Each year at the end of July, a bike race with a tradition dating back to the 1930’s, is contested between the NSW towns of Wagga Wagga and Albury. Traditionally run as handicap race, with riders spread across 4 large groups, a challenging course distance of over 130km, and on tough back country roads. With a mid-winter running potentially throwing in tough conditions, each year has produced many great stories and a worthy winner.
A road handicap race is a traditional form of bike racing still popular across Australasia, where riders are set off in groups depending on their ability, with the first group off known as Limit, and the last group called Scratch. In a race like the Wagga to Albury, the first group will often enjoy a 30-minute plus head start on the last group, but with significant differences in fitness, age and ability, these groups often come together for a dramatic finish.
In recent years the event has been held in the honour of a local cyclist, tragically taken on our roads, John Woodman. I didn’t know John, though I have ridden with people who knew him well, and when they talk about John, there is one description that resonates with me, that makes me feel I know him, John was a great Scratch rider.
Before you can be something on the world stage, you have to prove you can dominate the local stage. In our part of the world the stepping stone is handicap racing, and every great rider from Australia, at some stage was a Scratch rider. The psyche developed by a great Scratch rider turns them into the tough bike riders this part of the world is known for. The roll call of the Wagga to Albury event has many such riders, who made a name for themselves on the quiet NSW country roads, on their way to winning some of the world’s toughest races.
As each group leaves the start line it has its own unique dynamics, the Limit through to the middle groups will have riders of all ages, experience, fitness and ability. This combination sometimes works in cohesion, creating great momentum on the road and tough to catch, or splinters leaving them exposed to the chasing groups. The penultimate group on the road is Block, a mix of youth and experience, with riders either on their way up in the sport or sometimes gracefully starting their move forward in the handicaps. With the right combination of experience, fitness and youth the Block group can often deliver the winner, and a thorn in the side of Scratch.
Then the Scratch riders move to the start line. As with other groups, there is the mix of youth and experience, but there are no limiting factors, everyone has worked hard to get here, and they are ready to race. There are Scratch riders, and then there are great Scratch riders. So what makes a great Scratch rider? They are tough, uncompromising and exceptionally fair, they give before they get, and they leaders on the road.
To a great Scratch rider, there is no second place, they know to get the opportunity to compete for the win, they must immediately organise and collaborate with their fellow riders, to drive the fastest momentum in the race, and momentum is the key. Not surges or efforts that compromise or splinter the group, but solid turns on the front of the group that drive the overall speed up, and when cracks form in the pace line, they quickly fill them to keep cohesion. They know that managing the resources of the group is critical to achieve the result.
A true Scratch rider doesn’t just want to catch the front groups ahead on the road, they want to fly past and decimate them, they back themselves to ride the entire distance without support of the groups ahead. And when they make it to the front of the race, they seek to dislodge all hangers on collected from front groups. Great Scratch riders don’t take kindly to riders from front starting marks taking their spoils in the sprint to the line. Take no prisoners on the road.
On the days when the legs don’t respond like they should, their law of the jungle is such, that they give everything they have to the group, then disappear. They have no desire to have a free ride to the line. Then at the end of the race, these are the riders that pull on the leg warmers and ride the long way home. And on the days when the handicaps don’t work in their favour, they are the last to complain.
The 2015 event would have made John proud, a day when great Scratch riders took control of the event, no prisoners taken, a fight for the spoils once the job is done. There were many great stories from the day, of when Scratch flew past, no disrespect to us, their plans simply didn’t include taking us front markers to the line.
This year, as always will be a worthy winner, from a group of riders that have created cohesion and momentum for a common cause. Everyone who finishes Wagga to Albury has done a great ride, it is an achievement. But for me, I will have eyes on the back group, to see if on the day, another great Scratch rider is taking control of the race.
John was taken too early to have his turn on the world stage, but there is no doubt he dominated the local one, he was a great Scratch rider, a true Scratchman. It is fitting that our hardest race of the year is the John Woodman Memorial.