Why one of the world’s oldest races, the Melbourne to Warrnambool must continue in 2018

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This week, Cycling Australia announced the outcomes of its long anticipated review of the National Road Series (NRS). The new plans include a major revamp of the series, with event calendar changes and the grouping of races into separate ‘seasons’ for the classics, stage races, and criteriums.

There’s some other changes flagged too, around better development options for NRS teams, and building additional racing opportunities both within Australia and abroad.

At face value, the new Cycling Australia (CA) plan for the top end of domestic road cycling looks positive. It was a long time coming, but at least there’s now a strategic vision for the future that aims to strengthen and grow Australian elite road-racing.

Unfortunately, the proposed NRS changes also come with a very large and bitter pill – CA has decided that the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic will not run in 2018.

According to officials, the world’s second oldest running one-day road race will be postponed until April 2019 to bring it in line with the new NRS calendar, and to minimise the impact of state government funding restrictions. Cycling Australia’s general manager of sport, Kipp Kaufmann, told CyclingTips on Wednesday that rules prevent the state government from funding the race in October 2018 and April 2019 (twice in that financial year).

Funding has long been an issue for the Warrnambool. The classic failed to run a few times in its first four decades because of administrative troubles and a lack of money. And in recent years instability in race management and promotions arrangements since 2012 has also created financial challenges.

Of course, the resourcing of cycling events like this is a significant issue. But the implication by officials that the Warrny should be postponed in 2018 because of government funding issues is stretching things a little. These days the Victorian state government contributes relatively little to supporting this great race – the previous $50,000 per annum provided by the Napthine Coalition government between 2011-14 was cut to $20,000 p/a by the current Andrews Labor government.

The funding challenge is not insurmountable. This is the Melbourne to Warrnambool after all – Australia’s oldest cycling classic graced by some of our greatest riders in 102 editions over 122 years, and a race that has inspired tens of thousands of entrants during its history.

I don’t buy the lack of funding rationale. The popular vlogger Cycling Maven raised nearly $50k for an extended European holiday and a handful of videos in the name of cycling, which shows people will support the things they identify with.

If we can’t find the funds to support our biggest road classic then something is desperately wrong in Australian cycling today.

So, regardless of the official rationale provided for postponing the Warrnambool classic in 2018, such a step appears unnecessary. There are other options.

Rather than mothballing the Warrnambool for 2018, why not hand it back to a committed and passionate group like the Warrnambool Citizen’s Road Race Committee? Why not look at running it with the financial support that could be generated from increasing entry fees, and a wider suite of small business and cycling brand sponsorships (especially the luxury and multitude of other bespoke brands)?

What about a major crowd-funding campaign built around the ideas of honouring and protecting Australian cycling history and heritage, and the cycling community as investors or subscribers of this race?

It ought to be very achievable through those means to raise the shortfall in government funding that CA officials have said is the issue in 2018. Even the ballpark $100,000 to $120,000 needed to stage this important race next year should be possible.

To see the Warrny disappear in 2018 would be a tragedy. However, what would be more concerning is if such an outcomeeventuated without any significant protest from the cycling community.

It has been surprising to see virtually no public opposition expressed this week (or any significant surprise or disappointment, or even public support for that matter) in response to the announcement by CA of plans to shelve the race. I wonder what the past winners of the Warrnambool, and the riders who have ridden it multiple times think about the planned change.

You have to also wonder about the level of engagement of Cycling Australia members (from the club amateurs to the elite and professional riders), if the news of losing the famous Melbourne to Warrnambool classic for a year and a significant change to the timing of the race barely evokes any response. Surely it can’t be the case that everyone agrees with that decision? Is the cycling community listening to CA anymore?

Fortunately, some signs of life have emerged over the last day or so. A handful of individuals from within cycling are starting to react to the news that the Warrnambool classic will not be held in 2018.

One of those reactions came from the long-standing custodians of the race, the Warrnambool Citizens’ Road Race Committee. President Brendan Gleeson confirmed on Wednesday that the Committee was ‘very disappointed’ it was not informed by Cycling Australia before details of the planned changes were released publicly this week.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from the Committee’s meeting with Cycling Victoria that was scheduled yesterday.

Another reaction has come from within the club-based cycling community. A well-known individual in cycling advocacy circles that I spoke with on Thursday is exploring the feasibility of running a ‘crowd-funded’ edition of the Warrnambool – an idea for a grassroots initiative to honour the history and heritage of the race by ensuring it runs in 2018.

The ‘Warrny’ is certainly no stranger to difficulty. It has struggled previously, periodically disappearing a few times due to the challenges posed by world wars, administrative disputes, and resourcing shortfalls.

But while the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic has survived through tough times and changes before, putting the race on hold in 2018 is the wrong thing to do. Such a move would disrespect the long history and rich heritage of this important Australian cycling race.

It would also break an impressive 70-year run of consecutive Warrnambools from 1947 to the present day. The resulting loss of momentum may well place the future viability of the race in further jeopardy.

Postponing the Warrnambool in 2018 would send a message to cycling fans and cyclists alike that even the significant monuments of our sport can be sacrificed in the name of progress and change. The way such heritage events are treated provides a telling marker of the state of cycling culture.

If the peak bodies of Cycling Australia and Cycling Victoria cannot support the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic in the manner that the race’s history and heritage deserves, the time may have come for the people to take back control of the ‘people’s race’.

About the author

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer and cyclist based in Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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