The long and winding road of an Australian cycling race older than Tour de France

It has been 125 years since the first Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic, when 20 riders vied for a £30 bicycle

Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic
The 1926 Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic on a ‘road’ not yet developed for motor vehicles. The dreaded Stoney Rises section. Photograph: Cycling Victoria History Archive
The 1926 Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic on a ‘road’ not yet developed for motor vehicles. The dreaded Stoney Rises section. Photograph: Cycling Victoria History Archive

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 16.02 EST

At 4.30am on Monday, 15 cyclists rolled off from the Haymarket roundabout on Elizabeth Street in central Melbourne. To any onlookers, the bleary-eyed group must have seemed incongruous; even the most eager cyclists do not typically begin their bunch rides before dawn. But as they rode out of the city, the group – which included Tour de France legend Phil Anderson, former Mitchelton-Scott stalwart Simon Gerrans, AusCycling chairman Duncan Murray and past national champion Rob Crowe – had something more profound on their minds. They were commemorating history.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago to the minute, eight cyclists set out from Haymarket on a 270km ride to Warrnambool on Victoria’s south-west coast. They were followed 90 minutes later by five more riders, who were observing a handicap. The group was participating in the second official Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic, and the first to begin in Melbourne (the inaugural race, in October 1895, commenced in Warrnambool).

Days later The Argus, the newspaper of record at the time, ran a breathless blow-by-blow account. William Nicol of Lancefield and W Davis of Fitzroy had emerged as race leaders near Camperdown, and were forced to “contend against a strong adverse wind, which was blowing half a gale”. On the approach to Warrnambool, the cyclists found their progress impeded by a road “lined with horsemen and vehicles.”

The denouement, more than 13 hours after they left Melbourne, proved fittingly dramatic. As Davis sprinted towards the finish line he missed a turn and crashed into the crowd, gifting Nicol the victory. The Argus recounted: “Both men were utterly exhausted, and great excitement was manifested among the hundreds of spectators, who cheered both riders for their plucky finish.” Such was the collective disappointment for the runner-up that spectators immediately donated funds “to make Davis’s prize equal to that of the first man”.

William Nicol
William Nicol, the winner of the 1895 Melbourne to Warrnambool. Photograph: Craig Fry Collection

During Monday’s ride, there will be few spectators, no prize money and certainly no horse-drawn carriages. But 125 years on, the legend of the race’s second edition – alongside the 102 that followed, most recently in February – will animate Anderson, Murray, Crowe and company. They are riding a 336km route from Melbourne to Warrnambool, consisting of different segments of the race’s course (which has varied throughout history), to mark this iconic moment in Australian cycling history.

“The Melbourne to Warrnambool is Australia’s oldest road race, and the second-oldest in the world,” explains ride organiser and cycling historian Dr Craig Fry. Only Belgium’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège is older, having first been run in 1892. By contrast, the Tour de France did not begin until 1903, while Australia’s most popular contemporary competition, the Tour Down Under, started in 1999.

“Cycling is seen as such a European-based sport, but we have a race here in Australia that is older than the Tour de France,” says Olympic gold medal-winning ex-cyclist Scott McGrory, now a broadcaster and race director. “That is incredible. I think the general public, and even the newer generation of cyclists, don’t quite understand that heritage. Australia is a significant player in the history of cycling, and the Melbourne to Warrnambool is right at the top.”

Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic
Billy Guyatt wins the 1954 Warrnambool in front of massive crowd. Photograph: Craig Fry Collection

Historian Fry has a family connection to the one-day classic that spans four generations, and in 2016 he became the 19th family member to compete. Organising an anniversary ride became an extension of his research into the race’s origins. “I knew the anniversary was coming up,” says Fry. “I thought it was important that something was done to celebrate it.”

The group of riders Fry has gathered for the occasion boasts almost 100 starts in the race between them. Tim Decker, now a coach with Australia’s national track cycling team, has competed 21 times, winning in 2007. “The roads between Melbourne and Warrnambool have many stories to tell,” Decker declares. “It is our responsibility to create some more.”

