Melbourne to Warrnambool preview

It’s Australia’s and one of the world’s oldest races, it’s 267 kilometres long and it’s the start of the National Road Series… it’s the Melbourne to Warrnambool.

It’s the 104th edition of the annual test of endurance, racing skills and tactics that form the Melbourne to Warrnambool. It’s looks set to be a wet ‘Warrny’ with rain predicted for race day at numerous places along the route.

Michael Freiberg of ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast talked through the race with Australian Cycling Insider about how the 2020 edition will likely play out.

The Course

It’s been years since the race has truly been the ‘Melbourne’ to Warrnambool but the race start has found a new home with sponsors Avalon Airport, now in the second year of hosting the race depart.

The course incorporates roughly 47 kilometres of the Great Ocean Road in the run-in to the finish with cross winds expected from the south-west on sections into the finish line in Warrnambool.

The 267 kilometre route is hillier than previous editions, with 1734 metres climbing included mostly in the middle sections of the race. In comparison the Grafton to Inverell course contains 3382 metres of vertical ascent over its 228 kilometre course and is still regularly won by non-climbers. Freiberg explained how the course alterations will affect the race.

Melbourne to Warrnambool 2020 route

“The change to a slightly more hilly course should make things interesting,” said Freiberg, “it will make the legs a bit more tired and it will it harder to chase, being on the front foot will be important.

“Last time I checked the forecast it was about 29 Degrees and 30 km/hr winds. I think the wind will be a factor along the coast there. I don’t know the roads around there, so we’ll have to get into that when we get together as a team.”

A feature of interest along the race route include the 1.2 kilometre gravel section with just over 50 kilometres remaining in the race. The gravel section comes just 15 kilometres after a succession of punchy climbs and could well be the launching pad for late race aggressors.

The Tactics

The early breakaway is often key at Melbourne to Warrnambool, though in reality it can take a very long time to escape the peloton, or escape and get brought back by a team angry with it’s composition before reforming and establishing itself again. Any team that misses the move is staring down the barrel of having to lead the chase for the better part of the 267 kilometre race, so it really is imperative to make the move if you want to maintain the strength of your squad.

The break stands a good chance of winning every year, with its advantage often ballooning out to the 15 minute mark and the police threatening to ‘pull’ the peloton if the protection envelope they have to cover gets any larger – this happens nearly every year.

Freiberg also highlighted the importance of the breakaway and the influence of a few key teams.

“It’s going to be quite complicated,” said the former omnium world champion. “You see how strong the Inform team is going to be, also looking to Bridgelane as well. They’ll both want someone representing them in the break so they don’t have to do the work.

“If they have one in there, we’ll have to have one it there. It will be quit a battle to see what combination of riders that goes off the front there, then what happens next.

“I think 30-40 (kilometres before the breakaway is formed) will be on the short side when it comes to the battle for the breakaway tomorrow. I think it will be quite interesting. We have a fast guy in Michael Rice, but Inform can say they have a fast one in Steele von Hoff. Then you have Ben Hill, he’ll be playing for the breakaway. Sam Hill will be good on the flats as well.”

Once the break is formed, the pressure forms upon the teams with sprinters to chase the move, sometimes even if they do have a man in the move. The lack of desire to get stuck on the front of the peloton is tremendous, and teams often resort to bickering and playing chicken as the breakaway’s lead stretches out and the task at hand becomes even more insurmountable.

 If the race is being brought back together with the break brought to heel, the final 100 kilometres are essentially a new race, with attacks starting again before the front group is even within sight again. Riders will be aggressive with the conditions and the new parcours from about that 100 kilometre to go mark, though the smart ones will recognize the need to conserve energy, with tough, windy section remaining as the peloton closes on Warnnambool.

The potential for a sprint finish is always a distinct possibility with the largely flat finish, though the sprint winner at the end of a 267-kilometre race is rarely the same as a 120-kilometre one, with Ollie Kent-Spark’s 2014 in particular showing that it’s more about the legs than the name at the end of a long race.

