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ONE OF THE GREATS

 

The great cycling towns of Australia tend not to be rolling and green, like central France, or highlighted with epic cols, or glistening coastlines, like much of the rest of Europe. They are more often rural, rugged, and harsh. Wind, wild weather, and unsealed roads are often the defining features of races, and many are a battle for position, and a war of attrition, rather than determined by a postcard mountain top finish, or a bunch sprint along a sparkling coastal road. Warrnambool, on the South West Coast of Victoria, is among the most famous and historic cycling towns in Australia. It plays host each year to the Tour of the South West, as well as the race named for it, the Melbourne to Warrnambool (simply ‘the Warny’) – the second oldest one-day race in the world and, for a while, the longest one-day race in the world.

 

The Tour of the South West is a three stage race over just two days. This was the first big test for Black Sheep | Stinner Racing and the Men of Steel. An ITT and a road stage on Day 1, and a criterium around the infamous cemetery course on Day 2. Black Sheep I Stinner has an undermanned team this weekend, Dan sidelined with a broken collarbone (what a cliché) and Adam a last minute DNS courtesy of work commitments. The variety of disciplines mean there’s something in the tour for every type of rider. But it’s the stage 2 road race that almost always defines the tour and dictates those who will feature in the final results and those who won’t.

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DAY 2 & THE BREAK

85km across rolling terrain around a loosely square, 17km course. But the trademark of the race, the defining feature, are the roaring crosswinds that buffet the road course from every angle. One lap in and the race is already all across the road, echelons dotted along the narrow, exposed country road. The 90-degree turns around the course mean that the wind switches from a head wind to a crosswind and then a tailwind in an instant. Any rider caught out of position at these key turns on the course either buries themselves to get back on or gets blown out the back. Usually it’s the latter.

“The race leader initially responds but sits up after a few seconds. He either doesn’t have the legs to follow, or does, but thinks better of it.”

Hard early work by the team protecting Sam from the wind ensures he’s well placed in the lead group when a dangerous break of four riders jumps out of the bunch on the second lap. A moment of uncertainty. This break has gone early, only 25km into the race. But it’s made up of strong riders and most of the major teams are represented. But the race leader isn’t there – surely he and his team have to ensure the break fails? Every second spent hesitating, weighing up the likely success of the move, and the break is vanishing further up the road. He makes the call and jumps in pursuit. The race leader initially responds but sits up after a few seconds. He either doesn’t have the legs to follow, or does, but thinks better of it. It’s a more likely scenario, but ultimately the wrong choice.

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THE BRIDGE & THE PAYOFF

Our man chases solo into the headwind for almost 15 minutes to catch the break. He will claim 424W for 15mins over beers after the race, but no-one believes him. Regardless, it’s a huge effort to bridge across solo in the wind, and ultimately the break stays away, by almost two minutes over the race leader and over 30 minutes to the tail of the race.

“He will claim 424W for 15mins over beers after the race, but no-one believes him.”

Knowing he is out of GC contention after a poor showing in the ITT that morning, Sam rides strategically in the break. He attacks the intermediate sprints and claims the bulk of the points on offer, and ultimately finishes second on the stage, after the break tears itself to pieces over the last lap. It’s enough to put him in the Sprint King jersey and move into 7th on the General Classification. Lach and Mark roll in further down, job done for the day, saving their legs for the famous “Cemetery Crit” the following day.

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THE CEMETERY CRIT

Stage 3 is famous for all the hardest reasons. A brutally hard crit course around the historic Warrnambool Cemetery on the water’s edge, featuring a 7% climb every lap and yet more roaring winds around the exposed course. The team is raring after their Stage 2 success, and is all over the front of the race early, keen to set Sam up for further sprint success and a crack at the GC podium, where he’s only 17 seconds off 3rd place. Sadly the crit is a fizzer, over after only 15 minutes following a serious crash which sends four riders – thankfully none of ours - to hospital with serious injuries. No change to the GC or the Sprint classification. Sam parades the Sprint King jersey on the podium, knowing he’ll likely never claim a sprint title again in his career. Undermanned this weekend, but not outgunned. The Men of Steel.

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THE MEN OF STEEL

The five-strong Black Sheep | Stinner Racing team are united by common passions and commitments. Balancing full-on, full-time careers with young families, every stolen hour on their bike is a precious one. Cycling for this group of friends represents freedom, dedication, escape, a healthy dose of competition and a genuine reliance on long blacks.
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