Various pronunciations of a little-known rider were on the lips of many at nationals, ‘Kewelly’, ‘Cully’, some managed to come up ‘Curly’.
Sydneysider Culey wasn’t in the race scripts for many heading into the Australian nationals, but forced his way in by sheer force of will to become the only constant during a grueling edition.
The normal rule that ‘once a breakaway rider is caught, they get dropped pretty soon after’ didn’t apply as the Team Sapura rider hung tough against the attacks of much-vaunted opposition in the final kilometres.
“It was a nice feeling looking around in the last couple of laps,” Culey said.
“There were seven or eight WorldTour riders, me and Michael Freiberg, and then just me (when defending champion Freiberg was dropped).
“I was sort of cramping on the climb in the last two laps, I was probably lucky that there was a bit of a headwind on the first section and the pace wasn’t really on. I got gapped in the last lap and managed to ride back on with Harper and then it was all on for the finish.”
Culey was one the main animators early in the race, the strongest in the middle stages and then hung tough when the WorldTour riders came to the fore and managed to summon some reserves of energy to attack in the final kilometres and snag himself a spot on the podium.
With his muscles still trembling from the exertion of the effort during the post-race interview, Culey went through the action of the day from his perspective.
“It was a long day,” he said.
“I went a couple of times in the early laps and when I got clear I was actually not too happy with myself as there were only two of us and there was a long way to go.
“But once you get that 40 second gap, you’re sort of committed by then and when we kept riding it became clear that the bunch was trying to hold us at two minutes. We had to cruise along and try and see what we could make of it later in the race.”
Culey’s definition of ‘cruising’ may differ from others, as Team Bridgelane - the strongest domestic squad - were working hard behind having missed the move, with their resources dwindling as they were dropped after expending themselves to chase Culey and his breakaway companions.
Parked alongside the likes of Bridgelane and Mitchelton-Scott in the feed zone was the figure of Marcus’ father, Derek Culey, passing on water, electrolyte mix, a banana or whatever was requested by the younger Culey as he whizzed past each ascent of Mt Buninyong.
The result and performance of Culey may have surprised some but the 26-year-old was confident of his abilities, and expectations were high coming in.
“I would have been disappointed if I didn’t finish in the top 10,” Culey said.
“The training is going well enough to get a couple of races strung together in November and December so I knew the form was good. That top 10 probably sounds ambitious to a lot of people, but if you don’t set the bar high then it’s hard to achieve what you want to.”
Culey was a comparative late bloomer in Cycling, emerging onto the National Road Series in his early 20s and supporting Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma, then SwissWellness) to some of his early victories.
He was passed up by premier domestic squad Bridgelane, then Bennelong SwissWellness, which took the majority of the Harper-led team in a merger.
At that point, a different route opened up for Culey, to join St George Continental, whose primary focus is riding the Asian races.
St George had some good luck in picking up Ben Dyball, when he returned from an unsuccessful stagiare stint in Europe, and Culey quickly became Dyball’s right-hand man in some of the biggest races in Asia.
When Dyball was made an attractive offer to ride for Malaysian squad Team Sapura, it was only natural that Culey would accompany him.
What wasn’t expected was the proliferation of his personal results from there, taking out a number of stages and general classification results and finishing 2019 with seven UCI victories to his name, including a stage win at the prestigious Tour de Langkawi.
“I don’t often get to race in Australia anymore, I’m pretty focused on riding the Asian tour,” Culey said.
“It’s nice to pop my head up every now and then and say ‘hey I’m still here and the level in Asia is getting quite good now’.
It was a brutal and unforgiving edition of nationals that saw just 35 riders of the initial 111 who started finish the course, and with the calibre of those he bested more than a few in commentary said it would only be a matter of time before Culey was snapped up by a European squad.
“It would be amazing,” he said.
“I’ve never set the end goal of my cycling career to make the WorldTour … I don’t want to walk away disappointed if it never happens. I’m just every effort to take it as far as I can and try and enjoy the process.”
Age may count against Culey, at 26, he’s older than the typical WorldTour recruit and unfortunately top-tier performances in January tend not to stick in the minds of managers making recruitment decisions in July.
However, perhaps it’s serendipitous that two riders Culey has had a lot to do with over his career, Harper (25 years old) and Dyball (30 years old) provide the blueprint for WorldTour entry that Culey can follow.