Riding 262km is tough but for the enthusiastic cyclist it is definitely achievable, but racing 262km is a whole other story and introduces a new dynamic (not to mention a lot more pain and suffering) ...
Above; 2019 M2W Route.
The Melbourne to Warrnambool (M2W) Classic is a one-day road race which started way back in 1895 and is one of Australia's oldest one day races and the world's second oldest one day race, after the Liège–Bastogne–Liège Classic.
Historically until 1938 the race started in Warrnambool and finished 165 miles (266 km) later in Melbourne. In 1895 the race was run in the opposite direction, from Melbourne to Warrnambool and then again from 1939. The route started in central Melbourne and followed the Princes Highway to Warrnambool on Victoria's western coast. This traditional route was the longest race on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) calendar, the exact distance varying slightly over time.
The race was a handicap event from 1895 to 1995, with riders leaving Melbourne at different intervals. From 1996 the race has been conducted as a Scratch Race with a mass start with up to 250 entrants. In 2004 it was changed to 299.1 kilometres, and jump forward to 2019 the race was 262km with some extra elevation added in bringing the total ascent to 1734m.
While the race usually attracts Australia's best locally based road riders it is also open to amateur club cyclists who race for the prizes in the secondary grades, or just to finish before the designated cutoff time. The categories include Mens Elite (NRS Teams), Mens B, Mens C, and Open Women.
One of the great things about this race (depending on your point of view) is the mass start with club riders and national riders, or Elites and Amateurs. This blog is not about front of pack elite riding and race tactics, instead it's about what happens at the back of the peloton, or as we found out, 'off the back of the Peloton'. We caught up with Gordon Duff (or Gordo as he's more commonly known), an Amateur cyclist based in Melbourne, Australia.
We initially connected with Gordo through Unfound, the cycling social media platform and we'd often see each other on the start line of local Crits. It was Gordo's first attempt at the M2W race and it sounded like a tough day. Here's what he had to say:
Above; Gordon Duff in action at a local race
SPOKEN: Firstly, thanks for sharing Gordo, it sounded like a tough day in the saddle...
Riding 262km is tough but doable for most avid cyclists, but racing 262km with a bunch of Pros is a whole other world of hurt! Have you raced the Melbourne to Warrnambool (M2W) before and what made you decide to race this year?
GD: This was my first attempt and I initially decided to do it back in November because I had a solid base from Haute route Pyranees and the Gran Fondo worlds in Varese Italy.
Basically, it was a now or never kind of decision as I had good miles in the legs. The average road race at State level is less than 120km and I race B or C grade. While I’ve ridden long Fondo’s (this year I finished the inaugural 300km Round the bay in a day with the first group in) and I’ve finished very hard stages of events like Haute Route Alps and Pyrenees (another story all together) racing ‘the Warny’ is a very daunting proposition.
SPOKEN: I thought I might give the M2W a go as well so was doing 200km solo training rides and still couldn’t get strong enough (some might say I was just to chicken...), what kind of training did you do leading up to the race?
GD: Ha ha classic question. So there were two huge influences in my build up (or lack of build-up)… First, after signing up my wife told me that we had VIP tickets to see Rodreguez (of Finding the Sugar Man fame) so I was immediately resigned to scratching at some point. Second, even as I kept the possibility of racing alive in my head I broke some ribs in a pretty dumb accident on Boxing day while trying to get all of the Christmas present packaging and wrapping paper into my damn Wheely Bin and I fell off the top of the bin so really struggled to ride at all through January….
So, the fact of the matter is that I only actually rode around 300km per week in the build-up. Mainly short (<80km) group rides that the Melbourne racing community is famous for - Hell Ride Saturday and North Road Rides a few times a week. I only actually committed to giving it a go a week prior because my friend and fellow rider Chris Bremner sarcastically messaged me offering to do my feeds…..
SPOKEN: The course is one direction which can make logistics difficult for the average rider with the need for transport, do you think this plays a factor in some riders not entering this race?
GD: No is my short answer; This is a sport where none of us would get anywhere alone, also this is an epic and very famous race. I believe that anyone who commits to trying it will find friends and supporters at every turn who are willing to be a part of the experience. This was Chris’ 4th time supporting friends at the feed stations and for him it’s a hell of a day out, he has amazing stories from each edition.
