The profile of the route isn’t going to give any riders nightmares, but there are some punchy climbs midway through the race that turned out to be the key section where the decisive attack escaped the peloton. The ‘Warrny’ is a tough battle or slog for most of the 267-kilometre course, an attritional race where a different set of tactics and mindset come into play than the shorter races that most in the NRS peloton are familiar with.
“It's navigating the course and adding on the distance and working out where to use your energy and when not to,” said Decker. “When to keep the group going and when to break it apart and be a part of that final move.”
“This course starts out flat, has a good amount of vertical metres with short climbs right through that middle piece and it's quite flat at the end. I'm not saying the start's easy at all, it's a cumulative effect.
“On this course, they can force the issue in and around the climbs in that middle section, on the older courses, the splits would happen in the wind or on the skinny roads. That's changed the way the race unfolds now."
The race is shaped by the wind and how the riders deal with as much as the physical terrain, with a headwind expected for a large part of the race on Saturday. Decker explained the effect of a headwind was likely to have on the 227-rider peloton.
"It might take a bit longer for the moves to establish themselves and the move might not get ahead as far,” said Decker. “The beauty of the course is that, even if it is a headwind, at some stage the race will turn and it will be a crosswind. It depends whether the teams want to take advantage of it."
Jamie Finch-Penninger: "If there's anyone in the world that knows how this race route is going to play out, it's Tim Decker, veteran of twenty Warrnys as a rider and plenty more as a keen spectator, I won't gainsay him. I'm interested to see how the headwind affects the riders and particularly the potential for a sprint.
"Breakaways will have a very hard time if there's a concerted chase behind, but there's definitely potential for the wind to be more of a crosswind in the final 50 kilometres and that will make for very interesting racing."
The perfect winner
The winner of the Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool instantly goes down in the history books as the winner of one of the hardest races in Australia, an honour that many count as the highest in their careers. It’s a different sort of rider that wins the ‘Warrny’, the past years have turned up riders that might not win too much in the rest of the year, but when the distance gets out beyond 200 kilometres, they really come into their own.
"You have to have good condition,” said Decker, running down his checklist of what it takes to win the Warrny. “If you don't have the foundation, you might be around the mark, but whether you're really in contention to win is another question.
"You have to have some sort of good sprint. 90 per cent of the time it's a sprint at the end of the Melbourne to Warrnambool. It can be 2-up, 10-up... we've had it where it's 100-up."
"There's also going to be a point where it's not all going your way and you need to be able to deal with that, the athlete has to take on the unexpected challenge and overcome it."
There’s generally a lot of tactical interplay with the teams as they fight to establish the main break of the day and then it’s often a game of chicken to ensure that your team doesn’t have to do too much work to chase in the middle stages. Similar circumstances have resulted in breakaways gaining leads of up to 15 minutes on the main peloton, before the race wakes up and brings the bunch back into play.
"It's about staying in contention to win the bike race and I hope the directors back in their really good chances of winning to be in a position to win the race,” said Decker. “That's the key in an event this long, there's some very clear athletes that are capable of winning the Melbourne to Warrnambool but there are also some dark horses."
Jamie Finch-Penninger: "There are some riders that really discover their legs in the late stages of long classics, seems to almost be an entirely different class of rider from the ones that normally win in the shorter, flat-out races that characterise the NRS. Some riders seem to nearly grow another leg when the race goes beyond 200 kilometres."
Nick White (Team Bridgelane) – “He's won the event before (in 2019), he knows what it takes to win and he's in great shape. I know he missed the medals in Ballarat (at the Australian national championships), but for him to be that competitive around there in that field was quite impressive.”
Brendan Johnston (CCS Cycling) – Defending champion, National Road Series champion 2020.
Kell O'Brien (Inform TMX MAKE) - Commonwealth Games gold medallist, track World Championships gold medallist
Luke Plapp (Inform TMX MAKE), Australian Elite Time Trial Champion.
Raphael Freienstein (Inform TMX MAKE) - 2018 National Road Series Champion.
Cam Meyer (Powercor Composite Team) - 2x Elite National Road Race Champion, track World Championships gold medallist.
Scott Bowden – 3rd national championships road race, Rio Olympic Games representative in mountain bike and road race.
