Aussie Focus

Behind the headlines from the Warrny: off-script, comebacks and top performances

The 267 kilometres of the Melbourne to Warrnambool always throws up plenty of hard luck stories and those of the riders that had odd incidents happen throughout the course of the race. Jamie Finch-Penninger has covered the National Road Series for six years and wrote about the key talking points from within the peloton after the race.

Melbourne to Warnnambool

The top riders lead the way on the Great Ocean Road at the Melbourne to Warrnambool. Source: Con Chronis/AusCycling

The top riders get all the headlines and the attention after the race, but there's plenty of smaller stories, a bit more behind the scenes that highlight the importance of this race on the Australian cycling calendar and the epic nature of the 267-kilometre trek from the start at Avalon Airport to the beachside town of Warrnambool. For an inside look at the women's race, check out this superb piece from Kirsty Deacon of Veris Racing, she didn't tell the story of her own race, but reached out to the other women in the peloton to bring out some compelling stories.



A flat course for Warrny, but Hills aplenty

If you were watching on the live stream you certainly wouldn't have missed the Hill brothers, Sam and Ben, but there were added elements to how each arrived at the race. 

They were both on the same team at the start of the season, but with a reduction in racing, the already loaded Team Bridgelane squad simply couldn't offer Sam Hill spots in races where he was looking to compete so he switched over to his old team Nero Continental. 

There was also a bizarre incident with approximately 70 kilometres where Sam Hill was eating a gel when suddenly his jersey tried to unzip itself with Hill struggling to get it done back up. He returned to work with breakaway companion Raphael Freienstein (Inform TMX MAKE) with the jersey flapping away and it took him a couple of attempts and ten minutes to get it zipped back up.

Ben Hill got up for second on the day, part of Team Bridgelane's 1-2 in the race. He came back from a nasty crash at the Santos Festival of Cycling earlier in the year which saw some gruesome injuries for the experienced rider. In addition to the broken bones and deep gashes, Hill lay on the hot tarmac and sustained some nasty burns. The older Hill brother is nothing if not keen though, and climbed out of his wheelchair onto his Zwift set-up and then was back to good fitness relatively quickly. His performance was all the more emotional with his wife, Rebecca Hill (2nd in the women's race in 2019), and new daughter Ava supporting at the start and watching the live stream.

Eyes on the Olympic stars

A lot of attention before and during the race was dedicated to the Olympic track endurance stars present on the startline, and the likes of Lucas Plapp, Kell O'Brien (both riding for Inform TMX Make), Leigh Howard and Sam Welsford (both Powercor Composite Team) didn't disappoint. 

O'Brien and Howard were active in the attacks in the final 30 kilometres as well as before that when the race threatened to split on the Great Ocean Road. Plapp made the decisive move in the finale and put in a series of attacks to try and get free. He was one of the most heavily marked men in the race though, and had riders glued to his wheel when he tried to go free. Plapp eventually ran eighth in the sprint.

Welsford had been hanging around in the background for much of the race, he did cover some dangerous moves himself, but kept his powder dry for the finish. The Powercor Composite Team was more coherent than most of those hastily assembled squads normally are, with Marcus Culey noted by riders after the finish as having done a lot work on the front of the race for his sprinter after having been caught from the early break. However, the final kilometres saw Welsford without the teammates at his disposal to drag the race back together. 

Welsford didn't make the crucial move, but when he launched his sprint the West Australian flew away from the peloton and gapped the rest of the bunch (Ben van Dam following in his slipstream) to the tune of three seconds. Welsford's clearly flying but unfortunately wasn't in the right place to show it.

Jensen Plowright (Team Bridgelane) had a very impressive track national championships winning the points race and the omnium, and then did the best possible audition for a potential spot on the track endurance team with his win here. He stopped short of saying that he was hoping he could force his way onto the Olympics team, talking of what the win meant for his future in these terms. 

"It's good for the track stuff, to show my strength for... Auscycling," said Plowright.

Plowright has the quality required for the squad, or is at least very close, and has the track background, but coming into the team pursuit team at this late stage is a tall order as the team has been following a very specific preparation ahead of the Olympics and looks set at present.

Bridgelane off script but on podium

It was a great result for Team Bridgelane, the perennial squad at the top of the domestic standings, who have been facing stiff competition from other teams in recent years. But it was an unconventional approach that had commentators Matthew Keenan and Dave McKenzie scratching their heads after predicting that Plowright, as the strongest sprinter present in the group would wait for the final dash to the line.

Plowright said in interviews after the race that team director for the race, Jason Rigg, had told him to sit in the group and wait for the sprint but Plowright then took matters into his own hands.

Attendees at the post-race function at Lady Bay Resort in Warrnambool were surprised when Plowright further revealed that his Bridgelane teammates in the final group had refused to get on the front and nullify the attacks for Plowright to win in a sprint, which prompted his own move as the race entered the final kilometre. That tallies with the footage, you can see the eventual winner turn to teammate Ben Hill for some words with just under two kilometres to go, Hill then covers an attack from Plapp and Plowright goes over the top.

There was also a funny anecdote with Plowright describing messages from Andrew Christie-Johnston (watching on the livestream) congratulating him on the victory, but less complimentary of the tactics in the final 30 kilometres, where Plowright was consistently aggressive. 

A 1-2 for Team Bridgelane puts them in a strong position after two events of the National Road Series (NRS), they have 844 points to Inform TMX MAKE's 576 and look to be in a strong position to take their 12th consecutive team classification in the NRS.

Next up on the NRS calendar is the Grafton to Inverell for the men and women, which will see a similar field race, minus the team pursuit stars and Plowright, though he said he was hoping to get a start after his Warrny win. 

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7 min read
Published 3 May 2021 at 2:48pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger