• Scott Sunderland of Team Budget Forklifts wins the 2016 Melbourne To Warrnambool (Con Chronis)Source: Con Chronis
The 100th Melbourne to Warrnambool has been run and won. An enterprising breakaway, epic solo bridges, and a win by the fastest sprinter on the local scene.
By
Robert Merkel

Source:
Cycling Central
21 Oct 2015 - 12:07 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2015 - 12:08 PM

Meanwhile, fifteen women of the 25 on the startlist completed the race — a pretty fair strike rate given that the cream of Australia’s female cyclists were either enjoying the professional off-season or preparing for next week’s Tour of the Goldfields.

And yet, the grumbles surrounding “The Warny” continue from various quarters. As former pro and SBS commentator Dave McKenzie put it,

Let’s not kid ourselves, it certainly is not a professional bike race. It’s a National Road Series (NRS) team race that also caters for B, C and D graders, along with the 25 women entries who all managed to compete in a historic edition for the first time. So it’s not a Gran Fondo either, but it’s edging closer…and beyond that in my opinion is extinction.

These views aren’t new. Wade Wallace made similar comments on the CyclingTips website back in 2011. So it’s worth picking apart — is the Warny “dying”? And if so, how to “revive” it — and what for?

The Golden Era?

Implicit in the claim that the Warny is dying is the belief that it was healthier at some past time. But when was that golden past?

One way to judge the quality of a cycling race is to look at its honour roll. The race’s list of Blue Riband winners, from 1895 to 1995, has included a number of Australia’s most famous cyclists. Arguably the most famous of them all — at least until Cadel Evans — was Hubert (later Sir Hubert) Opperman. Opperman won the Blue Riband three times in 1924, 1926, and 1929, and no doubt would have won it in 1927 and 1928 if the race had run in those years. The list also includes two Olympic champions on the track — Russell Mockridge and Dean Woods.

Except that the Blue Riband winners were often not the first across the line.

For the vast majority of the Warny’s history, it was a handicap race — riders sent away in bunches at intervals according to their previously demonstrated ability. The reason was simple — Australia didn’t have enough competitive cyclists to have a mass-start race resembling a European classic. So throughout its long history, the likes of Opperman have had to share the Warny with weekend warriors having a good day — or as good a day as you can have riding nearly 300 kilometres!

The Scratch Era

That changed in 1996, when the race changed to a mass-start scratch (non-handicap) race. In its early years, that format saw two of the highest-profile winners the race has had. In 2001, Dave McKenzie himself won the race, after having won a stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2000. In 2003, Simon Gerrans won,attacking a high-quality group of riders a few kilometres from the finish. Will Walker, one of the great “what-if”s of Australian cycling after heart trouble forced his premature retirement, won in 2004.

However, it’s fair to say that the pointy end of recent Melbourne to Warrnambool races have not featured many riders who have ridden successfully at World Tour level, have had gone on to do so, or are considered likely to do so. The only riders with experience in the World Tour who rode this year’s Warny were Jack Bobridge and the now fortysomething Tom Leaper; New Zealand professional Hayden Roulston planned to race without team support, but withdrew after being called up by his team to race in China. Paddy Bevin, the star of this year’s NRS, was a notable absentee.

Less-able club racers, in increasing numbers, have continued to compete in the Warny through this entire period. Some of these riders are entered in B, C, and D grade, and try to hang on to the faster riders for as long as possible to collect a prize. For others, merely finishing is enough. Riders like my friend and sometime rival Tom McDonough have been at the Warny through its “golden era” of the early 2000s and are still there today, dropped when the racing gets serious at the front end and pedalling on to finish the race.

Their presence or absence has nothing at all to do with the quality of the elite end of the race.

There is a much simpler reason why Australia’s best cyclists don’t contest the Warny any more — a reason that has nothing to do with the race itself.

