Attacking Melbourne to Warrnambool expected as the biggest names in domestic cycling come out in force

April 29, 2021

The 2021 Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool will be the 105th edition of the race, but the fact that the race has been run so many times doesn’t mean that there’s any consensus on how things are going to play out on Saturday. The race will be streamed live on SBS Cycling Central’s Facebook page with the audio commentary run on 3YB/Coast FM Warrnambool, the last 100 kilometres of the race of the legendary race will be brought to screens all over the world from 11.30am AEDT.

The Course

The 267-kilometre course is a replica of last year’s event won by Brendan Johnston (CCS Canberra) but the Canberran is just one of the many favourites coming into this year’s event in what is tipped to be a hot edition of the race.

The profile of the route isn’t going to give any riders nightmares, but there are some punchy climbs midway through the race that turned out to be the key section where the decisive attack escaped the peloton. The ‘Warrny’ is a tough slog for most of the 267-kilometre course, an attritional race where a different set of tactics and mindset come into play than the shorter races that most in the National Road Series (NRS) peloton are familiar with.

A gusty northerly is forecast for the morning on race day, which will see a tail-crosswind for much of the first half of the race, and then in sections after that as well. The tail-crosswind is regarded as the one most likely to see splits form in the peloton, with less advantage granted to those riders trying to draft aerodynamically behind the riders in front. The wind forecast could yet change, but at the moment it looks set to provoke an incredibly attacking edition of the Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool with pre-race favourite Lucas Plapp (Inform TMX MAKE) saying “it will be a Warrny that haven’t seen for quite a while, or ever really, if the crosswinds come as predicted. I’m quite looking forward to that.” 

The Tactics

There’s generally a lot of tactical interplay with the teams as they fight to establish the main break of the day and then it’s often a game of chicken to ensure that your team doesn’t have to do too much work to chase in the lengthy middle stages. Similar circumstances have resulted in breakaways gaining leads of up to 15 minutes on the main peloton, before the race wakes up and brings the bunch back into play. With the promise of attacking racing this year, there’s likely to be even more of a fight at the start to establish early moves and whittle down the field which could see winning moves launched early.

13 high-quality starters will take to the line in the women’s category, the race within the race as they start in the same bunch as the men. Having to mix their race tactics and attention between what’s happening in the men’s event and where their female competitors are, it’s a tough balancing act for the women in the field and the dynamics of the race are quite different and far less team strategy dominated.

The Contenders

The winner of the Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool instantly goes down in the history books as the victor of one of the hardest races in Australia, an honour that many count as the highest in their careers. It’s a different sort of rider that wins the ‘Warrny’, past years have turned up riders that might not win too much in the rest of the year, but when the distance gets out beyond 200 kilometres, they really come into their own.

For the women, defending champion Matilda Raynolds (Specialized Women’s Racing) will go in as the favourite, but she’ll have her work cut out for her. The Victorian fought hard to take the win last year as she battled in small groups throughout a rollercoaster race and she’ll be looking to be the first woman to defend her Warrny title.

2020 Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic women’s winner Matilda Raynolds on February 15, 2020 in Victoria, Australia. (Photo by Con Chronis)

Justine Barrow (Roxsolt Liv SRAM) took the road race silver medal at the national championships in 2020 and continues to impress every time she throws her leg over the bike. She’s had some bad luck with injuries and crashes in recent years but there are few that question her raw power and resilient mindset.

Alana Forster is mastering the art of racing as a solo rider in amongst a peloton filled full of teams, and she’s showed significant strength and endurance to go with that in her late arrival in the sport. An emergency doctor by trade, she’s one of the more impressive rising stars of the sport.

Nicole Frain (Sydney Uni Staminade) is one of the top domestically based riders currently and has shown in recent years that she should be pushing for international racing opportunities. She’s most renowned for her climbing abilities but has also shown the ability to mix it up in sprints when she’s had the chance.

The men’s field is a lot larger and is part of the NRS, making it an early chance for riders to build a points tally to maybe take a stab at the coveted NRS overall title.

When you’re looking at potential winners, it’s hard to stray too far from the elite teams in the race. If they’re not present in a winning move, often they’ll have the strength to chase that attack back , so it’s likely that one of their leaders will feature in the finish.