I believe that the sponsors also have volunteers passing out bottles, gels and even feedbags for those who do end up going it alone…
Above: Race Departs from Avalon Airport - Photo Credits Con Chronis
SPOKEN: How was the race morning, can you tell us a bit about the atmosphere at the start and how you were feeling pre-start.
GD: So, this is amazing – you rock up at 6am and there are pro team vans and elite riders everywhere. You see some super keen amateurs on rollers warming up as early as 30 minutes before the start <like the race isn’t long enough already> and as with all bike races, there are 3 toilets for all 300 people...
Everyone needs to sign on which is both a pretty special experience and also a moment when shit gets real. It's like, once you sign on you’re really doing it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget pinning the number on and setting up the transponder on my bike either, these are very special moments for a hack like me….
SPOKEN: Not sure that we'd call you a 'hack' Gordo, you're actually a very strong rider...
I know there’s a neutral section at the start, was it a relaxed start or was it one of those neutral zones where the hammer is dropped and everyone’s jostling for position? How were you placed within the Peloton early on?
GD: The atmosphere in the neutral zone is palpable. In fact lining up for the start is quite competitive as well with everyone wanting to be near the front and every single rider expecting crashes. One of the best things about my preparation was that I had nothing to lose but I could see the fear in the eyes of others who had quite literally invested months in this and who definitely did not want to be losing out in the first few km’s because of a crash.
Also in my favour is the experience from Gran Fondo Worlds that are bigger and even more aggressive starts. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I’m 6’2” and 85kg. So, with that I actually found it pretty easy to move up to the front before the flag went down…
Above; M2W neutral zone - Photo Credits Con Chronis
SPOKEN: Do you think it’s the mix of Amateurs and Elites which makes everyone nervous about crashing?
GD: I’m not sure why past editions have seen so many crashes at the start. Some definitely suggest that it’s the mix of experience and fitness levels but in all honesty, I believe that it’s because the majority of riders are lucky if they have ever been in a tight bunch that’s more a 2-3 rider wide scenario. When you find yourself at 50kph and you’re touching elbows and you’re in the middle with 4 or 5 riders either side its daunting. No amount of Zwift prepares you for that and I think many find it hard to relax in the middle of it all.
SPOKEN: A break eventually got away but that was much later in the race, was it constant attacks early on and how did you deal with that, I’m guessing a lot of riders were burning matches early on?
GD: Yep – this was the great unknown; how long would it be for the break to form. Everybody knows that once the break gets away the peloton will ease off. In this edition, the new course had a 25km section on a 4-lane freeway so that was pretty easy to ‘sit in’ regardless of the pace and constant surges.
Above: The peloton on the early freeway section of the race - Photo Credits Con Chronis
Then we turned off and strung out through lefts and rights for about 10km before hitting around 4km of hills. I knew that this was where I would struggle if the break was still trying to get away - and I was right. These guys barely slow down at all for hills like these so the pace was kept high mainly because the break hadn't yet got away.
SPOKEN: The average speed of the Peloton was a bit over 40kph and with over 1700m of ascent that’s a racking pace. I know you dropped off the Peloton early on, can you tell us a bit about how that came about?
GD: There were 5 distinct steps during the initial hills section, each between 500m and 1.5km and each at around 5-7% average gradient. The first KOM was at the top of this section and the break was not yet away, in fact the 14-man break got away at the 80km mark which I was told after the race because I was shelled out the back on the 4th of the steps towards the KOM!
In my mind, If I lost contact with the peleton in these hills it would be impossible to finish the race. So, I went deep and I was in the red all the way past the KOM and to the roundabout at the top, just hoping that there was a significant downhill or a line of cars for me to chase back on with. Legs on fire, lungs bursting and tasting blood I looked up to see the tail end disappearing into the distance. That was the ‘ahh Fark’ moment… That’s when I thought I was just rolling back to the car and that was the low point of the race.
