Looking back on the 100th Melbourne to Warrnambool: Meet the youngster who won the oldest race in Australia

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Last year was the first time in 100 editions that the 277 kilometre Melbourne to Warrnambool race, often known as the Warrny, had a women’s category. This brought 19 women to the start line and in just one day delivered more female finishers than the race had previously seen in its entire history.

Now, with the category in its second year, there has been another step forward with the introduction of equal prize money for the race along the southern coast of the Australian state of Victoria. Despite this, there was a moment when it looked like there may barely be enough riders to fill the podium this Saturday, but thankfully a late call out has bolstered numbers.

It’s also brought riders to the historic race that have some impressive achievements to their names, including two who have worn the rainbow stripes of a world championship jersey in cycling. Two-time individual pursuit world champion Rebecca Wiasak has jumped in, along with fellow High5 Dream Team riders Tessa Fabry and Kendelle Hodges. They’ll also be joined out on the road by endurance specialist and three-time world 24 hour solo mountain bike champion Jessica Douglas, along with Jessica Lane who was entered by her brother and men’s category contender Patrick Lane.

But before we find out who among the 13 women lining up on Saturday will triumph this year, let’s take a look back at our interview with last year’s surprise winner of the first ever women’s category of the Melbourne to Warrnambool. Lauretta Hanson was just 20 when she beat Miranda Griffiths in a sprint to the finish to become the youngest winner in Warrny history.

20-year-old Lauretta Hanson became the youngest female Warrny winner on Saturday
20-year-old Lauretta Hanson became the youngest female Warrny winner on Saturday 17th October, 2015

Lauretta Hanson flew into Melbourne less than a week before last year’s Warrny started. She’d spent the previous 10 months in the United States, studying nursing through an athletic scholarship and racing with the Fearless Femme team.

Starting off as a guest rider, Hanson’s ability to get results quickly earned her a permanent spot. It was a breakthrough year for the young Australian, who started out racing on the track in the Victorian county town of Kyneton around 13 years ago.

“I picked up good results and got quite a lot of attention from a lot of teams and riders. Now everyone knows my name in the bunch as one to watch rather than someone who can sneak in for a sprint every now and again,” Hanson told Ella CyclingTips after last year’s Warrny.

Those results included a first place at the Tour of Somerville and a second overall at the Tour of America’s Dairylands. Crits and sprints, though, are a world away from the endurance event that is the Melbourne to Warrnambool. Even women who regularly take on the longer distance road races are well out of their comfort zone because at 279-kilometres, the Melbourne to Warrnambool is more than two-and-a-half times the UCI-imposed race distance limit.

Being part of history

So why would Hanson go to the effort of sitting at her computer late at night in the US, waiting for entries to open at midday on the first of June in Australia, to secure a place in such a long race?

“I just wanted to be part of it,” said Hanson.

For Hanson and so many others in the Australian cycling community, the Warrny holds a special place. The tales of the feats of the strong men of the sport battling the distance, the elements and each other have been told for generations. More recent tales are that of the 13 women that earned themselves a spot on the finishers list between 1980 and 2014, including such familiar cycling names as revered British cyclist Beryl Burton and UCI Vice President Tracey Gaudry.

In fact, so many people wanted to be a part of the 100th edition of the Warrny that entries for the 2015 race sold out in just minutes. Hanson, who races with the Building Champions women’s squad in Australia, was among the lucky ones who secured a spot in the field of 300.

“My average race this year has been 40 km so to step up and try and do something that is 280 km was, I thought at the time, a little unrealistic. But it being the 100th edition and the first edition for the women, it was something I wanted to be part of and support,” said Hanson. “I didn’t think I’d be contending for the win.”

Working up the training kilometres to take part in the Anchor Point Village women’s category of the Melbourne to Warrnambool wasn’t an easy task. With a race on the calendar nearly every weekend it was hard enough to recover in between those, let alone throw a long training ride into the mix as well. It wasn’t until late August that Hanson had the time to start ramping up the kilometres in preparation, and even then her longest training ride was 170 kilometres.

With the short preparation and the fact that she had never ridden even close to 280 kilometres in one go, it was no wonder she took a cautious approach to her Warrny prospects. However, while her endurance was an unknown factor, her well-practiced crit and sprinting skills were crucial to her chances on that day.

