Experience, youth, and a wonderful ‘Warrny’ weekend

Mark O'Brien won the Melbourne to Warrnambool at his 13th attempt and Lucie Stewart won solo at just 19.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 05.02.2024 Photography by
Henry Yates / Image Writer Photography
More from Matt +

There’s just something about the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic. Maybe it’s the age of the thing – founded in 1895, the ‘Warrny’ is one of the oldest races in the world. Maybe it’s the length – normally between 250 km and 300 km, it’s one of the longest one-day races in the world. Maybe it’s the fact that everyone from club racers to National Road Series (NRS) racers to four-time Tour de France champions can take part.

Whatever it is, the ‘Warrny’ is an institution of Australian road racing and an event that, every year, delivers plenty of interesting storylines. This past weekend’s edition – the 108th edition of the men’s race and third of the standalone women’s race – was certainly no exception.

The action began on Saturday with the men’s race and ultimately delivered a most-deserving winner in 36-year-old Mark O’Brien. Racing as an individual against the might of the biggest NRS teams, O’Brien made all the moves that mattered, getting into the front group in the crosswinds with 50 km remaining in the 266 km race.

O’Brien attacked a bunch of times in what was an aggressive last hour or so of racing, helping to whittle down the lead group, but still had the legs to follow a decisive move from Connor Sens (St George) with 8 km to go. O’Brien bridged across then promptly dropped Sens, before riding his way to victory on Raglan Parade.

O’Brien is one of Australian cycling’s true journeymen. From 2007 through 2016 he raced at the Continental level at home and abroad and amassed a bunch of strong finishes, without a big win. Despite ‘retiring’ from semi-pro racing at the end of 2016, O’Brien has remained in the sport. He’s worked as a sports director, he’s been a coach, and he’s never really stopped training.

O’Brien is perhaps best known as a fixture at the Australian Road Nationals where he’s competed in every road race since 2010. In that time, he’s finished in the top 10 six times, and only twice outside the top 15 (21st and 25th).

O’Brien’s win at the Warrny is a story of remarkable perseverance. The 2024 edition was his 13th appearance at the race, and comes 14 years after he finished second to Rhys Pollock way back in 2010. He was also third back in 2020. 

“I’m bloody rapt,” a beaming O’Brien said immediately after finishing. “I was talking to an old friend, saying this is lucky number 13 edition of Warrny for me. To finally get the win after second, third, fourth, and fifth, I’m pretty rapt, and I guess I can hang the boots up at the Warrny now.” 

O’Brien almost didn’t start the race.

“Thank God my wife let me [race],” he said. “I was meant to be over in Adelaide and [in] a last-minute decision I sent her on the plane yesterday with our son so I could race here and then drive straight to Adelaide.”

Follow the links to read more about the 2024 men’s Melbourne to Warrnambool and for full results. You can find highlights and a full replay at SBS On Demand.

A day later, in the third running of the Women’s Warrnambool Cycling Classic, it wasn’t an experienced campaigner taking the win, but someone much newer to the sport.

Roughly 40 km into the 160 km race, a group of four broke clear of the peloton: Amanda Poulsen (Team BridgeLane), Josephine Pepper (Butterfields Racing Team), Sophia Sammons (Cycling Development Foundation), and Lucinda Stewart (ARA Skip Capital).

While there was a concerted chase behind at times, that chase would be hampered by a crash and ultimately proved unsuccessful. After a series of attacks from the breakaway riders, Stewart punched away with 6 km to go, despite being the most fancied sprinter in the break. As the others chased behind, 19-year-old Stewart held on to win by six seconds ahead of Pepper and Poulsen.

Stewart’s win comes a year after she finished fourth in the same event after leading out her teammate Sophie Edwards to the win. That 2023 season was Stewart’s first with ARA-Skip Capital and netted her an Australian U23 criterium title, a silver medal in the corresponding time trial, and a promising ninth on the opening stage of the 2023 Tour Down Under against WorldTour riders.

Winning the Warrny, though? That’s the biggest result of Stewart’s young career and one that’s made all the more significant by her challenging run-in.

“I’m just in absolute disbelief,” Stewart said afterwards. “I didn’t have too much confidence going into this race. I’ve sat out all of January with a broken collarbone. But the team had confidence in me once I was in that break, and I had Henk [Vogels, sports director] and David [Manton, team director and mechanic] in the car saying, ‘You’ve got this.’”

Getting in the break hadn’t exactly been the plan for Stewart. ARA-Skip Capital had been looking to a sprint finish, with defending champ Edwards and Lucie Fityus both in attendance, but when the early moves went, Stewart followed. She ultimately got in the move that went the distance, setting her up for a decisive late attack.

“I’m sort of more of a sprinter but I didn’t want to wait until the end for a sprint,” she said of her race-winning move. “So, I just dug the heels in and gave it everything and held on.”

ARA-Skip Capital has now won all three editions of the women’s Warrny since it became a standalone event in 2022.

Follow the links to read more about the 2024 Women’s Warrnambool Cycling Classic and to see the full results. You can find highlights and a full replay at SBS On Demand.

And so, the 2024 NRS season is now underway. It’s quite a wait until the next round, however: the one-day Tour de Brisbane isn’t happening until April 14.

What did you think of this story?