The issue is that, for most of the past 100 years, it was extraordinarily difficult for Australian cyclists to make it as international (read European-based) road professionals. Despite the odd exception such as Don Allan and Phil Anderson, the vast majority of Aussie cyclists didn’t really get a shot at the big time.

Since the early 2000s, that’s been turned on its head. In 2015, there were 28 Australians in the World Tour, and at least another dozen riding in Pro Continental teams. Most of them are now in their off-season, and have have a year’s backlog of beer to drink, waves to surf, and junk food to eat.

The Warny, therefore, is simply a victim of Aussie cycling’s success, and is left as part of the National Road Series, a development series that is road cycling’s Sheffield Shield.

While this may be less prestigious than at other points in its history, it’s not at all clear to me that it’s unsustainable. Much of the National Road Series runs to even less publicity, with corresponding expenses for road closures, and with smaller fields to provide entry fees.

But whether it is sustainable or not, it’s certainly worth considering whether the race could be made better.

Going Pro

If you’re interested I strongly suggest you read the whole thing, but there are four key points to the proposal:

  • make the race itself a professional teams-only event, including World Tour and Pro Continental teams along with the “best of the NRS”.
  • To make the race more attractive to telecast, shift the race start to Geelong (it’s currently in Werribee, an outer suburb of Melbourne), and have the route follow the Great Ocean Road along the coast all the way to Warrnambool.
  • Have a women’s race starting in Apollo Bay (and thus a total race distance of about 150km). Initially, this would be a women’s NRS race, with a plan to make the race part of the World Cup (which from 2016 on has morphed into the Women’s World Tour). This would be timed to finish about one hour before the men’s Warny.
  • For all the riders now excluded from the elite event, have an actual Gran Fondo using the race route, starting about two hours before the pros. The Gran Fondo participants and their families would be there at the finish to watch the final stages.

Logistics?

Logistically, it does appear feasible at first glance. Dave suggests that the costs of the new route would be comparable or lower than the existing one, which seems plausible, and it would undoubtedly be more picturesque while retaining the same essential character.

I also appreciate that Dave has considered a women’s race from the start. While there’s considerable room for debate at the notion of the shorter race distance, if adding the race to the women’s World Tour is the ultimate goal, 150 km or so is about the limit that the UCI will endorse at the moment.

The idea of a mass-participation event is not unreasonable as well. While the details would need a fair bit of thought, it certainly works at many other events.

Would the pros come?

If you pay them enough, teams and the pro cyclists they employ will turn up anywhere — even Abu Dhabi, after the World Championships, in 45+ degree heat. But absent autocratic rulers prepared to throw millions of dollars around for no apparent reason, you’d have to make it an attractive proposition in other ways.

It’s worth noting here that if publicity is the goal, a UCI 1.2 race featuring the likes of Tabriz Petrochemical and Vino4Eva is unlikely to achieve much except the possibility of some very bad publicity. While the theory of closer integration with Asian cycling is laudable, bringing the best of Asia to Australia isn’t a proposition that’s likely to thrill potential sponsors, nor, frankly, Australia’s NRS teams who have any number of unpleasant stories about some of these teams from their Asian sojourns.

The only way to get a significant number of World Tour teams — without which there’s no chance of a live telecast and significant sponsor interest — is if the race is moved to a February timeslot, to become part of the summer cycling calendar starting with the Bay Crits, the national championships, the TDU, and now including the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Herald Sun Tour. Moving it to February means that riders will be in Australia already, and not committed elsewhere. Whether they and their teams would be thrilled with a 270km classic so early in the season is an open question; the TDU stages are relatively short precisely because the teams are looking for a relatively gentle start.

Context is everything

But while it might be feasible in isolation, the proposal exists in the context of an existing Aussie cycling calendar, as well as the universe of other possible events. Viewed in this light, a professional Warny along the Great Ocean Road becomes somewhat less attractive.

