It’s not what you’d expect from the Australian desert – but cycling is full of surprises. Nick Squillari takes on Western Australia’s Goldfields Cyclassic in the pouring rain.

Words: NICK SQUILLARI

Photography: LYNN WEBB

It’s raining. I’m saturated. My field of vision consists of what little I can see around the rear-wheel spray from the rider in front, which is to say ‘not much’. Racing in the wet is something you tend to get more accustomed to. And it’s all fine, at least until your shoes fill with water. It’s then misery, shortly followed by ‘what the hell am I doing this for?’ This point came and passed what seems like an eternity ago. Bike racing is fun, but right now I wasn’t having any. Yet I was invested. I’d come too far and could not possibly get any more wet, so I kept swimming upstream with the rest of the lycra-clad salmon.

As a boy from Geelong, Victoria you’d be forgiven for thinking this is me describing any given race day during the winter road season. You would be wrong. These were my thoughts at some point along the Goldfields Highway. Racing in the rain happens. Especially when your country decides to mirror the Northern Hemisphere and hold their road season during the coldest months of the year. But this was Western Australia. The Goldfields. The Red Centre. A place renowned for red dirt, long highways, heat and minimal rainfall. I was thoroughly prepared for three of the four, but my uncanny ability to conjure up rainfall every time I land in WA had struck again.

Flying the Tour de France

Australia is big. Huge. The distance from Melbourne to Perth is close to the same as what the riders covered in the Tour de France this year. It’s then a further 600km from Perth to Kalgoorlie. Simply making it to the start line of the Goldfields Cyclassic is a journey. The event however, has a simple yet effective tagline to encourage riders along: ‘Australia’s Richest Handicap Race’. Even the most ardent critic of prize money in cycling would have trouble denying that claim doesn’t have them sitting upright, their attention grabbed.

The prize pool for each day is $20,000. That’s right, 40 grand on offer for the weekend. That’s a lot of coin. Goldfields by name and goldfields by nature. But reducing this Classic to simply a money grab-bag would be selling it short. It’s a race weekend steeped in history and supported by a cycling community far hardier and more enthusiastic than I expected to find.

Initially just the single day handicap, the Menzies Classic – Chas Egan Memorial began in 1928 and was born out of a need for longer distance racing in the Goldfields. This was not simply due to the race’s age, but rather the implication of racing already occurring in the region and the fact that it was already so well established that they’d had enough of the shorter races. Bring us something truly testing.

Considering the Tour de France was established only 25 years earlier, the maturity of bicycle racing in such a remote part of the world is remarkable. Tragically, Charlie ‘Chas’ Egan, secretary of the Eastern Goldfields Cycle Club, was killed two days before the 1932 race. It has been named in his honour ever since.

Even the most ardent critic of prize money in cycling would have trouble denying that claim doesn’t have them sitting upright, their attention grabbed. The prize pool for each day is $20,000.

In 2011, the race – initially run from Menzies to Kalgoorlie – was switched. It was then that the second day, the Leonora Golden Wheels, was added. It dovetailed perfectly with the Leonora Golden Gift athletics carnival, an event with running races offering $50,000 in prize money, making it only just behind the Stawell Gift (another town whose history revolves around gold, incidentally) in terms of kitty on offer.

Funnily enough, when telling friends of the towns this Classic visited, more knew of Leonora for the Golden Gift than the Golden Wheels. And of those who did know about the bike racing, it was almost as if it was some thinly veiled secret. Weird. But not unusual in cycling. I surfed a lot when I was younger – in the days of dial-up internet and the Nokia 3310. Surfers were always cagey about ‘secret locations’ when the wind wasn’t right and was chopping up the swell, only sharing the spoils with a select few. As an east-coast racer I got the same impression of the Goldfields Cyclassic. Terrific event, but keep it quiet. We don’t want everyone knowing.

The early bird

It was an early wake-up call to make it from the hotel to the regional link terminal for the morning flight to Kalgoorlie. It hurt. But thinking more broadly, it wasn’t really any different to a Peaks Challenge or Melbourne to Warrnambool. A cup of coffee later and I was tranquilo with the world. The same could not be said for a certain rock-star member of the Perth cycling elite. Sure, it wasn’t even yet 6am, but no need to push in front at the check-in counter. I guess not everyone had reconciled themselves with the fact that this was about par for the course for any big cycling event.

My concern though wasn’t with the early rise – or jerks – but more so on how much time we’d have from landing in Kalgoorlie to race start. I trusted that the organisers knew what they were doing, but the timeline looked tight. What if something was wrong with my bike? Would there be enough space for hundreds of riders to all assemble their rigs? And how has that super pit in Kalgoorlie not opened up the centre of the earth!