“It’s going to be quite difficult, said Freiberg of the sprinting stocks present at the race. “Brenton Jones obviously sprinting really well. It’s great having Ricey (Michael Rice) on the team because he was right up there in all the bunch sprints last week against all the WorldTour sprinters.

“He’s shown he’s going well and has a lot of confidence behind him. It’s tough against guys like Brenton and Steele (Von Hoff) who have so much experience and raw talent. We have to get it right in that finish.

 “We’re in a pretty good position actually. Coming out of the Sun Tour, so we all have a bit of speed. That was a pretty solid week there. The form’s going to be great, it’s about trying to stay in control the race as much as possible and not let something slip off the front that we’re not in.”

Staying in control will be what every team is trying to do, but it’s rarely possible for every team to be happy in the classic race, as there’s only every one winner.

The Contenders

A winner of a classic like the Melbourne to Warrnambool or Grafton to Inverell is a very different breed of rider than your normal National Road Series or even Asian Tour-level winner. The same names keep on popping up at the top of the results sheet regardless of circumstances of the race or manner of the performance.

Australian Cycling Insider put it to Michael Freiberg of what makes the champions of these long classics different from other racers.

“It’s a hard question,” said Freiberg. “We’ve seen a lot of really good winners over the past few years and they’re always a special type of rider. Look at the winners from the last five years and they’re not the ‘normal’ winners.

“If there’s a favourite sprinter in the bunch there’s always an outside chance. Nath (Nathan Elliott) going back-to-back was an incredible achievement. You see these guys that have done the work, are fit and take a chance, they’re normally the guys that get up.

“A lot of the NRS races are based on speed or power over one hour and those shorter efforts. They tend to struggle a little bit or lose their way in a seven-hour race.”

The potential winner that Freiberg is best in a position to judge is himself, with the former Australian champion coming off an active Herald Sun Tour, where opportunities for him to pursue stages for his own glory were thin on the ground.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Freiberg. “I’m always good in a bunch kick when it comes down to it at the end of a long race. So, if the legs are good I’ll be lining up for that as well.”

Womens Race

The womens race will comprise 11 competitors, all of whom are getting pretty good value for money given that they’ll have a shot at the same prize pool as the men. While it’s a race for individuals technically as it’s not an NRS race, Specialized Women’s Racing bring the bulk of the starters to the line with Kate Perry, Matilda Raynolds, Taryn Heather and Elizabeth Stannard present. Expect to see the likes of Kirsty Deacon, former rower Georgia Miansarow and Madeleine Wright challenge them.

It’s very much a race within a race and hard to follow, as it’s 11 women mixed in with 200-odd men and will likely come down to who can sprint best out of the main peloton that comes into Warnnambool.

Mens Favourites

Team Bridgelane and Inform Insight TM MAKE turn up to the race with the strongest contingents, and should boost the winning chances of many of their riders simply by the virtue of having numbers around the pointy end of the race. Even when that wasn’t the case in 2019, Nick White (Team Bridgelane) was still able to win as a lone rider in a group of 13.

The defending champ suffered fractured ribs and a collapsed lung during Stage 1 of the Herald Sun Tour less than a week ago, but while his teammates and team staff ruled out his defence of his title, White has stubbornly dug in and appears set to be on the startline. White was reportedly flying early in the season and if fit, will be one to watch in a sprint or a move, but his injury is a massive hurdle to overcome.

Bridgelane also have another top-tier favourite in Ayden Toovey, who is one of these classics specialists that thrive when the race goes beyond the 200th kilometre. His best finish is second in 2016 and should be Bridgelane’s best chance. Among Bridgelane’s other contenders, the Hill brothers, Sam and Ben, will be somewhere in the mix, both love a break but it will be interesting to see how they’ve recovered from the Herald Sun Tour.