Inform TMX MAKE are the strongest team on paper coming into the race, with track and road crossover stars Lucas Plapp and Kell O’Brien leading the way after their stellar performances in the Australian summer. While they’re not in quite the same form as they build towards the Tokyo Olympics as when they were flying around Ballarat, nobody’s writing them off ahead of the Warrny. In addition, Inform boast last year’s podium-getter Mark O’Brien, perennial favourite Raphael Freienstein and Under 23 road race champion Tom Benton, all of whom could win on the day.

Luke Plapp on the podium after his time trial win at nationals (AusCycling/Con Chronis)

Team Bridgelane again won the NRS team’s title last year, their 11th in a row, but they faced stiff challenges from more and more of the teams in each and every race. They’ve got some really strong riders that will race in an attacking style, with their best including Ben Hill, Alastair Christie-Johnston and sprinter Jensen Plowright.

ARA ProRacing Sunshine Coast bring an interesting squad to the race, Ryan Thomas, Michael Rice, Matthew Rice and Angus Lyons wouldn’t be anyone’s favourites for the win, but all have won races at NRS or national championships level in impressive style in the past. The team has shown good ability to work together and certainly they have a team more than capable of mixing it up with the best.

St George Continental doesn’t always race a lot locally, preferring Asian race calendars, but coronavirus restrictions mean that there aren’t a lot of opportunities overseas currently. Sam Crome, Ryan Cavanagh, Lionel Mawditt, Jesse Norton and Carter Bettles shape as their strongest riders.

Defending champion Brendan Johnston is the outstanding member of his team and is coming into good form as he prepares to back-up his 2020 win. His CCS Canberra team is the strongest in the race, but they’ve shown at a number of races that they are strong enough to keep their star rider in races when dangerous moves go away and they will have an impact on the race.

2020 Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic men’s winner Brendan Johnston on February 15, 2020 in Victoria, Australia. (Photo by Con Chronis)

Other teams have strong riders among them, but perhaps not the experience or quite the overall strength in numbers that will allow them to dictate the course of the race.

The most well-credentialed of each squad are Matthew Ross (CycleHouse), Liam White (Oliver’s Real Food Racing), Grafton to Inverell winner Will Hodges (Giant Racing Team), Kane Richards (MEIYO CCN), Jason Thomason (Butterfields-Insurance Advisernet) while Cooper Sayers and Dylan McKenna (both Nero Continental) look like the best shots from the NSW-based team.

The Powercor Composite Team is an amalgm of riders that would have raced as individuals otherwise, but will form up into a very strong squad managed by Australian Cycling Team Head Coach for the track endurance riders, Tim Decker. They’ve got five riders who could potentially win, it will be interesting to see how they operate together under the watchful eye of 2007 Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Decker.

Marcus Culey and Nathan Earle would normally ride for the same Japanese squad, Team UKYO, and will no doubt have each other’s backs out on the road. Both are incredibly strong riders, with Culey’s diesel engine perhaps a bit more suited to the flat roads of the Warrny while Earle excels on the climbs.

Sam Welsford and Leigh Howard (Australian Cycling Team) will likely be wearing their stealth black kits as they normally do in road races, but they won’t be flying under the radar for anyone at the race. Howard’s raced as a very good sprinter at WorldTour level, Welsford possesses the short of power that other riders can only dream about and everyone will be very keen to assure that they don’t arrive at the finish together.

Brenton Jones (Canyon Sungod) looks in good form after cleaning up the win in the recent Damion Drapac ANZAC Day Classic. There’s a massive differential in distances, but Jones is a rider of tough temperament and shouldn’t have an issue with the distance if fit. It wouldn’t surprise a great deal if the Powercor Composite could take a win for the title sponsor.

There are other notable individual riders who will like their chances, particularly if the race is more aggressive and sees the teams depleted in strength prior to the finale.

Jack Aitken has done some very good Warrnambool rides in the past, it’s a race that he really seems to peak for.

Sam Fox is the joker on the startlist, with the Tasmanian mountain bike rider racking up impressive results including some national titles at the 2021 MTB nationals. With Johnston’s win last year, the formline is good for MTB marathon riders.

All in all, it’s a blockbuster field for the legendary race, one where whoever emerges the winner will either already have a big reputation within cycling already, or instantly receives it for knocking off the some of the biggest names on the domestic scene.

The 2021 Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool will be run on May 1, starting from sponsors Avalon Airport in the morning and finishing on Raglan Parade Warrnambool with an expected mid afternoon finish. The race will be streamed live on SBS Cycling Central’s Facebook page with the audio commentary run on 3YB/Coast FM Warrnambool, the last 100 kilometres of the race of the legendary race will be brought to screens all over the world from 11.30am AEDT.

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