The Warrny by Sarah Gigante
What a summer of cycling it had been. Firstly, I’d raced my first Bay Crits with some of my idols, on the Lexus Blackburn Allstars team. I had pulled on the Roxsolt Attaquer skinsuit for the first time at Road Nats, joining a small but strong team of Peta Mullens, Josie Talbot, Emma Chilton and DS Vale. We all know how well that turned out! Then, with the national team, it was onto the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and finally, the Herald Sun Tour. I thought that would be it. I was already feeling the strong withdrawal symptoms from a great block of summer racing when suddenly, I see a message from Peta about the Melbourne to Warrnambool. “Do you want to join the Roxsolt team for the Warrny, Sarah?”
Just like that, I’m as nervous as I am excited. The famous and very prestigious Melbourne to Warrnambool! 262 kilometres long, with the number of brave participants almost as high as its distance. It’s the second oldest one day road race in the world, and the longest race in the Southern Hemisphere. As a first year Under 23, this was my first year being old enough to race the iconic race, and here was Peta, offering me exactly that opportunity! Perfect! On the other hand though, it was quite a scary thought. My longest ride that I had ever done was 132 kilometres, just a mere kilometre over half the length of the Warrny. I had also heard quite a few horror stories from prior racers, about blistered hands, sore seats, devastating crosswinds and numerous, unavoidable crashes. It didn’t exactly sound pleasant! But before I had time to weigh up the pros and cons, Peta had already signed me up and let the race organisers know. I found this out when I saw a newspaper article with my name on it, and there was no way I was backing out after it was published. A DNS is even worse than a DNF! That’s one way to persuade me to race! J
I’ve been primarily focusing on the upcoming Oceania Championships, so I didn’t train specifically for the Warrny. This meant that it managed to sneak up on me - it was February the 15th, the day before the race, before I knew it. I packed my race bag, made some rice cakes, did my pre-race activation, and prepared what seemed like hundreds of bottles. I was ready in those ways, but felt quite unprepared in others. But it was too late to worry about that now.
I woke up slightly before my 5 am alarm, already buzzing. Today was the day! I made myself my usual breaky of porridge – well in actual fact, I treated myself to a slightly larger bowl of porridge, in preparation for the long journey ahead! – and then I hit the road with my support crew for the day. On top of the fabulous women’s support provided by Roxsolt Attaquer, my mum and my uncle had very kindly volunteered to give up their day by driving behind a 7 hour bike race to offer me food and drinks every 70 kilometres!
I spent the relatively short drive to Avalon Airport checking my musettes, and then, before I knew it, we had pulled up next to the other cycling-mad masochists. It was only 6.30am, and the sun was just rising. I grabbed my numbers from the registration tent and then made my way to the toilet queue, which was incredibly long and took up almost all of the forty minutes I had left. I guess everyone was as nervous as I was! It was then time to line up. I stuffed my jersey pockets with as much food as I could fit, and then took my place at the start line. I thought we would be split into our grades and put in order as per the technical guide, but everyone seemed to be mixed up, so I was glad that I lined up relatively early and somewhat close to the front. Then came the gun, and the beautiful sound of a couple hundred cyclists clipping in their cleats at once. I’m not kidding – that sound, as well as the whirr of freewheeling, is one of my favourite sounds! The winding neutral was quite fun. Quite a few people were chatting and making jokes, in between slamming on the brakes every so often to avoid some very close touches. We all made it safely to the Princes Freeway though, and the race was off! The group was sailing along, at almost fifty kilometres an hour, on the wide and flat road. I was just thinking to myself that it wasn’t too bad, and that if we kept this up then we’d have quite a nice tow all the way to Warrnambool, when suddenly my bad positioning, coupled with a major bottleneck into a corner, meant that I was already off the back with a few others! It wasn’t too hard to get back on, but my heart rate was suddenly already through the roof, way too early in the race, and I was also right at the back of the pack. One corner later, and the road went straight uphill. I knew the KOM finish was at 40 km into the race, but one thing I will change for next time is that I will also look at when the hill starts - I definitely did not realise that it was a 7 kilometre climb and would start just 33 km after the flag dropped! I quickly lost contact with the wheel in front, and one by one, the convoy cars sped past me.
I was hoping to catch the peloton again, but before I knew it, I found myself out of sight, with the long road stretching out in front of me. Luckily though, I wasn’t alone for long at all. I saw a few riders just twenty metres behind me, so I readied myself and jumped on them when they came past. There were only four of us, and I had heard all about the strict time cuts in the Warrny, so although I was hoping to last as long as I could, I didn’t really think it would be possible to make it further than the first feed zone. “Well this has gone well!” I thought to myself. “I’ve lined up for a 262km race, and I’m only going to be able to complete 60km!”
