In Australian cycling folklore, the Melbourne to Warrnambool road race is king. The oldest bike race in the world is for many Australian cyclists, the pinnacle of achievement. This years event starts from the Werribee Park National Equestrian Centre, Werribee @ 7.30am Sat 12th Oct and is being held over a shorter but tougher 256km course, making it a supreme test of strength and endurance. The course traditionally has always been fairly flat, but the open western plains and the strong winds make the race the test that it is. For many, this race is the pinnacle of one day races in Australia, and it has a heritage to match the European classics like Paris Roubaix or Tour of Flanders. This year marks 118 years since the first, and will be the 98th edition of this race.
In October 1939 World War 2 had broken out and the “Warnie” that year had 284 starters, no doubt many were thinking this was their last chance before being shipped out to fight on foreign shores. Sadly many of those riders did not return. My own father Jack was one who lined up that year on his 5th attempt before heading off to war. He loved this race and told me that in the 1939 race every bike rider he knew was there, and all the greats of Australian cycling. He recalled riding the last 30 miles with the great Sir hubert Opperman and describing what a gentleman and champion he was. Luckily my dad did come back from the war but did not race the Warnie again until 1980 at the fair age of 67 (and finished). I was inspired by him to race it lining up and finishing the 1990 version. Lucky for me that year we had a strong tail wind meaning I finished in 5 and a half hours at around a 50km/h average, while Dean Woods set the course record in 5hours 12 mins astonishing! Most years the weather is not so favourable so you can count on being out there battling the wind for around 7 hours.
For Croydon Cycleworks team captain Tom Leaper, this is a race that eluded him for 8 attempts. He has come close a number of times with some top 10 finishes but with these races you need everything to go right on the day. In 2011 Tom was in the lead group feeling good when a puncture 5km to robbed him of his chance that day. Having raced as a pro in Europe finishing the Giro D’Italia and Giro D’Lombardia amongst other classics and world championships, Tom knows what it takes to succeed on the big stage. This year he has the support of his team including Cameron Parlevliet, Matt Boys, and Nick Smith, with manager Marc Wilson. I spoke to Tom a week prior to the 2013 race
Tom, thanks for answering a few questions. What is the attraction of the Warrnambool?
The history, the prestige, the fact everyone talks about the race both leading up and after it. Guys train specifically for it, long kms in the saddle in the months leading up. “It’s all for the Warny” is the popular saying. For me and most guys who only ride part time with jobs, kids, etc. finishing top 10 is as good as a win. It’s a mind game as much as a physical challenge to stay with the top guys, it’s a high class race and it’s only once a year. It’s as close to a world championship or end of season grand final as we’ll get.
How does it compare to the European one day races?
The distance is unique on the Australian calendar so it’s considered by all here the ultimate one day road race. There is often rain, there is always wind and the best teams and some international riders makes for a classic event. It’s not particularly hilly but the conditions make it a race of attrition. 200+ riders on the start line and the atmosphere is always one of nerves until after the first hour when it settles down. There is usually a break that forms early, it’s rare that it stays away. There’s always good crowds through the main towns and at the feed stations. The long slightly uphill finish straight is iconic of country cycling, the community come out in a big way to support it.
How many times have you raced the warnie and what results?
Not sure exactly, first one was in about 1996 we started in Swanston St, City and rode over the Westgate. We rode down the Princes Hwy, I recall a major sprint in Geelong for $1000 before it followed the main Hwy all the way to Warrnambool. Whilst I was professional I didn’t get the chance to ride it as I usually did Giro d’ Lombardia which was on around the same time. Since returning from retirement in 2007 I’ve raced it 5 times, so I’d say about 8 times in total, twice finishing top 10.
How have you trained for it?
Consistent training through the year. A slow build up with more intensity on the ergo and local road races in the past month or two. I haven’t done any rides over 150km, I’m looking to be strong for moments of pressure such as changes in wind direction or attacks from the bigger teams. If I had time I would have certainly done some longer rides but my lifestyle this year hasn’t enabled it so it’s about quality not quantity.
What tactics do you expect from the big teams?
Genysis and Drapac will be desperate to win. They will attack each other most of the way or place a rider or two in a break and look to use their numbers in the later stages. I expect a selection to occur after the half-way point and potentially again after the climb from Camperdown. In the final 30km there will be a lot of aggression, it often comes down to numbers, who’s looked after themselves the best and a little luck.
The course has changed this year, with a shorter but harder course. How will that affect results and how are you planning to tackle it?
There aren’t too many hills towards the end that effect the result, it’s more a question of the wind and team tactics that decide the race rather than the course itself. I’ll be looking to keep the fuel tank as full as possible, eating and drinking enough are critical. Following ‘the right’ wheels and looking for opportunities with the right riders. After such a long race, it takes a huge amount of confidence to go solo at the end, getting into a small but cohesive working group might be best.
What about equipment choice. What will you be using and why?
I’ll be on my Croydon team issue Trek Madone. Its the new aero frame which saves quite a few watts of energy, and it all helps. Also I’ll use the Bontrager Aoleus wheels, which are brilliant, again very aero and helps save energy which you need every bit of come the latter parts of the race. Depending on the forecast I’ll probably use the 50mm front and 70mm rear wheel. Also you need to be comfortable so wear clothing that is tried and proven. It’s not the day to test out a new saddle or pair of knicks thats for sure!
Thanks Tom I appreciate the effort you have made to train for this, and your recent good results. I think you have the form for a good race. Good luck!
Thanks Mick, I really appreciate all the support you have given me this year, you’ve made me feel like a pro rider again. It’s more than I could have ever asked for and I hope we can get Croydon Cycle Works on the podium and in all the photos.
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