Down Under Digest #16: Vale, Mel Dennis

Keep up to date on all things Aussie and Kiwi cycling with our weekly round-up.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 03.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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G’day, Happy New Year, and welcome to the first edition of the Down Under Digest for 2024. It’s good to be back, and with the Aussie summer of racing now underway, there’s plenty to talk about. 

Sadly, this edition is going to be a rather sombre affair – since the last time we spoke, we’ve learned of the tragic passing of Mel Dennis (née Hoskins), a world champion on the track, and a beloved member of the Aussie cycling scene. It’s only fitting that we pay tribute to Mel today.

? Vale, Mel Dennis ?

You’ve almost certainly seen the news reports by now. On the evening of December 30, 2023 Aussie former track and road racer Mel Dennis was hit by a car allegedly driven by her husband, recently retired pro, Rohan Dennis. Mel was seriously injured and taken to hospital where she tragically died the following day. Dennis was charged with causing death by dangerous driving, driving without due care, and endangering life.

The circumstances around the incident still aren’t entirely clear – there’ll be plenty of time for details when Rohan faces court in March. For now, let’s remember Mel Dennis, a shining light of the Aussie racing scene who retired in 2017 before becoming a mother of two.

Mel’s palmares is an impressive one. She was a staple of Australia’s team pursuit squad in the first half of the 2010s, representing her country at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016. In 2015, she was part of the Aussie TP squad that won the world title, deposing Great Britain which had won the past four editions. On the road she was a handy sprinter who won a bunch of races, not least two stages and the overall at the Tour of Chongming Island in 2012.

Hoskins (far right) after winning the Worlds TP in 2015 with (from left to right) Nettie Edmondson, Ashlee Ankudinoff, and Amy Cure.

As good as Mel Dennis the racer was, the many tributes to her in recent days make it clear Mel the person was even more impressive.

“Mel was an amazing, fun, loyal, strong, wonderful woman, athlete, teammate, champion,” wrote former teammate Valentina Scandolara. Rachel Neylan spoke of Mel “shining the most wonderful light, but without ever needing to be in it. This was one of the most striking qualities of Mel I always admired, and one our entire cycling community will remember.” Mel’s family shared a heartbreaking statement too, describing her as “ a freewheeling spirit” and “a giver with a big heart, patience, and zest for life.” 

And then there was this post from Nettie Edmondson, Mel’s long-time teammate on the track, who summed up the feelings of many:

“I still can’t comprehend that the world has lost one of its shining stars this weekend. A fun, loving, hilarious person, who was so talented in so many areas. A force to be reckoned with, she took the track and road cycling world by storm, before pursuing her next dream, starting a family and becoming the ultimate Mum.

“I’m so grateful to have known you Mel. You drove me to become a better athlete. We were so competitive on the track and road, but when we came together in the team time trial and team pursuit, we were one. Standing on top of the world, singing that National anthem with you, Aims and Ash (and Sutto/Beck!) in 2015 was one of the best days of my life after everything we had been through as a team, and I will never forget it.

“You, your infectious smile and your wicked laugh will always have a piece of my heart and I look forward to seeing you again soon.”

Mel’s funeral is set to be held in her hometown of Perth and there’ll be a memorial service after the Tour Down Under in Adelaide as well. For now, from all of us here at Escape, our deepest condolences to Mel’s family, friends, former teammates, and anyone else who was fortunate enough to know her. Our thoughts are with you all, not least with Mel and Rohan’s two children.

? Aussie Road Nats begin ?

The Aussie Road National Championships are now underway in Buninyong, with Wil Holmes and Lauren Bates winning the junior men’s and women’s time trials on Wednesday. Expect a bunch of coverage from Road Nats at Escape over the coming days but for now, here’s a quick guide to the elite events and the riders to watch:

Elite & U23 women’s ITT (Thursday)

Elite men’s ITT (Thursday)

Elite & U23 women’s criterium (Friday)

Elite men’s criterium (Friday)

Elite & U23 women’s road race (Sunday)

Elite men’s road race (Sunday)

If you want to watch the racing live (and can’t get up to Ballarat/Buninyong):

? TDU startlists are here ?

We’ll have more about the Santos Tour Down Under once Nationals are complete, but for now, official startlists have been revealed. Here’s who’s lining up in the women’s race, and in the men’s race.

A few quick thoughts after scanning the startlists:

Women’s Tour Down Under

Men’s Tour Down Under

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? The biggest Papa’s yet? ?

In the last edition of the DUD before the break we spoke about what is perhaps the biggest unofficial race in Australia: the Boxing Day Papa’s Ride over in Perth. Well, the 2023 edition was held a week or so back and according to some of those who took part, it was the biggest one yet.

Perhaps not the biggest in terms of startline quality – Luke Durbridge, Jai Hindley, and Sam Welsford seem to have been the only WorldTour pros there – but probably the biggest in terms of the crowds.

Just take a look at this great video from The Press Room Podcast and check out the number of people on the side of the road watching. I’ve seen smaller crowds at WorldTour races. 

Pro photographer and friend of Escape, Zac Williams, was there and he too captured some of the magic of the Boxing Day Papa’s.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the final sprint was won by local lad Ben Pepper ahead of Hindley and Durbridge.

✂️ Snippets ✂️

? The weeks ahead ?

January is a big month in Aussie road cycling. Here’s what’s coming up:

January 3-7: Australian Road National Championships (Ballarat/Buninyong)
January 12-14: Women’s Tour Down Under (Adelaide, WorldTour)
January 16-21: Men’s Tour Down Under (Adelaide, WorldTour)
January 24: Geelong Classic (women only, Geelong, non-UCI-event)
January 25: Surf Coast Classic (men only, Torquay, 1.1)
January 27-28: Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (men and women, WorldTour)

We’ll have plenty of coverage here on Escape – I’m planning to be at almost every race day listed above, health pending, and we’ll have a big team going to the Tour Down Under.

As for the DUD, well, the plan is to keep that going throughout, but it might be a little slimmer than normal, given we’ll have plenty of other Aussie coverage elsewhere on the site. We’ll see how things shake out.

Oh, and if you happen to see me at any of the races over the next month, please do come and say hi!

? Big Things Down Under ?

‘Bike Against a Big Thing’ is on hold this week – it didn’t feel right to have a photo of a comically oversized roadside statue sitting alongside our coverage of Mel Dennis’ tragic passing.

? And finally … ?

I’d normally round out the DUD with some funny or entertaining videos or photos from the last little while, but this time I wanted to do things a little differently. Over the past few days I’ve found myself going back and watching old interviews featuring Mel Dennis. It’s proven to be a heart-wrenching journey, but one that’s served as a wonderful reminder of the wonderful athlete and person she was.

Here she is in a profile interview from Cycling Australia (now AusCycling) from 2012, talking about her journey through the sport to that point:

Here’s a little post-race interview after she podiumed at the 2014 Ronde van Gelderland:

And here’s a lovely little sit-down interview with Mel ahead of the 2014 Track World Championships. You get a real sense of her personality here.

If you’ve got a video, photo, or a memory of Mel you’d like to share, you can do so in the comments below.

Vale, Mel.

? Until next time … ?

Thanks for reading! This and every other Down Under Digest was made possible by our wonderful members here at Escape Collective. If you’ve already signed up, thank you. If you haven’t yet, but you’d like to, please do. Just click the link in the top right of the page to get started.

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