion for the Melbourne to Warrnambool and wants to see it keep its prestige alive. But as he writes, it’s not evolving and is dying a slow death. It’s easy to lash out with criticisms, but as you’ll read, Dave brings ideas to the table to get the conversation started.

I’ll admit, It was a precursor to my blog when I posted a pic on Instagram of the coverage (or lack of) in the two Melbourne newspapers of the 100th edition of the Melbourne to Warrnambool, but it was also my passionate side screaming out about an event that is dying a slow death.

As Dave posted, the coverage of the Warny in the two Melbourne newspapers
As Dave posted on Facebook, the difference between the local Warrnambool and Melbourne coverage is massive (for obvious reasons)

So what is the Melbourne to Warrnambool? Is it a Gran Fondo or Pro bike Race?

Let’s not kid ourselves it certainly is not a pro bike race. It’s a national road series team race that also caters for B, C and D graders along with this year 25 women entries who all managed to compete in the historical edition. So it’s not a Gran Fondo either, but it’s edging closer…and beyond that in my opinion is extinction.

So what needs to be done……..there’s plenty and it’s easier said than done, but I’ve got an idea. In fact I had this idea 6 yrs ago and I attempted to float it with the stakeholders and people that matter for the event to survive. Here’s what happened.

It was around 2009-2010 and I was working on the Herald Sun Tour as a commentator, but also giving some support to course design. I was excited to be on the other side of the fence and was full of enthusiasm and ideas for some of Australia’s cycling events and what was needed for them to not just survive but hopefully flourish in an already crammed sporting market.

Around the middle of the tour I got chatting with the event police who were managing the road closures for the Herald Sun tour. They were an events team of police who also managed most major sporting events that needed road closures in Victoria. I asked them, what if I wanted to start the Melbourne to Warrnambool in Geelong (before you shoot me down, Paris-Roubaix starts 80km out of Paris) have 20km neutral zone (under control) to Torquay then race starts proper and follows the great ocean road past Lorne, Apollo Bay, up Lavers Hill and all the way to Warrnambool give or take some 250k later. “Is this possible or am I dreaming?” To my surprise they said it was very possible. In fact it was probably easier to have a rolling closure on the Great ocean Road than it was for the current course. If you think about it, there’s ocean on one side and minimal side roads on the other. When your talking moto scouts and people-power needed to shut down roads, stand on intersections, minimize disruption etc, this was very doable. The event police even gave me an unofficial quote on what it might cost. I’m not going to tell you, but trust me it was very encouraging.

As I was working for TV at the Herald Sun Tour, I moved around the room found our producer and talked about live TV and highlights package for the race. “What would it cost bare bones …..and a bells and whistles quote which would include helicopter shots etc?” I asked. “Are you seeing my vision yet? A live aerial shot of the peloton weaving it’s way along the great ocean road is surely more desirable to a sponsor…” He replied, “Yep I’m hearing you…. it all costs money…” But that’s what I was doing. I was getting realistic quotes, tallying them up, and by the end of the tour I had a realistic figure to run the Melbourne to Warrnambool.

Under my newly proposed race format (i.e. an Elite race with the best NRS teams), give the cycling punters a proper gran fondo which starts two, maybe three hours prior to the race, and challenge them to beat Elite Melbourne to Warrnambool race with a head start.

Tour Down Under do it with their own people’s challenge ride the day of the stage. It starts early and they get about 6 thousand competitors! This way you get more people down to Warrnambool for the pro race finish, more money spent in the local community. Create a festival and give them a reason to stay the night with a gala dinner, kids race/ activities… etc…fill the town hotels, more money spent in the local economy goes a long way to convincing local councils to support your event.

A women’s race is also needed. Make it NRS race for women and aim to come inside UCI regulations in terms of distance and general race rules. Maybe start it in Apollo Bay or near, that’s still 150km in length, time it so they finish about an hour before the men, similar to what they do in Ronde Van Vlaanderen. I’d like to think we would see more than 25 women on the start line. More like 50-100 women. Maybe one day it could become a World Cup event. Start small, but have a grand plan.

With these ideas I told a few people in the industry including my wife who has a long history in event management. Fair to say that she wasn’t over the top with enthusiasm, but she didn’t shut me down completely. So my next stop was to contact the Warrnambool Citizens Race Committee, the custodians of the event. When I made the call I was promptly informed by a lady on the other end of the phone that John Craven and his company Caribou Publications had just signed a new three year deal to promote the event. John had a done a great job of not only promoting the Melbourne to Warrnambool but also the Herald Sun Tour, the Tatts Cup series races and many others throughout the years. He had done a great job of promoting cycling when there weren’t too many other promoters around. In many ways he earned the right to have another three years to promote the race. “Fair enough,” I said, “But I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’ve got some ideas that I’d like to share with you.” She replied, “oh David, it costs a lot of money to put on a bike race,” obviously thinking I had no idea of the cost to put a bike race on.

The conversation didn’t go far and I never got the chance to share my ideas with the Warrnambool Citizens Race committee. Now some six years later, here we are with an iconic historical event floundering in the same spot.

So this is why I’ve decided to share my thoughts with you, all of you. It’s well over due for a revamp. The Melbourne to Warrnambool will not survive if it is run in the same format. It is dying a slow death.

To the Warrnambool Race Committee I say this: Think outside the square, think outside the box. Look at what other events are doing and if your not prepared to take on ideas outside of your committee then at the very least come up with some yourself, before it is too late! As custodians of an event you are not only responsible for the success of it, but also the demise.

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