New record set on Melbourne’s 1 in 20 climb: Q&A with new KOM Liam Johnston

Freddy Ovett's old mark was beaten by one second.

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It’s the most iconic climb in Melbourne and one of the most-ridden climbs in all of Australia. An almost-7 km section of Mountain Highway from The Basin to Sassafras in the Dandenong Ranges, better known as the 1 in 20 (an approximation of its gradient). The 1 in 20 is a popular testing ground for local road cyclists of all abilities. A time near the top of the Strava leaderboard puts you among some of the best climbers in the country.

This past Saturday morning, 19-year-old mountain biker turned roadie Liam Johnston set a new Strava KOM on the 1 in 20, taking the crown from pro racer Freddy Ovett by a single second. His time? 12:19 for the most popular 1 in 20 segment – an average of 32.9 km/h. His average power output for that effort was a hefty 486 watts (6.35 W/kg).

CyclingTips caught up with Johnston to talk about his record ride, which came as part of a group effort up the climb.

Matt de Neef: Congrats on the KOM! What was the plan with the ride? Did you go into it thinking you guys would have a crack at the KOM?

Liam Johnston: No, I got a message from Mark [O’Brien] the night before just saying that we were going to have a crack. So I went out and met them. There was like seven or eight of us. We didn’t have the KOM in mind; we were just going to do an attempt. And then, we took the KOM.

How did it play out on the climb?

Raph Freinstein led out for the first, I think, three or four minutes and then it was basically me, Marko, Drew [Morey], and Nick White that swapped turns. And then with probably 2 km to go, it was only me, Drew and Mark, and then by the line, it was just me and Drew.

I heard Drew had a GPS issue and that he got a bit unlucky?

He got stitched up a bit. He started in my wheel and then I finished right on his wheel. And on Strava there’s two seconds difference. So I’m not really sure how that works.

What were the conditions like?

It wasn’t too windy. There was a bit of wind and it was a tailwind, but it wasn’t phenomenal. And it was raining at the top so that was a bit grim.

The 1 in 20 climb in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne.

You must have felt pretty good out there.

Yeah, I felt very fresh. I’ve been training a lot and I’d just come off a pretty solid week. As soon as I left home I was just feeling good.

Were you keeping an eye on the time throughout the effort?

I wasn’t looking at my GPS too much. I was sort of just trying to sit in the wheel and be as aero as possible and then when I pulled turns I’d justgo by feel, I guess.

On the climb itself there’s a mark [on the road] that says 1 km to go. And when we got to that point, I looked down and it was 10 minutes and 20 seconds and I was like “Right, it’s going to take two minutes if you go 30 km/h so we should be on here.” So that was the only time where I actually thought that we could be in the running to get the KOM. And I basically just hung on to the top and that was that.

Did you see once you got to the top that you’d got the KOM?

I lapped it and it was 12:20 [the same time as Ovett’s KOM on the segment in question– ed.] so we didn’t get our hopes up too much because I could have lapped it a bit later or earlier. Maybe not exactly at the line. But yeah we were pretty surprised, actually.

What do you make of Freddy Ovett’s time? A lot of people reckon it must have been motorpaced. Now that you’ve taken the KOM in a group, do you reckon Freddy’s effort was motorpaced, or do you reckon he could have done it on his own?

I have heard that argument before. The conditions could have been different. I don’t know how aero Freddy is, I’m not really sure how much he weighs, there could have been a tailwind. There’s just so many variables. He’s obviously a professional rider and he must be really, really good. I’m not going to just immediately say “Yeah, he motorpaced”.

It’s definitely plausible that he could have done it by himself. I looked at his file on Strava and he’s got his power and heart rate and and it all seems to match up. And it’s a similar watts-per-kilo to what I did on Saturday.

What was your best time on the 1 in 20 before Saturday?

I had a crack by myself a couple of months back just with the full training setup. I was actually just doing a training ride and then I noticed it was super windy. So I went down to The Basin and had a full crack up it and I got 13:10 I think, which just got me on the leaderboard.

Do you reckon you could go faster in a group than you guys did on Saturday?

There’s probably a few more stops we could have pulled out. We didn’t even leave our bottles or saddlebags at the bottom. I reckon if people ran race setups – race wheels, no bottles, no saddlebags, maybe a bit more wind …. As I think Freddy said before, I think sub-12 could be possible. Definitely not by yourself though, I reckon.

For people who aren’t familiar with you and your riding, can you tell us a bit about yourself? You race MTB and road right?

Yeah, I grew up on a mountain bike. I started racing on the national circuit when I was 13 which was great. We had a solid group of guys. As an under 15, we sort of just went around Australia. I progressed through U15s and U17s and in U19s, I started to get real serious. I got third at Nationals and I was able to go overseas to South Africa and Malaysia to do some Junior World Series races, which was really good.

And then I went to Canada for World Champs – I actually got selected for the Australian team, for U19s, and that’s the highest that I got in that side of the sport. And I was going to have another crack as a second-year U19 and try and go to Worlds again but then COVID happened. And then I just switched focus to road racing pretty much.

What sort of races have you been doing since you switch to road?

I did Nationals this year. It came off the back of not a whole lot of training, just because I wasn’t too familiar with the riding that I had to do to excel on the road.

I’ve since switched coachs a couple of months ago and we’re already seeing pretty big increases in just the power that I’m putting out, and my endurance. So I’m pretty keen to see how I go.

What’s your plan for the Aussie summer and then moving into 2022?

Look, not too sure at the moment. I’m definitely doing the time trial and road race at Nationals. But in terms of races after that, there’s just a bit to be confirmed. Yeah, hopefully I get some starts at races.

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