Nicola Macdonald of Roxsolt Liv SRAM battles to hold the pace up the climb. She can’t see the front of the race, just grovels to hold onto every wheel that goes past her. The men are attacking off the front. Suddenly, she’s spinning her cranks as the bunch rushes past. A desperate look down at her chain clattering over the teeth of the chain rings. It’s dropped and she struggles to get it back on. Her momentum is slowing, the road rising ahead towards the first KOM. Drifting. It won’t catch and she’s forced to stop and fix it.
In front of her, the bunch strings out as some of the B and C Grade riders struggle to hold the pace. She gets back on and bows her head, wrestling to make her legs turn faster; she knows how long the next 220 kilometres could be if she loses contact now. But there’ll be no surrendering to the Sag Wagon and getting a free ride home.
She’s heard how eventful this race can be – in the past, people have podiumed after spending most of the day suffering in a small group off the back. But that’s a kind of torture she wants to avoid at all costs. She fights to get to the riders in front of her.
In six hours’ time, she’ll ride into Warrnambool, having gotten almost within sight of the peloton, only for the gap to go out again and threaten to put her outside the time cut. She’ll see the cars in every feed zone, as the small group she’s with pass through, and she’ll be tempted to stop and get in.
She’ll know, torturously, that every time she decides to keep going, she’s committing to another fifty-odd kilometres of pain. But she’ll keep going. Because she wants to finish. Because there are only seven girls in front of her, and anything could happen. The break could get away in the men’s race, the peloton could sit up and she’d be back in it. Other women could fall victim to bad luck.
Macdonald will see her dad at the 200-kilometre mark when she’s about to pull out, and she’ll decide to keep going. Then she’ll see him cheering as she crosses the finish line 58 minutes down, completely exhausted, but within the time cut. She’ll describe it as the best feeling in the world after one of the hardest days she’s had on a bike – one which didn’t go to plan, but where she was able to finish the Melbourne to Warrnambool.
Lucie Fityus of Veris Racing prepares to climb into the car, blood trickling from her knee, the hoods on her bike bent inwards at strange angles. She stands, bedraggled in the empty feed zone. Almost everyone has left, except a couple of people who wait for stragglers.
A pile of discarded bottles and musettes lies on the ground, waiting to be picked up once the race has gone through. The driver of the Sag Wagon tells Fityus she’s forty minutes behind. She could keep going, but she’s alone, and she’d almost certainly be outside time cut by the next feed zone.
She describes how a crash happened in the small bunch she was chasing with, trying to get back to the peloton. She thought she’d avoided it but got brought down in the chaos a few metres later. She picked herself up, but her bike was damaged, and by the time she got riding again, the bunch was long gone.
She sits in the car on the way to the finish line. It drives past pink arrows attached to road signs that indicate the direction of the race. They’re constant reminders that she should still be riding; that there’s a race on and she’s no longer in it. She contemplates why she even does this sport, why she started this race in the first place. But she knows why –because it is so hard, because she wanted so badly to finish, and because if a few things had gone just slightly differently, she probably would have.
Alana Forster of Pana Organic x Pedla finds a moment to glimpse the scenery of the Great Ocean Road through hollow eyes. The blue waves gleam through her suffering. There are four women in her group of thirty or so. They’ve just been told they’re outside the race envelope. They’ve felt the sinking feeling of the police car rolling up slowly beside them, the window winding down, being told they have to follow the road rules now. But there are still locals and children standing on the roadside, cheering as they pass.
Forster soaks up the atmosphere, trying to hide the pain she’s experiencing so as not to scare off the next generation. Some riders are refusing to roll turns, but the women, often more experienced than the men they end up with, all work and try to encourage and organise their group. They’re still fighting for fourth to eighth place; maybe even a podium if something happens up ahead.
The group whittles as riders fall away. Crashes, as tired legs and vacant minds contend with stray bottles and musettes in feed zones. Climbs and crosswinds. Those who are left will come to the finish in another eighty kilometres – a messy finish which Forster will describe as trying to sprint while glued to their saddles with salt, sweat, saddle sores, tears and chamois cream. Forster will finish in fifth place behind Lizzie Stannard, with Hailey Mason and Georgia Miansarow just behind. For now though, still somewhere along the endless Great Ocean Road, they battle on.
Matilda Raynolds of Specialized Women's Racing glides across the finish line, having sprinted in ahead of Justine Barrow and Nicole Frain. A grin is plastered over her tired face as she clenches her fist and rolls into the finish area.
She’s managed to survive and dodge all the pitfalls that others have fallen victim to. Raynolds, Barrow and Frain are the last women standing in this, the second bunch on the road. They’ve had their own tumultuous series of events – hoping, dreaming of winning; feeling terrible and struggling to hold on; avoiding crashes; being out of position and missing splits they thought they could’ve made. They’ve fought on and survived the ultimate race of attrition to make it into Warrnambool ahead of the rest.
Raynolds moves through the finish area, all the emotions of the day draining through her exhausted body. She’s overcome a difficult start to the year to win today, and in a way that’s the story of this race. No matter how bad you feel, no matter how many things go wrong, you just keep fighting your way forwards. You never know what could happen. It seems fitting that this is her second victory in such a gruelling race.
There’s something special about the women’s Warnie. It’s all of these stories of fortune and misfortune, suffering and triumph. The determination to just finish, no matter what goes wrong. And there’s something else, which Raynolds captures as she speaks after the finish – ‘The best thing about that race is that I’m not a female cyclist, I’m just a cyclist. And you just get to be a cyclist and there’s no gender, there’s no grades, you just go out and it’s just whoever can hang on for the longest. I’m thrilled to get the win, but even more so to just finish the race’.