Inform TM Insight MAKE have three outright favourites that will give them a lot of flexibility in playing the tactics. Two-time winner Nathan Elliott will be one of the most marked riders in the peloton after producing some ridiculous rides in the past to claim his Warrny and Grafton titles. He’ll often look like he’s struggling mid-race before finding his second wind towards the end and producing a stomping ride when he’s been discounted by his rivals. His win in 2017 as defending champion after being brought back as a member of the early break stands as the most memorable win in recent years.

Raphael Freienstein and Steele von Hoff are probably the next tier of favourites on the team and unlike Elliott, they both possess very good sprint finishes that have so often given them an edge at finishes to races. Both riders’ form is a bit unknown, but Freienstein is seemingly always good, while Von Hoff won’t put his hand up for leadership if he feels off his game. A plethora of young talent in the squad and stalwart Mark O’Brien will relish the chance at an opportunity as well.

ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast are off to a very impressive start to the season, not just in Australia but with Taj Jones ripping it up with the other half of the team in Langkawi. They’ll have Freiberg and Michael Rice as their main men, you would think that both of the experienced pair will try and find the right move in the finale and then sprint from a smaller group so they don’t have to roll the dice against the top sprinters, but either could win from a bunch gallop if it comes down to it. Liam Magennis and Ryan Thomas are very handy ‘back-ups’ for the Queensland team, and are far too high quality really to be called such.

Oliver’s Real Food Racing have a long-distance specialist in William Hodges, with the Grafton to Inverell winner coming off a bumper 2019 with 4th in Melbourne to Warrnambool to go with his Grafton win. A rider that gets stronger the longer the race goes and with a deceptively fast sprint at the finish. Tom Bolton will likely be their man for a sprint finish and Liam White shouldn’t be underestimated on this sort of terrain.

Cyrus Monk would normally be a standout favourite for the newly-formed CycleHouse team, but his form is a bit murky after suffering a torn rotator cuff at nationals. Another of the guys that grows an extra leg after 200 kilometres, he might fly under the radar a bit as we haven’t seen a great deal of him in Australia recently. France-bound Matthew Ross fits the same mold and boasts a fifth-place finish here in 2016, with Patrick Burt also a chance from the break.

The other starred favourites for the race are all on the Avalon Airport Team, the composite squad that boasts the sprinting power of Brenton Jones, the WorldTour aura of Ben Perry and potential wild cards in Sam Crome and Julian Thomson.

Jones will face the problem that absolutely no one will want to work with him, as he’s the fastest on paper and a very powerful rider even if it comes down to the finish being reached in ones and twos.

You can read more about Ben Perry here, and it will be interesting to see how the WorldTour neo-pro plays his cards at the race as you would think he would need to arrive at the finish with a small group or solo to win.

Others that should be mentioned due to past results or potential include 2nd last year Harrison Bailey (GPM-Stulz), 3rd last year Brendan ‘Trekky’ Johnstone, Reece Tucknott (both CCS Canberra), Jay Vine, Ben Carman (both Nero Continental), 3rd in 2017 Tommy Nankervis (Stitch and Dart), Pat Constable, Jordan Villani (both Subaru-Giant), Jack Aitken and Tim Guy (both individuals).

If you’re looking for some post-race vlog content (outside the superb Nero vlogs with Chris Miller) Cam Nicholls will be one to watch out for, he’s entered as an individual as well.

How to follow the race

Australian Cycling Insider will be at the race, so follow along on Twitter for live updates, and I’ll also be taking over the SBS Cycling Central account to post some videos after the race from the main protagonists.

The Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool, the National Road Series and Cycling Victoria are all good accounts to follow as well and the hashtag for the event is #M2W20.

Listen to the live call of the final 10kms of the race via the 3YBFM website or the 3YBFM APP.

Watch the final hour and a half of the race LIVE on the Big Screen in the event village on the finish line of the Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool.

There will not be a live stream of the event, but you can catch all the action on a 30-minute highlights package SBS HD at 5pm on Sunday February 23, also on the Cycling Central website.