What’s interesting about going out the back is that that you immediately have no idea where you are in the race, how many went out the back before I did... was the bunch still pretty big... all I knew was that I was with one other strong and experienced rider Tim McGrath. Then when the last car passed us a passenger (Lee ‘Hollywood’ Turner) leaned out and shouted “Don’t give up” then sped away….
Above; The Hammer is dropped and the Peloton gets strung out - Photo Credits Con Chronis
SPOKEN: We can empathise with you, being spat out the back is an experience I have too often...
So, you’ve been spat out of the Pelo, what was the game plan to get to the finish did you have any ‘friends’ with you to share the load?
GD: My first thought was how annoying it was that I had to ride 20km just to get the feeding station where my car was…. After about 5km I noticed a group closing in on me and I thought that’d make the roll of shame less lonely.
By the time we got to that first feed station we were motoring. We had 1 NRS rider with us who had suffered a mechanical, two A Grade Club Riders who I recognised and then the recently crowned Australian National Road Champion Sarah Gigante (Sarah stayed with us through to the end and even had some kick left for a final sprint) There were another 4 riders at this point but it was already pretty obvious it would be a core chopping off….
Oh shit, then I missed my feed bag. Doh! I had 2 gels in my pocket thanks to some good advice from Chris, and a rider who was suffering already gave me his bottle. Game plan at this point – well I’m here and if we make it then it’ll be a good story…. That core group ended up being amazing, relentless and consistent…
Above; The Breakaway charging along Great Ocean Road - Photo Credits Con Chronis
SPOKEN: It’s a unique event for Amateur racers given there’s not the usual feed stations and water support. The Pro teams have their cars looking after them on the road but the amateurs need to organise their own nutrition and support crew to be present at the designated feed zones along the course. Did you have your own support crew or were you sharing with someone else? If you were sharing were the other riders with you or were they still with the Pelo?
GD: Mr Chris Bremner – Godfather to my children, car lover and one man support crew. You’re right, there are 4 feed stations and my mate Chris was positioned perfectly every time. When I missed the first bag he divided up the contents to make sure I could make up the energy at the next 3 (or at least choose what I could stomach).
Everyone deals with this differently but I’m lucky in that I can still eat through the whole event which was a life saver given my lack of preparation.
SPOKEN: Staying with the feed zones, I’ve spoken to a few other riders who had delays at the feed stations and were dropped from the peloton and couldn’t get back on. Was there a gentlemen’s agreement for the peloton to slow up a bit going through the feed stations or did everyone just blast through, or worse, launch attacks?
GD: So, I wasn’t there as I was already in my little ‘fury road train’ but generally this is very well organised and chaos at the same time. Pro’s will move right; they want nothing to do with the carnage. Then the feed zone its self is quite long so the experienced among us will be in the second half so that we can go around the carnage and have space to grab. They are also on flat sections so you’d generally have the cars to get you back into the group…
Above; One of the feed zones supporting Amateur riders
SPOKEN: So, you’ve got over 220km (I think the Pelo left you within 40km) to go, the Pelo is long gone and you’ve likely burnt a lot of matches already. What was going through your head at that point?
SPOKEN: haha, yeah that's usually the first thing that comes to mind or the first thing that's sprayed out of the mouth.
The race envelop for road closures was published as being 15mins, was it long before you were outside the rolling road closure? Once you were back on open roads, it must have played a part on the motivation, did you ever think about calling it quits?
GD: The Police notified us at 70km that we were out of the race envelope, so we knew that we were already 15min off the back and that’s quite a lot…. But I think that we all had the same drive, stubbornness and determination – most cyclists do. The Warny has a time medal that is something to be VERY proud of. You need to finish within 1hr of the winner so while we knew it would be close, we also knew it was possible. Giving up just isn’t how you fail on a race like this.
SPOKEN: Agree with your comments about cyclists, we can be masochists at times.
We had the luxury of watching the finish live streaming on Facebook, did you know when the leaders had crossed the line, anyone keeping you up to date on the course?