I had packed enough food for an army and hadn’t yet touched any of it, but when we rode through the first feed zone without being pulled out, I realised that I had to start eating it, because we were in for a long day after all! As the kilometres ticked by, our group changed in size numerous times. We caught another group quite soon after dropping off, bringing us to a total of about nine riders, and we rolled turns for a couple hours. Then, at about the 120 kilometre mark, we reached Simon’s Hill (thanks Strava!) The gradient was only about 5%, so not particularly steep, however, after nearly one hundred kilometres of team time trialling, this was unfortunately enough to lose two thirds of our precious workers. I was just following the two guys in front of me, and thought we’d wait for the others over the top, but they made the decision to ride on, and I followed. We kept up our rolling turns for a while, but the pace was a lot faster now that we only had the four strongest riders left, and I started to wonder if I’d be able to keep this up for another 130 kilometres. I’m not one to skip turns, but I also didn’t want to self-combust majorly later on! Luckily, our group soon swelled in size again, to about seven people, and we were able to have slightly longer rest periods. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was relieved about that!
Although our group’s occasional chatter had changed to infrequent grunts, and our relatively equal rolling turns had morphed into track style give-as-much-as-you’ve-got, our goal hadn’t changed. We were all determined to make it to Warrnambool within the time cut, to be able to say that we were Warrny Survivors! Our legs were starting to ache, and I saw more and more people stretching their back and rotating stiff shoulders, but we made sure to celebrate the small victories along the way. When we saw the ocean for the first time, near Port Campbell, a small cheer erupted and we all took a moment to admire the breaking waves and fantastic views from the Great Ocean Road. It was even better when a road sign came into view which announced that Warrnambool was just fifty kilometres away! We had completed 200 kilometres at this point, so for about an hour, I took joy in thinking that the organisers had accidentally exaggerated the length of the race by twelve kilometres. I was counting down to 250 kilometres, and just like watching the microwave count down a very long six minutes to heat up your favourite soup, this fifty kilometres was certainly taking its time. You can imagine my dismay when I spot a small, red “10km to go” sign, just when I thought the race was meant to be finishing! Apparently there were quite a few of those red signs between 200km and the finish, which could have broken the bad news to me earlier, but I’ll blame my ignorance on Warrny fatigue!
I definitely saw the “1 kilometre to go” sign though, followed shortly by a view of the long-awaited finish banner. We were going to make it! For about 1 second, I had the grace to wonder if I should not sprint against my group, seeing as we were pretty close to being grupetto, but I’m guessing that my white line fever took over, because before I knew it, I was tucked into second wheel, curious to see what my max sprint power would be after seven tough hours in the saddle. I managed a measly 81% of my best 30 second power on that uphill drag, which was actually more than I expected. Once I had finally made it across the line, I was greeted by two delightful pieces of news – firstly, Peta had WON (!!!) the women’s race (and also kept up with the main men’s peloton, with both Taryn and Beck – how awesome is that?!), and secondly, my mum had non-cycling food with her! It’s funny, because the rice cakes I made were absolutely delicious, but I had grown so sick of them! This was mainly because each time I tried to take one out of my jersey pocket, it would explode in my sweaty gloves and become a lovely mixture of rice and aluminium foil, which I’d have to shovel into my mouth whole and later spit out any crunchy bits I thought perhaps weren’t grains of rice after all. My finish was well-timed though, because I made it to the podium area about three minutes before Peta was called up on the stage. I knew there was a reason we team time trialled so hard all the way to the line! J
After Peta collected her (very generous) prize, it was off to Maccas for the whole team. We had consumed enormous amounts of food throughout the day, but we were all still absolutely starving (even the car drivers were pretty hungry!) I don’t even go to Maccas once a year normally, but this wasn’t a particularly normal day and I guess I’ll have to get used to it, with Peta as a teammate now! All in all, it was a fantastic weekend with a little bit of everything thrown in. I am already looking forward to next year’s event and I definitely know what I can work on – with better rice-cake packaging right up there alongside improved bunch positioning!
As a (very cool) side note, seven out of the ten female starters finished – coming in 38th, 52nd, 56th, 122nd, 139th, 155thand 172nd(that was me!) out of the 216 starters. I haven’t asked everyone individually, but I’m pretty sure we all had an awesome day. There’s nothing like pushing yourself to the limit both mentally and physically, and seeing where your hard work can take you. 7 female finishes is a record for the Warrny, so hopefully we will carry on this enthusiasm to next year’s edition and see even more women on the start line in 2020. As you can probably tell, I was really nervous before the event, but it actually turned out to be what felt like one of the best races of the summer for me – my bunch can attest to my random “wow, this is actually super fun!” remarks 180 kilometres deep.
Thanks again to everyone that gave me tips and advice beforehand, my fantastic bunch, Peta for signing me up, Roxsolt Attaquer for being an awesome team, the on-day support of my mum and uncle, Kelvin, Pete and Belinda, and also Karen Jones at Cycling Victoria for helping the women’s race to be so well supported.