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by Craig Fry
March 18, 2016
Photography by Andrew Clifforth/La Velocita
At 8:00am this Saturday riders across Australia will start the Audax “Oppy” 24-hour team time trial, aiming to get to designated finish towns by 8:00am Sunday. Team Brevet is again attempting the current Australian record with a goal of 776km. Craig Fry, a member of the team that won the event in 2014, previews the ‘Oppy24’ and Team Brevet’s chances.
The Audax Flèche Opperman 24-hour is one of the world’s most gruelling cycling events. Teams of three to five ride for 24 hours on a course of their choosing with specified control points (the only points where support crews can assist). The Oppy ride route must be a tour rather than a repeated circuit, and at least three riders from each team must finish.
The first Audax Oppy was held way back in 1985, with the Audax website showing some impressive winning distances over the years. These days the Oppy event is held in all Australian mainland states plus the ACT.
The current Australian record for a 24-hour TTT open road tour of this type is 770km, set in 1993 by The Endorphins. The world record is 778km set by the US Metro Paris team a short time later in 1995.
Most Oppy teams are not aiming for these records. A 24-hour bike ride is daunting enough. But add a record goal to that challenge and you’re looking at keeping a team of five on the road riding over 32km/h for a full day and night.
Attempting the Oppy 24hr record is no small task, something that Team Brevet knows well. I catch up with some of them over coffee at a Port Melbourne café to find out more about their record attempt in three days time.
This will be the second time the Victorian-based Team Brevet has attempted the Oppy 24hr record. In 2015, they started with the wind behind them in Beachport, South Australia, and headed towards Horsham, Kerang, Shepparton and Rochester in Victoria.
In the Team Brevet line up last year was Glen O’Rourke (captain), Glenn Landers, Scott Thomas, Alistair Tubb, and Drew Ginn. The Strava record of that ride shows how hard they hit it that day, doing the first 350km with a 38km/h average speed. But in the end their attempt ended at 700km, after a bad run with punctures, late headwinds, heat and losing riders along the way. Drew Ginn’s own account of that day paints a vivid picture of how tough it was.
Team Brevet 2.0 comes back to the Oppy start line in 2016 with the benefit of experience. For Glenn Landers it’s about unfinished business: “We have a belief that we can do it” he says. Scott Thomas agrees, “Yeah, we are better prepared … mentally and physically”. This year the team is also using time trial bars for extra position options and efficiency.
There’s only one line-up change to the team, with Alistair Tubb replaced by 31 year old Dylan Newell – an experienced rider with an endurance background including a fifth in the 2008 Melbourne to Warrnambool, starts in the Sun Tour, Australian road and TT championships, ultra-marathon running, and mountain biking.
The team has certainly done the miles this time with some solid efforts along the way. All five riders have averaged over 500km a week in the past month, and everyone has done over 4,500km since January. Drew Ginn is the standout with around 650km per week in the last month, over 5,700km since January, and a 2015 ‘base’ that included the 100th Melbourne to Warrnambool in October, and his 24-hour open-air track record (836.366m) in December.
“Everyone has done more this year, but we’ve done it separate to each other. We haven’t done as much together as a group” Ginn explains.
It’s not all about the numbers though. In fact, completing the Oppy 24hr depends as much on mental strength as what’s in the legs and lungs. The Oppy has a way of amplifying your weaknesses in body and mind.
For their 2016 Oppy campaign, the riders of Team Brevet have set a goal of 776km starting in the southwest Victorian town of Warrnambool. From there they will head northeast through Ararat, St. Arnaud, and Kerang before shifting further east over the border at Barham to Deniliquin and Jerilderie, and turning southeast for the final 100km from Narrandera to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.
To ride that distance they will need to hold an average speed of 32.33km/h for the whole 24 hours. Their chosen course looks good – simple with not too many changes of direction, which can needlessly add stress and difficulty to an already hard-enough challenge. “This year we have six or seven control point stops roughly every 100km, where the plan is to keep the stops to five minutes each,” Landers adds.
Drew Ginn OAM is the most well-known member of Team Brevet. He is a triple Olympic rowing gold medalist, five-time world rowing champion, 2009 Oceania TT cycling champion, and Australian distance record holder for 24hr open-air track cycling – obviously an elite endurance athlete, and even now, aged in his 40s, he doesn’t look like slowing down.
Barring injury or a major mechanical, you’d bet that Ginn would be one of the Team Brevet riders still rolling come 8:00am Sunday morning. His Strava record of the training rides he has done for the Oppy is something to behold (especially the longer solo efforts) – power, heart rate, and average speed numbers that most of us simply couldn’t hit.
No disrespect to the other riders in Team Brevet, but Drew Ginn is a huge factor in this group. In addition to his endurance capabilities, he is well respected and admired, and the team will probably look to him a lot on the road for ride strategy. Having that leadership will be a big plus, but it could easily be a negative depending on how Ginn rides, and perhaps more importantly how the other four ride around him.
The Oppy 24hr team time trial is about more than just the individual however. One of the rules is that teams must finish with at least three riders to have their distance recognised. This brings the emphasis squarely back on the group, and to a large degree the strategy they use for pacing. Team Brevet should probably be looking to ride a pace their fourth or fifth strongest riders can manage, not what an athlete like Drew Ginn could hold.
Trying to ride at Ginn’s level over a long period could very well start to put riders in the van. And in a 24-hour record attempt like this, assuming you’ve all done the preparation required, it’s all about keeping as many wheels on the road for as long as possible. Losing just one or two riders could mean the Team’s chances at the record evaporate.
