• Marcus Culey, left, on the podium with 2020 national road race champion Cameron Meyer and Lucas Hamilton. (Con Chronis/Zac Williams )Source: Con Chronis/Zac Williams
The revelation of the 2020 edition of the men’s National Road Race Championships was Marcus Culey, fighting all day in the break, then surviving when caught by the best riders in the race to battle to the podium. Jamie Finch-Penninger conducted a series of interviews over the months leading into the 2021 Nationals to chart the journey of Culey towards nationals.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

3 Feb 2021 - 10:19 AM 

“I know I can get to the point where I’m physically one of the strongest guys so I’d be confident in the road race if I can get to the condition that I know I can get to. And if I can get all my equipment and set-up right before the time trial then I’d be quite confident of a podium there.”

That was the mission statement at the start of this process, a series of discussions with Marcus Culey about the journey towards nationals with some lofty ambitions. Races are won well before the actual event, months of training build upon years of accumulated effort, so we’ll take a quick peek into the winding journey of one rider towards a major goal.

Mission Nationals - November 24, 2020

This goal has been in Marcus’ head for some time. Starved of competitive events as Asian Tour racing with his Malaysian employers, Team Sapura, has dried up, his attention turned to the one event that seems relatively certain, nationals.

The first question, why the nationals?

“For someone like me who races in Asia, it’s the one real chance to show that you can be competitive in Australia, I don’t really do too many other races here,” said Culey. “The Asian Tour… it gets called easy, mostly by people who have never raced there.”

It’s not necessarily about dreams of a WorldTour spot if he can snag a win or respectable placings, he’s a realist who acknowledges that 27-year-old neo-pros aren’t a commonplace occurrence, and it hasn’t been about that even if his results and quality have suggested that he’s probably at that level.

“I not going to leave the sport and say ‘I never made it to WorldTour-level and it’s a failure’,” said Marcus. “I started a lot later than a lot of people and you have to take it one step at a time. Push yourself… but not be disappointed if you don’t get to the top.”

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Culey famously came 3rd in the road race, but was also 7th in the time trial and he was initially set to go all-in for the TT at nationals, with the thinking that he could get very close to the time last year’s winner Luke Durbridge produced.

“I was looking a few things really,” said Culey. “The power – I could have put out a bit more as I hadn’t spent too much training on my TT bike. The equipment – when I was with Sapura I could choose my own equipment but changing teams now it will be a lot harder than when I originally planned.

“That’s part of the reason why I’m going back to a bit more of a balance between the road race and the TT.”

Culey has a new team for 2021, Japanese squad Team UKYO, with the squad having a formidable reputation as regularly setting the benchmark in Asia. With that, there’s less freedom though. And while Marcus estimates he spent six or seven thousand dollars on equipment to help improve performance, when that showed on the road with results, that was condoned and even supported by Sapura.

How much difference does that make in the nationals time trial?

“If it’s a 46-minute TT,” said Culey, “you could probably buy two to three minutes if you get it all dialed. You look at Rohan Dennis, he’s running 3D-printed custom-molded extensions which is getting him in the perfect position. He’s got a custom-fit skinsuit made with a body-scanner.

“You compare that to Mitchelton-Scott (now Team BikeExchange) who’ve chucked on the normal Scott extensions and it makes quite a bit of difference.”

With some of those equipment choices and his exact TT setup with his new team still unknown for the exacting preparation that Culey wants, he’s also incorporated an additional focus on the road race.

Marcus is eyeing up what his preparation will look like from ten weeks out, a good time for him to start building form coming from very little condition comparative to a normal season. He’s hoping to get a ride at the (at this stage heavily rumoured) Santos Festival of Cycling to get some racing form, but more importantly, build his form to where it was at this point last year.

“I want to see improvement every week or month going towards it, power up, weight down really. Nothing super specific. Plus, you always have in the back of your mind that if there’s a few cases in Victoria they might panic and cancel it.”

Crashing back down to earth – January 20, 2021

“There was a particularly fast part of the ride and there was a deep pothole,” said Marcus, reliving the crash. “I rode straight into it and straight over the bars. Ambulance, then six hours in hospital.

“It was on Hell ride (a renowned Melbourne bunch ride), I broke the bike, broke the derailleur, broken shifter. I didn’t ride for a few days and had to get a new bike stem, new parts and a new bike built up. That’s not ideal, to have a week off a month out because you’ve got no skin.”

Culey had crashed on the second of January on a trip to Melbourne, fresh off a strong block of training that saw him cover 1200 kilometres in eight days from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. He took off a lot of skin, thankfully didn’t break anything apart from his bike and components, but came out with a severely disrupted preparation.