Spotted on the flight in, it’s simply enormous. All my fears – except the one about the super pit (seriously, so deep!) – proved baseless. In what would be my first taste in how to expertly run a race weekend, we were shuttled 10 minutes down the road from the Kalgoorlie airport to the basketball stadium, revealing a perfect mobile set-up. Mechanics, coffee cart, pre-race snacks, race food – basically, most of the #facepalm things riders have a habit of forgetting in that rush to pack. Forget your shoes and you might be in some trouble. But somehow snap a gear cable, need to borrow a pedal spanner or need your derailleur indexed, and you were covered. All that was left was to suit up. And check the radar.

Start your engines

One of the interesting points of difference with the Goldfields Cyclassic handicaps is the set-up of the bunches. Instead of the traditional ‘scratch’, second scratch (block), etcetera down to limit, the bunches are graded: A, B, C and D Grades. So while you’re still racing for the overall, should your bunch not catch all the back markers – or get caught and dropped – you’re still racing for line honours within your grade. And in the case that you’re in the top six overall, that removes you from your placing within the grade, as the overall result is of higher merit. Get all that? Good. Moving on.

It’s an innovate change-up that keeps interest up in every grade, no matter the race situation. It also mitigates the damage some poor handicapping can cause in a traditional handicap race. I liked it. Only, as I was in A Grade (scratch), the plan was simple. Just like Pokemon GO, ‘gotta catch em all!’.

A glance at an organiser’s iPad dispelled any false hope. The screen was one big, green splodge

You may be wondering at what point the rain hits and I start moaning in misery. In fairness to the Goldfields weather, it played the waiting game to perfection. With the odd spit during bike assembly and warm-up, I was still pretty positive we’d get damp, though nothing too drastic. But like a scene from Psycho (look behind you!) a glance at an organiser’s iPad dispelled any false hope.

The screen – the whole screen – was one big, green splodge. Locals were rapt; they needed the rain. I didn’t! I said a little prayer as I was spinning the legs. How much could it possibly rain in the centre of the driest nation on earth? Right on cue, it got heavier at the start line and didn’t stop for the. Whole. Day. Like one of those cartoons where they get followed by the rain cloud, we raced over 130km due north and were still not close to being out from under it. Ace.

With only four grades, each bunch was heaving. A Grade rolled out with well over 40 riders, stretched out in a double paceline – ironically we were as long as the road trains passing us – and moving at a rate, hovering around the 50kmh mark for most of the first hour.

My rough rule of thumb is everyone is good for at least half an hour. A bunch this size, I figure an hour before legs start hurting. Seventy kilometres in and it was like turning your face to the shower head and trying to breathe. I could understand how some might not be loving life. Our pace – that was still averaging over 47kmh – was starting to drop. So back I drift to see why I’m now chopping (rolling) turns twice as quickly.

Shoes, food, all is wet. The rain has washed away the chamois cream. I’ll try not to scream in the shower tonight

‘He told us not to roll through,’ the rider gatekeeping a flock of nearly 10 riders at the back of the bunch protests. He’s riding for one of the well-represented teams. His gesture when he says ‘he’ could have been to anyone; it wasn’t one of the few riders I knew, and you couldn’t see more than a rider length in front anyway. Biting back the first reply that pops into my head, I ‘encourage’ the boys to keep chopping turns. If there’s one thing that helps scratch get up – to the front – in a handicap, it’s crap weather. Scratch’s kryptonite? Politics. I’m sure his beef with said rider goes back well beyond this race; I don’t really care. I checked ‘Nick the writer’ at the start line. We were racing. And these boys were going to pull a turn.

So here I am. Back in a (somewhat) functional bunch. Eighty kilometres in. Shoes, food, everything wet. The rain has washed away the chamois cream. I’ll try not to scream in the shower tonight. The pace is still solid, but even with the cross tailwind we won’t take the race record (set in 2013 at a casual 52kmh!). There’s no panic for the catch, with still over a third of the race to go and absolutely no sign of it drying up. In fact, there’s no sign of anything except the spray of water from the rear wheel in front. No one brought an ass saver with them. It’s Western Australia – why would you?

Reel big fish

I know I’m painting a grim picture here, so let me balance the ledger. Handicaps, aside from making it a real race for a lot longer, also provides one of humankind’s simple pleasures. The catch. The target is set, you bring them in. No less primitive than neanderthal man did with a woolly mammoth. Only our prey is lycra clad. And on this day they weren’t going to escape. Satalyst Verve and JML Racing kept bringing men to the front. In the case of Satalyst, a team with humble beginnings, it wasn’t so much ‘sending riders to the front’ as much as there being so many of them that there was inevitably one on the front.

The Goldfields Highways is as flat and as straight as you imagine it would be. Once C Grade was caught, it was clear there wasn’t enough leash for D to stay away. Compared to the massed bunch of B Grade, we picked up C Grade riders in dribs and drabs. D Grade was in pieces. Time to light up those grey outback skies.