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The ‘Warny’, as the race is popularly known with a mix of affection and fear, began with one man and a very, very long ride. In March 1895, Melbourne bike shop proprietor Don Charleston set off for Warrnambool. Charleston had intended to return by ship, but was greeted on arrival at Warrnambool Pier by choppy seas. “So he had to ride home!” laughs Fry. “Out of that adventure and misadventure, the idea for a race formed.”

The first Warny took place seven months later, with more than 20 riders racing from Warrnambool to the Haymarket roundabout on 6 October, competing for a new bicycle worth £30. It received national attention, with Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph noting that “considerable interest was taken in a bicycle road race from Warrnambool to Melbourne yesterday”. Locals were so taken with the event they raised £50 of prize money for another edition, in the other direction, two months later.

Laurie Hately
Laurie Hately rides to ninth in the 1935 Warrnambool to Melbourne. Photograph: Craig Fry Collection/Craig Fry collection

At the time, cycling in Australia was rapidly gaining popularity. The Austral Wheel Race, a track cycling event, had been running at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1887, sometimes attracting more than 30,000 spectators (the Austral is the world’s oldest ongoing cycling race, with the next edition scheduled for March). For reasons that remain debated by cycling historians, Melbourne was at the heart of Australia’s cycling revolution; even today, AusCycling – the peak national body – is based in the city.

“The Warny coincided with a real cycling boom,” says Fry. “It also coincided with the invention of what were known as ‘safety’ bicycles, which were much easier to ride than the ‘bone-shaker’ and ‘penny- farthing’ bikes that preceded them. Suddenly bicycles were everywhere – they captured the popular imagination. Cycling as a past-time and as a sport exploded.”

The race was run as a handicap. Anyone could enter – inexperienced riders had a head-start, while the best riders were sent off last (from “scratch”). “The style of racing made it attractive because anyone could win,” Fry continues. “As a result, families and friends of cyclists all over Victoria became very interested in the race.”

It was soon a fixture on the Victorian calendar, occurring annually other than brief interruptions during the two world wars. Some of Australia’s best riders won the ‘blue riband’ for the fastest time, although due to the handicap this did not always constitute a race victory. Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro claimed the honour in 1909, five years before becoming the first Australian (along with Don Kirkham) to race the Tour de France.

Geelong Road
So much tradition was created in handicap bunches working turns chasing each other down Geelong Road and on to Warrnambool. In 1978. Photograph: Ray Bowles

Legendary cyclist Sir Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman secured the fastest time in 1924, 1926 and 1929, while two-time Olympic gold medallist Russell Mockridge prevailed in 1956 and 1957. In 1979, Pauline Walters became the first female cyclist to participate. She was followed a year later by British world champion Beryl Burton, who travelled to Australia to contest the race.

“When I was racing in the 1970s, the Warny was the most prestigious race in Australia without a doubt,” says John Trevorrow, a three-time national champion. “One of my biggest regrets in cycling is that I never won the Warny. I ran second one year. It was always a hard race; the side-winds could make for a terrible day.”

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But in the latter half of the 20th century, cycling’s status in Australia’s sporting landscape began to wane. In 1996, the Warny’s format switched from handicap to scratch race, with riders leaving at the same time (competing in different grades). “Suddenly, all the club riders had no chance of winning,” says Fry.

This change was implemented by John Craven, a race promoter, who took over the running of the Warny that year (although the Warrnambool Citizens Road Race Committee remained the race’s custodian). “After 100 years the race really was on its knees,” Craven told Bicycling Australia in 2014.

Stan Bonney
The 1949 winner Stan Bonney. Photograph: Craig Fry Collection

Removing the handicap provoked uproar at the time. “There were almost punch-ups in the street,” he said. But, Craven argued, reform was necessary to reduce strain on police resources (a handicap format requires longer road closures) and secure recognition from global governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

AusCycling (then Cycling Australia) assumed organisational responsibility in 2013, and the race is now a marquee event in its National Road Series (although the Warny is today run by a private events operator). In mid-February, the 105th Warny will open the NRS season for 2021, with a 262-kilometre race from Avalon Airport to Raglan Parade, Warrnambool.

Despite the format change, it remains much-loved by the peloton. Drew Ginn, three-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower and more-recent cycling convert, has twice raced the Warny and joins Fry for the anniversary ride.