The 27-year-old is talking from Adelaide where he’s about to race the Festival of Cycling as part of a composite team, alongside riders who will be riding WorldTour races later in the year. Culey’s goals are modest leading into the event off his hampered preparation.

“I’ve only done two intensity sessions before I’ve come here, I think I’m on the improve,” said Culey but the worse news was to come. “The numbers aren't great, I don’t think I’ll be anywhere near where I was in January last year.”

The update for the time trial shot is similarly bleak. With such a clear importance on getting his equipment and preparation well set before the test against the clock, there’s no clear word on when Marcus will get to ride a TT bike again, let alone the one he’ll be riding at nationals.

Shipping problems, taxes, uncertainty about whether races would be on at all so the team didn’t want to send skinsuits and wheels, the reasons are varied and all valid, but result in a situation where there’s little hope for a top result in the specialised discipline.

“They won’t let us use non-sponsor equipment,” said Culey, who also left his old TT bike in Sydney before Covid cases in Sydney resulted in him extending his stay south of the border, “so I haven’t been able to ride a TT bike for weeks now. 

“I’ll probably sign up, but if you don’t have a skinsuit or the right wheels… I don’t want to start with a one minute disadvantage already.”

Nationals eve - January 31, 2021

So, a bit of poetic licence, it’s not literally the day before nationals, especially for Culey, who will now just be riding the criterium on the 5th and the road race on the 7th of February. But in training terms, almost all the work is done and it’s now about hoping that it’s enough and that the racing goes well.

It’s a time for an evaluation of sorts, not the final, brutal 185.6-kilometre test on the Mt Buninyong circuit, but one drawn from Culey’s experience.

“I’m going okay,” said Marcus. “I’m not nearly as good as I was last year. The form is improving quickly at last and the numbers are starting to spike, but I’m not near last year. I might find myself hitting peak condition two or three weeks after nationals which is a bit frustrating.

“The problem with my preparation this year was that I’d get a decent block in and then something would throw me off and disrupt it. I think I moved accommodation four times, crashed at the start of the new year… I haven’t been able to link the training together really.

“Last year I knew months in advance exactly what I was doing, doing racing in mid-December, Christmas at home then going to altitude and then to nationals. Here, I was bouncing between people's couches or Airbnbs.”

Marcus is an even-keeled guy, you won’t find too much to ruffle him in the long-term, and while reading all this may sound like a litany of excuses, it’s more just a reflection of an attitude that notes the problems without getting emotionally affected by them.

“It’s definitely what you get used to racing the Asian Tour,” said Culey of dealing with setbacks. “Laughing about moving goalposts is a very common theme of the Asian Tour, you just have to laugh and adapt.”

Part of those goalposts moving is Culey’s non-participation in the TT, the event that got all of this started. The bike will arrive this week, and with the build, fit, testing, etc all still to come, let alone practicing on it, there’s no desire to compete in the event.

“It was probably seven or eight months ago that I decided that I wanted to have a really hot crack at the TT,” said Culey. “That hasn’t eventuated to how I wanted it to but you have to move on and make the best of it.”

So it’s onto the road race as the new goal of the disrupted national campaign, with some optimism amidst the poor news to date. Signs weren’t bad in the Festival of Cycling, he was in the strong stage three break and at other points in the race.  

It was a long way off where the top riders were at the pointy end, but it’s a very hazy one to analyse as the Team UKYO rider explained.

“I couldn’t read too much into how things went in Adelaide, despite thinking that we'd get a pretty good idea beforehabd” said Culey. “It was just so hot that I don’t think anyone was really in a position where they were racing their best.”

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In what shapes as an open edition of the road race, there are a lot of question marks about how the race will play out and how WorldTour squad BikeExchange will race the event. In terms of tactics, it’s likely that it will be a day for some Culey aggression in a similar manner to 2020, if not with quite the same legs.

“If I had the condition of last year, I’d be confident to be able to follow the moves from the bunch,” said Culey, “but at the moment I’ll have to look to get up the road. I have a teammate this year (Nathan Earle) so we’ll have to make some decisions when we talk before the race.”

Big ambitions thwarted by the realities of the world crushing them down will be a relatable theme for many who lived through 2020, maybe Culey is the champion we need in 2021? Or maybe not, the action in the road race will tell.

This is just a single story of a lone rider, of the many that will front up on the startline on Sunday, but hopefully one that is illustrative of the decision-making, effort and strain that goes into one day of racing.