Or not. Sure we were wet. And tired. But with a cross tailwind and no lumps to speak of on the road, creating a selection was nigh on impossible. Each time I made a selection that looked like it could stick, back came the peloton. Sometimes the same team that already had men in the split brought it back. Sometimes not. The overall win was on the cards, and no one wanted to miss a slice of the pie. I huffed and I puffed and blew no one’s house down. The bunch was still easily over 50 riders deep. I’m no bunch sprinter. Especially not in the wet.

Everyone who rides a bike knows that sound. The screech of carbon, bikes hitting the road and poor crew donating skin to the highway

Then, that sound. Everyone who rides a bike knows it. The screech of carbon, bikes hitting the road and poor crew donating skin to the highway. It happened on my left. Bouncing off a rider who was already taking evasive action, I channelled my inner Cadel Evans, mountain biking off the road, along the gravel, and back on. Looking back it was carnage. I was the last of only seven to have made it past. And as somewhat shameful as it might seem, hit the gas.

Less than 5km to go, this was the race. Logan, one of the three Satalyst Verve to make it, dropped the hammer. I followed. Super strong rider, no way I’d give him any room. But my tank was empty, so after he swung and I gave it one last unsuccessful dig, all I could do was watch the five on my wheel rocket past. WAIS rider Darcy Pirotta took the win. Andrew Jackson – WAIS coach and JML Racing sporting director – later informed me Darcy had just missed Australian Worlds U19 team selection, so no doubting the kid’s talent. I rolled in sixth. Wet, hungry, but skin intact.

Best post-race ever?

It might be a slightly grandiose claim, but even in the face of unseasonable weather the race crew braved it out, delivering all the fruit, muffins, soft drinks (even ginger beer!), water and bars you could manage. The town of Menzies warmly embraces the race, so showers are made available (note: packing a towel is vital!) – no racking up ‘chamois time’.

The Kookynie Volunteers Association dinner that evening was worth every penny. I cannot stress this enough: it was a country feed for the ages. Of course, being a tiny country town, most of the members are from one family – the Dwyers – but you’d never know it. Running with the precision of a perfectly tuned drive train, no one went hungry. In fact, most of us rolled outside to brave the rain (yep, still going) and enjoy a fireworks show that again belied the size of the town. Menzies, a tiny place with an enormous love of cycling.

The evening lodgings were a small bus trip out of town, the Aboriginal settlement of Morapoi station. Converted shipping containers made for a surprisingly warm, dry and comfortable night’s sleep. Log fires were already burning in the spaces between the rows of containers. Chatting to the station elder, it was a shame there wasn’t more time to spend on the station (and that I wasn’t approaching zombie levels of exhaustion). Part of the beauty of cycling is it taking you to parts of the world you would never normally have visited. I tucked the name away for a future WA road trip.

As seemed to be standard now, the morning breakfast got another big tick of approval. Another impressive spread, though not reflected in the faces of many. A chat with the JML Racing crew confirmed they had the same vibe. Yesterday’s weather had broken more than just bikes. Riders in the lower grades didn’t have a spring in their step. Scratch ate up well – it was game on.

Blood in the water

On the start line and a positive whisper goes through the bunch. ‘We’re on for today boys’. The weather and crash had taken their toll. The MC, ever resplendent in his fedora and crocs, wished us well. It wasn’t needed. Scratch could taste the win and rocketed out of the gates. Thirty kilometres in and we already had B Grade. Just over half the race done and that was the whole field brought back. Time to throw down. Up a small rise, JML’s Sam Lane jammed it. Any sort of gradient was a precious gift; there would be no wasting them. Satalyst got the idea and joined in. Punching over the top, it wasn’t for another 5km that anyone sat up to survey the damage. Less than 20 riders were all that had survived. Time for round two.

Any sort of gradient was a precious gift; there would be no wasting them

Like any good fight, it’s always a struggle to remember who starts it. One turn rolled a little too hard becomes an out-of-the-saddle effort to match that speed, which in turn sees an attack kick off. Clearly nothing was succeeding without the three main teams represented; only the few other freelance riders who had made the selection were still just able to drag our moves back. None were sprinters, which was a point that still always confuses me with racing.

Why empty yourself to drag the whole bunch back to the break if you can’t win from a bunch kick? Bridge up solo. Hit the bunch the same way I was – and was rapidly running out of kick to continue doing.

On the last roll of the dice, I counterattacked the freelancer who had just pulled us back – but was left parked on the front. Praying he was too spent to empty the tank again, I gave it all I had. There was a gap. And a Satalyst rider came with me. JML and Dome were bridging across. The knackered rider’s POC helmet was buried, investigating his stem. Still on the front. He was cooked and we were on.