Sam Welsford (Powercor Composite Team) – “He’s finished second in this event before and I think some people forget that,” said Decker. 2x Commonwealth Games gold medallist, track World Championships gold medallist.
Jamie Finch-Penninger: "Mark O'Brien (Inform TMX MAKE) was third last year and is in excellent form now. Marcus Culey (Team UKYO), as you would know if you read my series of interviews with him has an interrupted run into the nationals but should not be far off top form. Brenton Jones (Canyon dhb Sungod) as well, he's a really tough sprinter who'll be very hard to shake if he can make it to the finale."
Brendon Davids (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) – “Some of those dark horses are people like Brendon Davids,” said Decker. “He was in great form at the Tour Down Under and he trains around these South Australian roads and I know how strong he is.”
Cyrus Monk (CycleHouse) - “Cyrus Monk has been very aggressive bike rider over the summer and that aggression will keep going and you'll have to keep an eye on him,” said Decker. “The beauty of Cyrus is that he's unpredictable and he's prepared to take the risks to win at all costs. That's good in a scenario like this when people get fatigued.”
Other dark horses: Mat Ross (CycleHouse), Cooper Sayers (Nero Continental), Jesse Ewart (Team Sapura), Will Hodges (Giant Racing).
Jamie Finch-Penninger: "Those are some really good picks for dark horses, so I'll have to cast my net further afield. Angus Lyons and Michael Rice (both ARA-Sunshine Coast) tick all the boxes, Liam White (Oliver's Real Food Racing) is one of those riders that gets better with distance and Rylee Field (Team Bridgelane) is just a rider that seems that he'd be well-suited to this. Tasman Nankervis (Rolla RC) and Kane Richards (MEIYO-CCN) had very good nationals campaigns, I'll throw them in the mix as well."
There’s always the potential that the race comes back together at the end for a bunch sprint, the last mass sprint was in the 100th edition of the race in 2015, when Scott Sunderland proved the fastest in the dash to the line.
Decker’s pick of the sprinters: Sam Welsford, Brenton Jones (Canyon dhb Sungod), Jensen Plowright (Team Bridgelane).
Jamie Finch-Penninger: "I've heard a lot of positive words about Under 23 criterium champion Matthew Rice since his nationals win. I don't know how he'll respond to 267 kilometres in the legs, but he's very talented. Tommy Nankervis (Stitch and Dart) is one of those 'grow an extra leg after 200km' riders, I wouldn't be shocked if he's on the podium."
The Women’s Warrny
12 high-quality starters will take to the line in the women’s category, starting in the same bunch in the men and having to mix their race tactics and attention between what’s happening in the men’s event and where their female competitors are.
Carlee Taylor (Roxsolt Liv SRAM) and reigning elite criterium champion Annette Edmondson have raced and won in the WorldTour in the past. The pair of experienced riders will go in as the favourites alongside defending champion Matilda Raynolds (Specialized Women’s Racing) and professional triathlete Danielle de Francesco (Specialized).
“The race within the race is good to watch," said Decker, "you get people trying to help out the women and get them further along with the bunch. They go through good and bad patches and it’s a real challenge. I think it’s great that Nettie (Annette Edmondson) wants to push herself. She’s nearing retirement and this is one of those stepping stones along the way.
“She’s crafty in a bunch and I think that’s what you need for the race within a race, you need that bunch-craft to position yourself well and know how to drift on climbs and in crosswinds.”
Jamie Finch-Penninger: "There's a Women's WorldTour rider hoping for a late entry into the race by UCI exemption, fingers crossed she can get into the field. Raynolds went down in a crash during the criterium and paid for that in the road race, hopefully she can defend her title here. De Francesco might enjoy this the most of the limited racing she's done to date, a triathlete and ex-open water long-distance swimmer who'll have energy to burn when others wave the white flag."
Whatever the results, we’re set for an enthralling race in the 105th edition, with one of the highest quality fields in its history and a broadcast that will reach around the world.
The 2021 Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool will be run on February 13, starting from sponsors Avalon Airport in the morning and finishing on Raglan Parade Warrnambool with an expected mid afternoon finish. The race will be streamed live on SBS Cycling Central’s Facebook page with the audio commentary run on 3YB/Coast FM Warrnambool, the last 100 kilometres of the race of the legendary race will be brought to screens all over the world from 11.30am AEDT.