Chaos, anticipation and relief: the Warrny from the feedzone

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This weekend’s 100th edition of Melbourne to Warrnambool (or ‘Warrny’) saw a record number of women take part thanks to the introduction of a women’s category. They raced with a field of around 280 men and covered a distance of 278.6km. Of the 19 starters, 14 made it to the finish line in Warrnambool in what was a gallant effort in the second longest running race in the world. It is arguably the most famous race in Australia, and the finisher’s medal prized by all.

The women’s category was won by 20-year-old Lauretta Hanson (Building Champions Squad/Fearless Femme racing) with a time of 7:50.57. Miranda Griffiths (Holden Women’s Cycling) came in just a split second later, and Chloe McIntosh (CBR Women’s Team), coming in 10 minutes later, rounded out the podium.

Lauretta and Miranda both rode strongly with the main peloton, rolling turns for the first 200km, only to lose contact during the climbs at Camperdown. They again worked hard in their group of 30 or so, to finish 23 minutes behind the overall winner Scott Sunderland (Budget Forklifts).

For Lauretta, Miranda and all the other women participating, the journey started six months ago when Warrny spokeswoman Monique Hanley posed the question: “Could we double the amount of female finishers in the Warrny in one go?” and the organisers introduced its first ever women’s category.  

That was the day my Warrny journey started also. Although not riding, I was given an important job: to be the feeder and supporter of my partner Purdie, who committed to take on Monique’s challenge. And through her I witnessed the hard work and endless training hours that each and every one of these women put in toward a race that was much bigger than personal glory – it was going to make a collective statement to the world about what is possible for women.

My fragmented recollection of how the race panned out is pieced together by reliving Social Media and WhatsApp group updates. Here’s how the race unfolded:

Working the Warrny feed zone

As Purdie and the 18 women lined up on the start line, their feeders and supporters gathered around with just as many nerves as the riders. With the importance of the feed drilled into us and hours of practise under ours belts, we hoped nothing would go wrong, that there would be no crashes and tailwinds would grace the 280km journey to Warrnambool.

The race started and just as fast, the feeders raced to their cars to begin the 90km drive to the first feed zone at Inverleigh.

Purdie’s coach Bec Domange warned me that the feed zone is the most important part of the bike race. The job of feeder is not to be taken lightly, because if a feed is missed or a rider crashes, it can be race over. 280km is a long time to not have adequate nutrition and hydration.

The feeders and supporters of the women were all kept up to date by Monique Hanley through a special WhatsApp group text message system. I was in the car with Bec. She was driving and I was glued to my phone for updates.

WhatsApp: They have hit the gas, lots of riders (including men) in the red zone

By all accounts, it was flat out from the gun. A 280-rider criterium for the first hour of racing. Crashes galore saw riders being held up. Chloe McIntosh required a wheel change at 25km and her team mate Laura Darlington was out of the race with a broken frame.

Chloe was able to rejoin the lead group but shortly thereafter, the 280 strong bunch splintered and women started to form their own bunches, pulling turns in their respective groups on the road.

As a result of the first climb just out of Geelong, the race split again. There were now two groups on the road. The women scattered throughout.

WhatsApp: Race has split badly. A huge bunch is distanced, with cars permitted to move between the groups.

The women in the second group were all working well together, pulling turns to try and get back to the lead group.  The suspense was building for everyone. The women were working hard and the sun had come out, making the feed only  more and more important.

WhatsApp: The second group have returned to the peloton. Great outcome!

By now, Bec and I arrived had arrived at the first feed zone. Glued to our phones for WhatsApp and Twitter updates, we learned that there were five riders off the front, gaining time. But the peloton was massive and about to move through the first feed. Our jobs were about to start!

Twitter: Women at 79 km mark and the feedzone is coming up

Shit was about to get real. This is what we had been practicing for. Bec and I were prepared, we set ourselves up, one at each end of the feed zone just in case Purdie missed me at the beginning. We were wearing bright pink t-shirts and with one hand waving giant flags so that Purdie could see us from a distance. I held my musette up, just as we had practiced, and waited.

When the peloton arrived, it was instant chaos. The bunch slowed, only slightly and riders were focused on grabbing their musettes from the feeders. There were riders swerving and yelling to get their feeders attention. Musettes were dropped, riders stopped…just madness.

And then, in the midst of it all…got it! The musette swung straight over Purdies head and shoulder and she rode on without one wobble. Bossed it!

The women made it through unscatherd. Fed and ready for the next installment. We jumped back in our cars and started the journey to the next feed in a race of our own.

WhatsApp: There is a small group at the back of the race.

Twitter: There is a small group at the back of the race with girls in it – 264, 262, 280, 272, 267 83km

WhatsApp: Bex missed her feed

Oh no! Hopefully someone has shared some supplies with her.  Next feed is at Lismore at 153 km – that’s a long time to go without extra food.

WhatsApp: Break is gaining time on the peloton and commissaires are warning that the gap cannot exceed 15 minutes.