Unlike other 24-hour cycling events that use road circuits, weather conditions (especially the wind) have a major impact on the Oppy 24hr. Riding on a road circuit or loop effectively allows you to balance out the negative impact of a headwind from any direction. When you’re riding a loop a headwind will always become a tailwind at some point.
The Oppy is different because the requirement to ride an open road tour (you can’t cover the same road twice in the same direction) means that unless you’re very lucky, you’ll get a headwind at some point over the 24 hours. One important factor for Team Brevet will be how they handle any head- and crosswinds they encounter.
The team has done its homework in selecting a course that attempts to maximise the chances of favourable wind conditions. The riders will also have the experience and memory of last year to draw from, and hopefully a bit of luck too. But now, less than 24 hours from the start line, the best place for them to be mentally is to try and set aside the wind as an issue beyond their control, ignore the weather forecasts prior to Saturday, and trust that they can handle whatever conditions come their way.
If there is a team that can break the current Australian 24hr TTT record which has stood since 1993, surely it is Team Brevet.
They had multiple punctures last year, so one would hope there’s no more bad luck for them this time. That said, punctures (and mechanicals for that matter) shouldn’t really be a factor in the Oppy, assuming all team members have had their bikes serviced and are using new tyres and tubes (heavy duty rather than lightweight race tyres), and new drivechain gear.
As far as the weather goes, the forecast seems to be showing mostly favourable wind conditions for Team Brevet’s attempt. Starting from Warrnambool they should get some wind assistance for most of Saturday. However, by the time they cross the border and start heading north east towards Wagga Wagga, the forecast is for southeast to easterly wind, which would be a cross-headwind.
How Team Brevet is placed as they cross the border into NSW will be crucial. The final five to six hours to the finish are key. Part of that will be about what the wind is doing at that point. But also relevant will be the on-road choices the team has made during the previous day and night – choices about nutrition and hydration, and choices about pace strategy.
Nutrition-wise, they’re avoiding the commercial high-energy sports bars, gels, and drinks, in favour of a range of calorie dense whole foods, milk and water and the option of take-away food along the way for variety.
In terms of holding the pace required to break the records, a slight question exists around Team Brevet’s lack of 300km+ training rides or group efforts over 15-18 hours. Newell also appears to be untested over ultra-endurance distances on the road, but there’s no doubting his pedigree and the other team members rate his on-road knowledge highly.
Pacing choices are so important in the Oppy, but it’s a tricky thing to get right. Do they burn matches early, even with wind assistance, to get ahead of the record pace required (and risk losing riders)? Or do they conserve early and keep everyone on the road to come home strong against headwinds that might come later?
For Landers it’s all about the second 12 hours.
“I’m not even thinking about the first half of the ride. It’s all about the night, I just can’t wait to get to Kerang and see where we’re at – we’d like to be leaving there by 8:00pm and have a little bit in the bank.”
According to Drew Ginn: “The thing we’re really conscious of this time is to pull the pace back a little bit, communicate more about things like heartrate and other indicators, and save energy so we don’t have to stop as often or as long.”
The Ginn factor is a big plus. If managed well it could cancel out some of the team’s weaknesses. His presence must give the group great confidence going to the start line. Three of the team have already done 700km last year in this event, which is a big advantage too.
But if Team Brevet gives in to the temptation to ride to Ginn’s level for too long, the wheels could easily start to fall off in the second 12 hours. What they could do instead is use Ginn on the front more pulling longer turns. The team could also ride to an agreed pace, set by the heartrates of the weakest two riders to avoid going anaerobic and/or over individual lactate thresholds (levels which are no doubt higher for Ginn).
It’s an issue they’re aware of. Landers is very clear: “I’m more than happy for Drew to be doing 40 minutes out of the hour, and the rest of us to be doing five minute pulls if necessary. He is wise enough to know when he needs a spell. The main thing for me last year was it was a bit tough watching Drew get to the line looking like he’d just started, and yet the team fell apart. He just had so much to give, and we just didn’t utilise that.”
Thomas agrees: “That’s really important isn’t it? Communication and keeping it together as a unit. What we’ve been discussing is where do we need to be at a certain point. Our last hundred k’s look like it’s into a slight headwind, so we need to work out where need to be time-wise before we get there.”
Team Brevet has done a mountain of preparation for this year’s Oppy 24hr record attempt, and they have a depth of experience and self-belief that will help. Plus the Ginn factor. An additional positive for them this time around is the absence of high temperatures in the forecast.
My prediction is they will go very close to breaking the 770km record this weekend providing they: (a) get their pacing right over the first 18 hours; (b) can tolerate the nutritional intake required, and; (c) have some luck minimising punctures. I do have some doubts about the team’s preparation, but they may well be non-issues when you consider the combined potential of the group.
My own experience has been that the real key to events like the Oppy 24hr is the group (riders and supporters), not individuals. As I have written before, the revelation for me that came from riding the 2014 and 2015 Oppy was witnessing what the group allowed mere individuals to achieve. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
Drew Ginn agrees: “The thing that has blown me away whenever we have ridden long, is the group is far more capable than what it gives itself credit for. The intriguing thing for me about this is it is a team event, and everyone has highs and lows. The really cool part is trying to manage the group to ensure that anyone who is suffering or on the limit at any stage can be supported and kept going.”
To Team Brevet and support crew, may the winds be at your back this weekend and the ride go safely and without incident. But…if you do break that record, just don’t set the bar too high because Team Pane e Acqua 3.0 is coming for you next year!