Johnston powers to tough win in selective Melbourne to Warrnambool

Credit: Con Chronis / National Road Series

A hard day in mild conditions was the setting for Brendan Johnston of CCS Canberra to take the win in the 2020 edition of the 267-kilometre PowerCor Melbourne to Warrnambool.

Johnston was part of the eventual attack of five that escaped the main bunch midway through the race, and the mountain bike rider had to weather attacks from his breakaway companions in the finale to eventually triumph in the sprint to the finish.

Johnstone powered his way up the final uphill push to the line, beating out Michael Freiberg (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) and Mark O’Brien (Inform TM Insight MAKE) with WorldTour rider Ben Perry (Israel Start-Up Nation) in third.

“I felt pretty wrecked there,” said Johnston just after the finish. “It’s always hard to finish with a sprint after 270 kilometres in the wind and the rain. The hard day suited me today. To get the win this year… I’m ecstatic.”

Johnstone was a part of a series of moves as the race hit the second half after a lot of early skirmishing as the race left Avalon Airport hadn’t established a clear-cut breakaway.

“I can’t believe it. For me to get in that move after the mess at the start, it’s a full lottery,” said Johnston. “We got a big group away and then over the climb there was five of us that went away. Just to get in the move is half the battle for me.”

Johnston came into the race after finishing third last year behind winner Nick White in the sprint after the break made it to the line. He was about to settle for a consolation prize again and jumped up to the top step with a powerful surge at the end of 267 kilometres of tough racing.

“I never knew about Ben (Perry) and how he sprinted,” said Johnston. “I knew Freiberg and I probably sprint similar after a big day and Marko (O’Brien) isn’t known for his sprinting, he’s more of a climbing specialist. But I certainly wasn’t overconfident coming into the sprint.”

Johnston is normally a mountain bike rider with Giant, specialising in marathon events and he’s won most of the Australian prestige events on the dirt. Johnston takes on the leader’s jersey of the National Road Series by virtue of winning the first round of the series, but he’ll continue to focus on his mountain biking. Even a follow-up Melbourne to Warrnambool is far from a certainty as he told a local reporter who was clearly expecting an ‘of course’ in response to his question of whether Johnston would return to defend his title.

“I don’t know, it’s a big day and having won it now it’s hard to much better,” said Johnston. “I don’t know, I’d like to come back but see how we go.”

“I’m with the CCS squad for the NRS in a few races this year, they’re great and obviously thanks to Giant for letting me come down and do some road racing as well. I’ve been at it for a long time and had a good summer with nationals. It’s good to top it off with the Warrny.”

The race got underway from Avalon Airport in the mild, rain-spitting conditions of Victorian summer and the pace was on from the drop of the flag, with nearly everyone looking to be part of the early move after it has proven so effective in the last few editions.

A number of moves gained some leeway before being brought back by a peloton unhappy with the composition of the riders present. The best of these was initiated by Aidan Buttigieg (Cycle House) and joined by Jason Thomason (Butterfields-Insurance Advisernet), Rowan Dever (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) and Jack Aitken. The group of four were bridged to by a group of five, including Raphael Freienstein (Inform TM Insight MAKE0, Ben Metcalfe (Bridgelane), Ryan Thomas (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast), Alex Lack (GPM-Stulz), Tom Bolton (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) and Matt Ross (Cycle House) making it across to the leaders.

With Freienstein present, none of the other teams could have felt too content at the mix of riders up the road, and Nero Continental did a lot of work to bring the attackers back after having missed the move. Through the 130 kilometre-mark the front of the race was back together, though plenty of riders had faded off the high pace being set in the peloton.

Soon after a large split formed off the front of the main bunch, with 17 riders going clear as the race entered the tough middle section with punchy climbs and tough, rhythm-breaking sections of dead roads and even a gravel section. 10 riders bridged across to the elite selection and finally the decisive move of the day went with an attack on a climb with approximately 90 kilometres remaining to the finish in Warrnambool.

Johnston jumped into the move alongside Freiberg, O’Brien, Perry and Sam Jenner (Team Bridgelane) and the quintet quickly pushed their advantage out to two minutes and twenty seconds with 70 kilometres left to race.

Bridgelane tried to jump across the gap before it got too out of hand, with Liam White (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) joining the light-blue pair of Ben Hill and Ayden Toovey.

The trio made significant inroads into the leading group of five’s advantage, getting to within a minute and ten seconds with 20 kilometres to go. White eventually dropped off from the pace, leaving just the Bridgelane duo in pursuit.

The presence of the chasers ensured cooperation among the leaders and it was only with eight kilometres that the attacks started with Freiberg launching the first assault, dropping Jenner from the move. O’Brien followed up with several of his own assaults, with one in particular with two kilometres left in the race looking as though it might win him the race until Johnston managed to bridge over.

Freiberg and Perry struggled back to be on terms and it all came down to the final sprint. Johnston hit out strongly along the barricades and grinded his way up the hill to take out the win, with a visibly exhausted Freiberg having to settle for second with O’Brien third on the line.

The women’s race isn’t rated as a National Road Series event and is run within the mens race, but still has equal prize money for the top finishers. It was Matilda Raynolds that started a Specialized Women’s Racing 1-2 as she finished just under 10 minutes down on the mens winner in the third main group on the road. Taryn Heather made it two podium finishes in consecutive years for her, while Kirsty Deacon (Veris) finished in third.

“I really feel like I’ve been in a race,” said Raynolds after winning. “Just pure relief. I haven’t (done a Warrny before) and right now it’s going to take me a bit to re-sign. It was a really hard day.

“I ran out of water part way through and it was really hard to feed knowing that the pace was on the entire time. I just had to push through and keep relating it to training rides, ‘only a couple of laps of Albert Park left’ and trying to get to the finish like that.”

Raynolds effort to finish despite being dehydrated well before she got anywhere near the finish in Warrnambool was a remarkable achievement and showed great resilience.

“So many times I was off the back or wanted to stop,” said Raynolds. “It was too hard and wanted the pain to stop. You push through that and that’s just another mental block that you can utilise for the future.”

“It was the longest I’ve ever ridden and I was really nervous about the crosswinds and the hills and bunches, but it was a really safe bunch and I think the guys rode really well to keep it together and safe.”

With the win, Johnston pulls on the NRS leader’s jersey, with CCS Canberra taking the early lead in the team’s classification through Johnston’s win.

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Written by Jamie Finch-Penninger