The race

The race from the capital city of Victoria to the coastal city of Warrnambool has a mass start. On Saturday, 19 women lined up amongst the 300 starters and the front position was taken by the men competing in the National Road Series (NRS), which the Warrny is part of.

“It was a little daunting for sure, especially when they fired the gun. Everyone was rushing, trying to get to the front as quickly as possible, and just trying to stay upright and safe. I’m used to riding in big bunches and in chaotic starts so I didn’t find it too bad but I know some of the other women were a little shocked by it,” said Hanson.

“I knew from the start that it would be fairly dangerous at the back with 300 people and all the surging at the front tends to be amplified by the time you get to the back so it gets a little sketchy back there,” Hanson continued. “My goal was just to get to the front, in the middle of the NRS guys as quickly as possible just to try and keep myself safe.”

It was a tactic that worked well as Hanson got through the event unscathed while crashes behind her slowed some and took others out of the race. One of the favourites for a podium spot, Amy Bradley, suffered cracked ribs and a broken collarbone.

The first 70 kilometres passed smoothly, with Hanson going at a fast but manageable pace as she was ensconced in the peloton and sheltering from the headwind. But then, in the chaos at the first feedzone, Hanson missed out on getting her supplies.

“It was at that point there that I thought this is game over. I don’t have any food, I don’t have any water, so I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it to Warrnambool at that point,” said Hanson. “I knew if I could just get to the second feed at 150 kilometres with the bunch, I’d be fine and I’d be able to make it in.”

The generosity of others meant she overcame the difficulties of missing her first feed. And as the kilometres ticked on, she managed to hold her place in the peloton, which was splintering under the pressure of cross winds and crashes. She became unhitched at around the 200 kilometre mark on the hills of Camperdown. But all the other women had been dropped as well, and Miranda Griffiths of Holden Women’s Cycling Team was the only other female racer in sight. It was a pivotal moment for Hanson when at the climb in Camperdown, Griffiths, a renowned climber, crested the hill ahead of her. Griffiths was with a small group and Hanson behind and alone, so it was crucial for her to close the gap.

“I was probably just 50 metres behind her at the top of the hill and I was telling myself I have got to get on that bunch or else I will never see her again. That would have been a long 80 kilometres back to Warrnambool by myself,” said Hanson. “It took a lot to motivate myself to give that little bit over the top of the hill to get back on.”

She bridged the gap to Griffiths and the two women worked with a bunch of about 30 men through the remaining kilometres. Then, after spending nearly eight hours working hard to keep herself at the front of the women’s field, Hanson managed to get her weary body into sprint mode.

“I was questioning whether I would have any sprint left. I’d been counting down the kilometres and just telling myself that I would be happy to just be there and just to finish,” said Hanson. “Then coming into the last 10 or 20 kilometres I was thinking ‘I feel all-right’ and knowing my strengths and Miranda’s strengths, I am definitely the sprinter out of the two of us. The guys who were in the bunch opened the road up for us and let us have the sprint. I was sitting on Miranda and kicked from about 250 metres out, which as soon as I went I knew was way too far. My legs were hurting, but I was able to just keep going and pull it off. Neither of us had much left.”

“I definitely shocked myself being able to make it to that finish line, especially in first place,” said Hanson.

What’s next?

The first thing on Hanson’s plate after her win was, unsurprisingly, a little bit of recovery.

“Fortunately when I was sprinting I wasn’t really thinking how sore I was. It wasn’t until I crossed that finish line that I realised how dead my body actually was. Trying to step off my bike was painful. Any movement other than just sitting on my bike and my legs going up and down was painful. Walking up stairs was hell,” said Hanson.

She didn’t have long to get her body race ready again though, as the next weekend she headed to the finale of the Subaru Women’s National Road Series. After that a break, then it was the summer season of racing in Australia and back to the US to race with Team Colavita.

“I’m still only 20. I’ve got a lot of racing in front of me, so at the moment I am just taking every opportunity that is given to me and seeing where it leads,” said Hanson. “Eventually I’d like to make it to Europe but at the moment I’m really enjoying the American racing and it really suits me, so I’m definitely happy there at the moment..

“I just love racing my bike so I don’t mind where I am doing it, just so long as I am racing.”

It was announced earlier this month that Hanson will be joining the UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team in 2017.

Meet all the women who pedalled themselves into the history books in 2015, here.

You can follow the 2016 women’s event using the hashtag #WM2W16 or the dedicated twitter account.

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