Warrnambool. Riders filter across the finish line, heads bowed. Desperate, hollow eyes popping from their sockets. Empty bodies finally ceasing to pedal. Unmatching wheels, spare bikes with no race numbers, broken equipment. Raw skin zinging beneath shredded kit on hips and shoulders. Bar tape sticky with the remnants of energy gels and sports drinks.
Each sunken face represents a wild story from the last six hours. Rising sheepishly onto the flats of their bars, the riders coast past the finish. It all comes flooding in – the pain, the frustration, the exhaustion. Wiping sweat and saliva from their mouths. Battered and empty.
A photographer snaps images as they hang their heads. Now, in their beaten-down state, they embody the beautiful ugliness of this race. The camera captures the texture of the grime on their faces. The crisp white of their eyeballs, rolled to the tops of their sockets, too tired to lift their heads. Piercing, shattered stares. The suffering, the emotions, the human traits which are put on display, are what make this race. A living, breathing beast that creates hundreds of stories with the fate it deals out. That’s what makes it so prestigious, an event that everyone wants to win.
Among the riders who roll in, there are a handful who’ve had a more tumultuous day than most. They trickle over the line, amid the dribs and drabs of detonated bunches. There’s little fanfare. Often not even team support. No one to take their bikes as they stumble off them, muscles squirming beneath skin as they cramp.
These riders disperse quietly into the crowd, stop and slump on their top tubes, forearms braced against the bars. Legs seizing, faces pale, bodies clutched by pain they’ve pushed aside for the last three hours. They begin to look around. Hoping to find the lift back to Melbourne they managed to tag along with – if it hasn’t gone without them. Their stories of the day are some of the most epic and dramatic in the peloton. They’re the riders in the women’s category.
The women’s race is not like other races. It’s better. So here’s a look inside the wild world of the women’s Warnie – the best race you’ve never watched.
It never has a big field – maybe only ten riders, but it’s a strong field. The race is unpredictable at the best of times. There are no women’s team cars and often female riders sitting in podium positions can be behind the main peloton – and behind the neutral spares vehicle. One puncture can turn the race on its head, as a rider stands helplessly, waiting for someone to give them a wheel.
Then there are the crashes. Sometimes you get caught up in them. Sometimes they save you. How are they a good thing, ever? You can be dropped or dangling at the back in crosswinds – gritted teeth, jamming your legs over. Watching the race get away through desperate, squinting eyes. Then a crash happens. Suddenly entire men’s teams are chasing to get back to the bunch. You get a free ride back with them. A second chance.
A race within a race
A race with factors bigger than your goals at play. You can be dropped on a climb 30 kilometres in and still end up winning. The break gets away in the men’s race and they ease up. You see flashing lights in the distance, then the riders, hear the beeps of the convoy as you weave through it. Re-joining as though nothing happened.
There are the tactics – getting NRS men to help. It’s contentious how much assistance someone should accept from male riders. But that only adds to the drama. Men dropping back to pace someone back on. Others yelling at them for doing it. Everything seems to be fair game.
A true epic, a struggle to survive
There’s always the risk of not making time cut. There’s no special consideration here. If no one makes the cut, no one wins the race. That’s the brutal nature of it. So, if you get dropped, you work with what you’ve got. Sometimes it means yelling at C grade men to pull turns in a grupetto. Often it involves long kilometres in the wind by yourself.
And there are the logistics. If you get too far behind, the feeders leave the feed zones before you get there. Then you have to bargain. Trading a gel for a sip of water with the guys in your bunch. It’s good to get them on side. Sometimes you can convince them to work with you against another girl in the finish.
The cards continue to be reshuffled. While someone’s race is ending in disappointment, someone who thought their race was already over is seeing a glimmer of hope in the distance. Everyone desperately wants to finish. Riders push on through crashes and incidents, continuing to suffer, even when there’s no hope of seeing the bunch again. Devastated if they’re forced to climb defeatedly into a car. It’s another level of suffering. Another level of drama.
That photographer at the finish captures the stories of the race in the eyes of the riders. The sweat and road grime that coats their tired bodies reflects the turbulent day they’ve been through. Some of the best examples of this – the wild stories of suffering, the rollercoasters of luck that represent the Warnie – are among those who roll in quietly in the middle of a bunch. They can almost go unnoticed as they claim podium positions, but even in the seemingly innocuous ride is a long story of struggle, opportunities taken and missed.
They’re the riders in the women’s Warnie – one of the best, most underrated races on the calendar.
It may not be its own separate event or play out the way the men’s race does. But it’s not about having something that’s equivalent to what the men have. It’s about having something that’s unique and epic in its own right. And that’s what the women’s Warnie is.