It came down to the favourite, the mountain-biking outsider (Brendan Johnston - Team CCS Canberra), the WorldTour rider and the cycling tragic all vying for victory as the 267 kilometre race reached the outskirts of Warrnambool.
Attacks and counterattacks flew thick and fast in those final moments but ultimately it came down to a sprint, taken out by Johnston with a powerful surge to the finish line.
The WorldTour rider: Ben Perry (Israel Start-Up Nation) – 4th
The Canadian is on his maiden trip down under but chose to stick around for the Melbourne to Warrnambool. Growing up a bit of a cycling nerd and starved for cycling news in the North American winter months, he became aware of this legendary Australian race.
Perry got his chance to inspire the next generation with his ride, leaving little on the table as he forged the eventual winning move with his attack.
“It was an amazing race it was unreal,” said Perry. “Going on the Great Ocean Road for the first time, being here for the first time it was an excellent race, I enjoyed it.
“There was a group of 17 and I got across with a group of 10. Once we reached that climb, it seemed that they weren’t working and I just went as hard as I could and made that final group of five.”
Perry closed down moves and tried his own attacks in the final kilometres, but found himself well-marked as the race came down to the sprint.
“I just had no legs,” said Perry. “The guys kicked with what I thought was a long way to go. I was in front and tried to get on the wheel but all three of the guys were way too strong for me. Live and learn.”
Perry has been out in Australia since New Year’s Eve and the 25-year-old has fit into the Melbourne cycling culture well in his time here with regular ride partner Mark O’Brien also present in the final four.
“Yeah, I think he (O’Brien) was a little pissed off with me there in the finish,” said Perry. “He’s like ‘why’d you chase me back’. All bets are off with 500 metres to go in the finish of Warrnambool."
Perry took to the Australian scene like a fish to water and knows the riders and teams as well as most locals in his analysis of the race, recognising the former national road race champion was a significant danger.
“It’s funny,” said Perry, “I was looking at Freiberg for the sprint and he was looking at me and there was one time where he let a gap go and I was like ‘Freiberg!’ and he went ‘oh!’ and closed it, then he did it again.
“Overall, my first Melbourne to Warrnambool, a lot of headwind and a lot of rain. Felt good through it so can’t be too disappointed.”
Perry will have gained a lot of Australian fans on top of the friends he’s made here, so hopefully we’ll get to see him next summer.
The Cycling Tragic: Mark O’Brien (Inform TM Insight MAKE) – 3rd
Two years ago, Mark O’Brien announced he was stepping back from racing to work full-time, and maybe take on a sports director role to keep his hand in. The problem was he kept turning up to races fitter than his riders and trained the house down.
It’s no surprise he continues to impress with his performances in the toughest races.
“I’ll never stop mate,” said O’Brien. “A couple of years ago I said I’d go into work more, which I’ve done.
"Basically work full-time, coach on the side and then ride because I love it and I’ve always loved it. If I can ride at a reasonable level, I won’t be stopping any time soon.”
Inform TM Insight MAKE came into the race with a number of the best contenders in the event, including two-time winner Nathan Elliott, the perennial favourite Raphael Freienstein and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Steele von Hoff, but it was O’Brien who flew the flag in the finale proudly for the Victorian team.
“We had so many guys in the break behind,” said O’Brien, “so I knew if it came back it wasn’t the end of the world and I wasn’t stressed If it stayed away or not. I was feeling really good still and the team were happy to back me in.
“I said to the team last night that this was the big one that I want to win. It’s pretty much nationals, Grafton (to Inverell) and Warrny, those are the three races I put some emphasis on and really want to get a result.”
O’Brien put in a few haymaker attacks towards the finish, with one move at two kilometres from the finish requiring Johnston’s full exertion to close down.
“I thought that was it when I got the gap there,” said O’Brien of that move, “that I’d just have to keep the pressure on.
"Unfortunately, once Trekky (Johnston) got up to me at one kilometre to go, he wasn’t keen to come through as he knows he’s quick… and everyone knows they’re quicker than me!
“I was in a place where I could ride it and get second, or let Freibs and Ben get back on and try my luck again. I thought I might have had the gap again if they hestitated, but unfortunately Ben jumped across and dragged them back up to me.”
For a guy driven by his passion for riding, you get a sense O’Brien was excited to be part of such an enthralling finish, even if his preferred podium spot was taken by someone else.
“I had to go out trying,” said O’Brien. “I’m happy enough, but also really peeved because I really wanted to tick off a win here. 10 years ago, I think I was second here, so it’s really annoying.”
He says it all with a broad grin though, so it’s clear that he’ll back another few times at least to fight it out.
The Favourite: Michael Freiberg (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) - 2nd
When Australian cycling guru and veteran of 21 ‘Warrnys’ Tim Decker names you favourite before the event, you’re the favourite.
Freiberg went in with that weight on his shoulders on a day when any extra baggage was going to take its toll.
The former world and Australian champion was often the rider called on to respond to moves and then didn’t quite have it in the sprint against a rapid Johnston.
“It was a difficult day out,” said Freiberg, “the break was never really allowed to go.
"About 150 kilometres out, we made that big move and it kept splitting after that. There was five of us with about 95 kilometres to go. It blew to bits in the last five kilometres and I was second on the line.
“I took a bit of time in the jump and probably left it one or two seconds too late. He jumped ahead and got a clean run… there wasn’t much left in the tank.”
The West Australian hard man was understandably disappointed after the finish but conceded with grace to the rider that was better on the day.
“I went into the race as a bit of a favourite and there was a lot put on me to race to the line and close a lot of moves. That took its toll in the end. But Johnston was great today and he deserved the win.”
After another great edition of this one-day classic, the plaudits and headlines will rightly go to Johnston.
But the tales of the riders who arrived together after 267 kilometres of hard racing should also be added to Melbourne to Warrnambool and Australian cycling folklfore.