For one, while it might make for a spectacular television highlights package, neither the present course nor Macka’s proposed one are exactly spectator-friendly. While a start on the Geelong waterfront would be fine, the rest of the route goes through a sequence of tiny holiday towns which are a long, long way from any major population centres, and the finish in Warrnambool is pretty much straight into town — and, given the already very long race, the idea of finishing circuits in Warrnambool would rightly be howled down! The Gran Fondo participants of Macka’s proposal aren’t going to see much.

Contrast this with the TDU, the Australian road championships, the Cadel Evans GORR, the Herald-Sun Tour — heck, contrast it with any of the Belgian one-day classics, all of which are at least partly conducted near population centres and feature finishing circuits to make it easy for large crowds to watch.

Duplication

The fact is that we already have a one-day race not at all dissimilar to Macka’s model; it’s the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Classic, recently upgraded for its second edition from 1.1 to 1.HC by the UCI. It starts in Geelong, features a women’s NRS race that may get an upgrade some time in the future, and has a mass-participation ride. Its start list featured a quality international field along with the best of the men’s NRS, and will improve further this year. While it didn’t feature as much of the Great Ocean Road as some would like, it was by far the best cycling telecast ever done in Australia, far outshining the rather bare-bones effort at the TDU. It’s also a very good race to watch, with the climbs on the finishing circuit having large crowds enjoying the inaugural event.

The entire Australian summer cycling calendar is concentrated in two states; Victoria and South Australia. South Australia has the TDU. Victoria has the road championships — on the hugely spectator-friendly Buninyong circuit near Ballarat, within easy reach of Melbourne. It also has the Bay Crits (mostly held on the Bellarine peninsula near Geelong), and the Herald-Sun Tour, which for the past couple of years has featured a prologue right in the center of Melbourne, and the final stage down at Arthur’s Seat on the Mornington Peninsula.

It’s hard to see that yet another race starting in Geelong is a high-priority addition to the summer pro cycling calendar in Australia. Nor is it at all obvious to me that a revised Melbourne to Warrnambool should replace the Cadel Evans race, given the relative spectator appeal of the two routes.

Look to the other states

While things are by no means perfect, Victorian road cycling is in a relatively healthy state. Club racing has strong fields, the Victorian Road Series is the strongest in the country, and even junior racing — a structural weakness of the sport — is arguably on the up with the introduction of a Victorian interschool racing series. The series of professional events in February is the icing on the cake; while some might fantasize about pinching the TDU from South Australia, frankly, things aren’t too bad.

By contrast, there is no professional racing in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, or Western Australia.

While, sadly, NSW and particularly the Greater Sydney area may be a lost cause for the moment, adding a pro race in one of the other states would almost certainly be a more attractive commercial proposition, and would do more for Australian cycling, than another event starting in Geelong. Imagine, for instance, a long weekend of racing in Tasmania featuring a road race finishing on Mount Wellington — a climb etched in cycling history thanks to Cadel Evans and Phil Liggett.

So…where to?

We’re not likely to see another Oppy or Mockridge, or for that matter Dean Woods win multiple Warnies, any more than we’re likely to see the Soccerroos made up entirely of domestically-based players. Our sport has globalized, and our best riders will spent most of their racing careers elsewhere. And, on balance, this is a good thing, even if the Warny has suffered a bit by consequence. Would we want to go back to a world with a full-strength Warny, but with international competition limited to Simon Gerrans, Mansfield bike shop owner, belting up journeyman Europeans in the Sun Tour each spring?

While I appreciate Dave McKenzie’s attempt to improve the Warny, I think anybody looking to create another pro race in Australia will choose a more spectator and sponsor-friendly route — and it’s impossible to create a more spectator and sponsor-friendly route that finishes in a small regional centre hundreds of kilometres from a capital city.

The Warny is what it is; an NRS race with a bunch of clubbies (whose entry fees make the club racing in which the likes of Dave McKenzie got his start possible, by the way) making up the numbers. There are a number of tweaks that could be made to ensure that the best of the NRS shows up (calendar adjustments and points bonuses, for instance), but that’s about the limit.

And is that really be so bad?