GD: No idea. From the 200km mark we started to have some followers who would drive past and then cheer from the roadside, that was really great because they were aware of where the front was. So, between our best guess on average speed and the support from the road side there was a consensus that we’d make it but we really didn’t know so we certainly didn’t ease off. In fact, after the last feed when we hit the coast we started rolling faster and faster. I looked down and we were all rolling through on a flat road at 53kpm. It didn’t last long before we all remembered that 65KM is still quite far but that was how we felt about approaching the finish.
Above: Final sprint to the line from the remainder of the breakaway - Photo Credits Con Chronis
SPOKEN: You mentioned the cut-off time to earn a finishes medal, I think it was within 60mins of the winner, how did you get information to know how far or close to the cut-off you were?
So, we didn’t know we had the medal. We talked among us a little and we all thought you had to finish within an hour so, no we didn't know how far or close we were. We pushed it all the way to the finish, the last 50km were tough too. The wind had picked up and the road changed direction constantly so we had head, cross, tail, cross, head and more head wind as well as rolling hills.
We were all pretty happy though because medallion or not, we did know we were going to get there…
SPOKEN: What was the funniest or weirdest moment during the race?
GD: Oh, god… errr…. So, it’s a mix between the moment I was dropped – because 15 seconds earlier I was mid group and telling myself I was going to make it OR trying to work out how I was going to take a pee at 40kph because we were not stopping the bus…
SPOKEN: Yeah you definitely need some good team mates or an amicable peloton for those 'comfort stops'.
Did you pass many other riders who had blown up during the race, there must have been some who were ‘cooked’?
GD: Yes, we had a bit of a revolving door as we trucked on. Initially we had 8 or 9 riders but we lost them in ones and two’s as we hit rollers or just accelerated away from corners. Then at around 150km we started to see the guys who were dropped at the second set of hills, some could ride with us for a bit and some just couldn’t hang on.
As we got to the last 50km we picked up more riders, singles, clearly suffering and mainly just sitting on, grateful for the ride to the finish. However, we did also got one or two good value riders who had just messed up a pee stop or had a puncture.
SPOKEN: So, you’ve turned the final corner and on the home straight, what were you first thoughts?
GD: Ha ha ha, didn’t expect that…
SPOKEN: After crossing the line, what was the first thing you did?
GD: Hugged the guys in the core 4. It was 6 hours of chopping off, you don’t speak much but you definitely bond. Oh, then I got changed, saw the medal ceremony and had a beer…. It was a mighty nice beer too….
Above; M2W Finishers Medals
SPOKEN: It’s a long drive back to Melbourne, any issues with cramping?
GD: Happily, no - not to speak of. I had a little moment when we stopped for the mandatory McDonalds but I was OK. That said, I’d definitely not recommend driving yourself home.
SPOKEN: We're very familiar with the mandatory McD's stop after racing up that way, it's bliss....
Would you do the race again?
GD: Million-dollar question, I honestly loved it, I love the idea of training for it and finishing in the bunch. I’d also recommend it to anyone with the metal, courage, ambition or stupidity to try it.
SPOKEN: Any advice you’d give to our readers who are planning on attempting this race next year?
GD: Train for it. Plan your food and drink, ask people who have ridden it what its like, knowledge is power. Then be confident that you can keep a tight chain for 7 hours constantly but train to do 5-10-minute max efforts.
For training, I’d say that the priority is the time on the bike. It’s not uncommon to hear about pretty consistent 500-600km weeks. That gets the base endurance and stops the pain and cramps that I’m sure are the reasons for most failed attempts.
Then, and especially if they keep this new course, is Lactate Threshold – That’s HARD interval training. You’re going to need to work flat out for 3-5 minutes at a time on 2-3 climbs (if the weathers nice) and who knows how many k’s if you need to dig in for cross winds. So, make sure you are able to do those efforts and recover quickly. It’s the latter that I did none of….
If you’re Melbourne based, I recon if you can get around NRR Long and be with the bunch at the top of Two-Bays you’re good for the hill part, then it’s just the winds that might ruin you…
In days gone by it was primarily a flat race but this new course means that no matter how fit you are, if you can’t get over the hills with the fast boys you’ll face a long hard day like I did…
SPOKEN: Thanks for the insight Gordo, and the training tips. You're a legend in our eyes for having completed this prestigious race and survived to tell the story.
Good luck with your next race.
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