I’d be lying if I said it was the smoothest rolling break I’ve been in, but it was enough to push out a gap. My legs were so empty that snagging the final sprint prime of the race was almost enough to drop me – barely scrambling on to the third wheel. That makes my move coming in to Leonora all the more stupid. Firing off the front after the pace slowed, I prayed I had the legs to make it the final 2km to the finish.

The finishing circuit passes the finish line, cuts a large block lap of town centre, then back to the finish. It was wet and we had been warned the corners would be slippery. Past the finish in first. Through the first corner, still first. Through the second corner, still first. Then it came. The Satalyst rider blew my doors off on the way into the third corner – JML only metres behind.

One corner and 200 metres to go, but I was done. Only to then watch, in a mixture of amazement and fortune, as JML’s rider takes far too much speed (and the wrong line) through the final bend and goes sliding across the road. That I then went on to sprint like a total novice hurts to write, but I was pipped on the line for second. Still better than Sam, who had just thrown away the potential win and smeared his hip across the town street. Cold comfort, but as they say, ‘That’s racing’.

The question

Around another sterling feed at the presentations for Sunday’s Golden Wheels I was asked why more Victorians don’t come over and race. The obvious answer is ‘the distance’. And it is a long way. But then, it wasn’t very onerous to get there. Flight to Perth. Taxi to and from the layover hotel. Standard check-in for the flights to and from the Goldfields. None of that is a stretch, with everything else taken care of for you by the race committee. A committee, it must be said, I could only wish were running more races. Such was the level of organisation and professionalism shown for a race that is, honestly, a huge logistical challenge. Two point-to-point days. Hundreds of kilometres. In the outback. All smooth sailing.

The only ‘challenge’, east-coast riders, is getting the time off work. The Monday following the race is WA Day, so locals don’t have to rush home. Only if this were me, next time I’d save some annual leave, stick around and see some more of the Australian Red Centre. Spend a few days at Morapoi station. Venture out for a day trip. Make a real holiday of it. And please, don’t worry about bringing any food. They have plenty of that.

The rider’s ride

Nick’s custom-spec CAAD10, $5,000 (approx.), cannondale.com

Nick rides a black-on-black CAAD10. Which, as far as bang-for-buck race bikes go, is hard to beat. Excellent geometry. The frame is constructed from aluminium and delivered at a price that allowed funds to head into a power meter and race hoops. Power2Max Cannondale SiSl power meter, SRAM Force and Zipp 202 wheels round out the package, proving you can have a whip of a race bike – and get results – without breaking the bank.

Aluminium also carries with it the added benefit of trusting that even should a baggage handler get a little ‘enthusiastic’ in moving your bike box/bag around, chances of finding a snapped rear stay or top tube are minimal. Cadel Evans travels with an aluminium bike for the same reason, so it’s more than another of Nick’s crazy theories.

The details – GOLDFIELDS CYCLASSIC 2017

How to ride a Classic

What: Goldfields Cyclassic

Where: Kalgoorlie/Boulder, Menzies, and Leonora; Western Australia

When: Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th June 2017

Distance: 237km total – Day 1, Menzies Classic, 132km; Day 2, Leonora Golden Wheels 105km

Elevation: 475m (flat!)

Entry: $160 (Enter here) 

More information: cyclassic.com.au

Do it yourself

GETTING THERE

Coming from over east will require a night’s layover in Perth, as the regional flight to Kalgoorlie departs very early Saturday morning. I flew Virgin Airlines, who were terrific (and didn’t treat my bike box like a footy). But all domestic airlines have flights to Perth from capital cities. The race organisers have detailed all the options here.

ACCOMMODATION

I recommend booking accommodation sooner rather than later, as although there are plenty of options near the airport, Perth still has a large mining population and a public holiday on the Monday following. So your options can disappear rather quickly. Check the options here.

Saturday night, take the option of staying out at Morapoi station. Enlightening, comfortable, warm, clean with plenty of hot water. Ticks every box.

FOOD AND DRINK

If, somehow, you’re still hungry after the meals and snacks the race puts on, there are cafes in both Menzies and Leonora. In fact, it was street vendors aplenty in Leonora on the Sunday. Pubs are also never far. Although if you prefer a drop of wine, I’d suggest grabbing a bottle in Perth, – the local establishments don’t stock a huge variety.

THANKS

The whole Goldfields Classic organising committee were exceptional, not just
in getting me there, but also in putting together and executing the weekend.
It’s as logistically challenging as you would expect (racing was actually the
less exhausting option) but they pulled it off impressively well. Deb Miles I never saw sit down – a big driving force behind the event. Also, a huge thanks to the towns of Kalgoorlie, Menzies and Leonora. All welcomed the cyclists and were extremely gracious in permitting road closures in the interest of rider safety. It’s an attitude that was incredibly refreshing (and a great sign for the future of the event).

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