The break was escaping, and technically, if the group blows past 15 minutes, the police could pull the peloton. We hoped not, because this race was getting too exciting!

We got word of the riders turning left into Cressy, and then…

WhatsApp: Massive crash. Stay tuned

WhatsApp: Amy

Amy Bradley had crashed. Her race was over but we hoped there were no serious injury. The break meanwhile was extending their gap to 16 minutes and 33 seconds.

Bec and I were now at the second feed, 153km in, waiting for the riders to come through. We gritted our teeth and lined up next to the hundreds of feeders in anticipation.

Twitter: . w St.John’s til ambulance arrives. Justine also crashed – paced her back to convoy. impacted by crash

Bugger. Justine and Kate were affected by the crash, too. Justine managed to get back on and keep going. Unfortunately, Kate had to abandon the race. At least two women down now. We weren’t allowed to be distracted, because moments later, the riders came storming through the feed.

Again, they bossed it, grabbing their musettes with ease. Two feeds down, two to go. Time to get back in the cars and get to the next feed.

Cross winds started to splinter the peloton and gaps were forming between groups. The race was starting to get exciting.

WhatsApp: Big split now, cars being allowed thru. Not sure where our women are yet

As Bec and I were driving to the next feed, we were anxiously wondering where the women were in the groups. Turns out that they had fallen into about three groups on the road. They were about to enter Camperdown and the infamous hill climb that was sure to do more damage. At this point there was not much mention of Miranda and Lauretta, it seemed that they had kept themselves out of trouble toward the front of the race all day.

Twitter: Group formed off back of peloton with and in it

The bunch was now at about 200km where a few climbs were sure to have an impact on the riders. We meanwhile arrived with the hundreds of other feeders at Terang, the third feed.

WhatsApp: Miranda and Lauretta in a bunch of 30 pulling turns.

This was the first real update regarding Miranda and Lauretta all day! They had lost contact with the lead group through the Camperdown climbs and were safely in a large chase group. Everyone at the feed was excited for them. They were riding such a great race and holding their own with the boys.

As the race approached Terang, cross winds had strung riders out, desperately trying to hold the wheels in front. The bunches passed through the third feed zone at 233 km with ease and speed. As the pointy end of the race was nearing and some riders only grabbed bidons or cold cans of Coke, no food.

Bec and I had a musettes ready for Purdie as requested. As the leaders passed through, we caught a glimpse of Lauretta and Miranda looking incredibly comfortable in their group. Chloe was not far behind, also looking strong.

Bec and I waited at feed 3 for Purdie to come through, she was in a group about 50 minutes behind the lead group. As Purdie approached me in the feed she indicated that she didn’t want a musette, but kept rolling towards Bec yelling for a bidon. Bec’s superhuman reflexes meant that she reached into the musette, grabbed water and had it out for collection within seconds. Purdie went on her merry way with her bidon, only 50km to go.

We quickly got in the car and made our way to the final feed. This feed at Panmure was almost a formality for most, the race was now at 255 km, only 25km left to go. I think there were a couple of riders up the road but the front of the race was looking at a bunch sprint finish.

Bec and I waited at that final feed with anticipation. Purdie passed through with her groupetto with not much time to spare before cut-off and the race was n6earing the end, who was going to win the women’s Warrny? The climber Miranda or Lauretta, the sprinter? Would the final climb into Warrnambool favour one over the other? It was too exciting!

Purdie didn’t require a feed so we made our way to the finish, glued to our phones for updates. We weren’t going to catch the finish, the result would come through WhatsApp.

WhatsApp: Lauretta!!!!

What a race! Lauretta and Miranda showed pure class, surviving at the front until the 200km mark. Chloe recovered from her crash at 25km to place third. Nicole Whitburn, not only became the second woman in history to finish the Warny twice,  she was also part of the first couple to finish, with her partner Conan finishing just a few minutes in front!

All the women who raced rode gallantly that day. Some encountered bad luck – but that’s bike racing, as they say. What a satisfying way to end six months of hard work, dedication and training. The feeders and supporters, too, were able to breathe a sigh of relief. Job done, for this year at least.

Do women race the Warrny? Could we double the amount of female finishers in the Warrny in one go? —YES!

A huge thanks to Monique Hanley  of Cycling Victoria for her utmost dedication to this event. The women couldn’t have done it without her support, passion and dedication to the cause. Also to Anchor Point, who sponsored the race and helped make the day possible. There are so many people to thank, you know who you are – thank you.

Here are some tips on how to boss the feed zone:

  1. Wear bright colours or a jersey that is recognisable to your rider. It’s hard to spot out a tiny person out of hundreds of feeders!
  2. Have two feeders, this gives the rider a second chance if the first was botched. It also allows a change of plans where required – Purdie wanted water at one, not a bag, so she skipped me and kept going to Bec.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Purdie was able to grab her musettes with ease because we practiced heaps.
  4. Collect the empty bidons rider throws out. Know one likes a litterer.
  5. Be prepared and know the routes to the next feed. You will be stressed enough about the feed., don’t let getting lost add to your worries and your rider’s worries!

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