Melbourne to Warrnambool
The race changed direction and raced Melbourne to Warrnambool from 1939. The 1954 scratch got off to a bad start in Elizabeth Street with Hec Sutherland getting caught in the tram lines and falling. Eddie Smith looks over him and John Beasley is waiting to go. Photograph: Cycling Victoria History Archive

“It’s like one of the great grumpy old teachers,” he says. “Inspiring, expecting the best of you. Demanding you to strive, to prepare and show respect. It is a history lesson, physics lesson, religious lesson, and art lesson all wrapped into one. The Warny teaches you before, during and after the event; when it’s a bit grumpy, it’s the longest day in your life. But as much as you want to get out of there, you are compelled to stay, to hang in there and get to the end. I love it.”

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At the elite level, Australian cycling is going from strength to strength. Richie Porte finished third at this year’s Tour de France, Jai Hindley placed second at the Giro d’Italia and Caleb Ewan is widely hailed as the world’s fastest sprinter. But domestically, not all is well.

“It is the age of the car,” says Fry. “We have insufficient cycling infrastructure, we have poor driver attitudes and plenty of driver distraction. All of that means that many people don’t feel comfortable riding on the road anymore.” In 2018/19, 40 cyclists died on Australian roads. Injuries to cyclists in Victoria have doubled in recent years, with $700m in associated health costs.

Stoney Rises
The Stoney Rises were so often a critical part of the Warrnambool. Bunches rode into the Rises with known weather conditions but could come out the other end and find completely different conditions which would then affect the race outcome. Photograph: Ray Bowles

Increased congestion has exacerbated the difficulty of running domestic races, which typically require police to provide rolling road closures – at great expense. “It is getting tougher and tougher to put on road races,” says Trevorrow, a long-time race director of many major Australia events. “Races with a big budget are fine. But club events can’t afford to have rolling road closures anymore.”

McGrory, who was race director of the Warny in 2019, echoes Trevorrow’s assessment. “We require a lot more money now to put on an event safely than what we did 20 years ago,” says McGrory. “That has put pressure on event budgets. The riders are faster, pelotons are bigger – that makes it more dangerous, so we need even more police and traffic patrol. That costs money.”

David Allan
The greatest performer in the traditional handicap Warrnambools was David Allan, who was three times first and fastest and another fastest time. Here he collects the second of his double victories, in 1979. Photograph: Ray Bowles

Indeed, the Warny’s longevity stands in contrast to other historic Australian races. The New South Wales equivalent, the Goulburn to Sydney Classic, has not been raced since 2012; the 2013 edition was cancelled because race organisers, police and riders could not agree on a feasible approach to road closures.

“If people stop riding on the road for fun, the discipline of road cycling will disappear,” says Fry. “To me that is the subtext to this ride. I hope it is a way of reclaiming our place on the road, by celebrating this great Australian road race. If we don’t keep riding, we might be looking down the barrel of a future without road cycling.”

Days before the Warny anniversary ride, 12 Australian cyclists competed in the UCI’s first-ever virtual world championships – which took place over Zwift, rather than on the road. “I can foresee in my lifetime that road cycling might all happen online,” adds Fry. “I think that would be a terrible outcome.” McGrory jokes that the 250th anniversary of the Warny might take place on Zwift, before adding: “I certainly hope it continues on the road, of course.”

Russell Mockridge and Stan Bonney
Russell Mockridge (fastest time) and Stan Bonney (winner off 36 minutes) in 1957. Photograph: Craig Fry Collection

For now, that virtual future remains over the horizon. Late on Monday afternoon, Fry, Decker, Anderson, Ginn, Murray and the rest of the group will arrive in Warrnambool, 125 years after Nicol and Davis sprinted to the finish-line at the 2nd ever Warny. They will be greeted by local officials and representatives from the Citizens Committee and the Warrnambool Cycling Club. Funds the group are raising via crowdfunding to support junior cycling will be presented, followed by a well-deserved beverage. “No doubt we will have a couple of a beers and some dinner,” chuckles Fry.

On Tuesday, in the spirit of Charleston, Fry will turn around and ride home to Melbourne. Covering 600 kilometres in less than 48 hours. The historian hopes he will, in his own small way, contribute to the legacy of the world’s second-oldest road race. “I want to see the Warny return to its rightful status,” he says, “and ensure the stories around it are not forgotten.”

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