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Mark O’Brien has won the 2024 Powercor Melbourne to Warrnambool, flying solo from the break with about six kilometres to go to claim his long pursued victory at the 108th edition of the historic Victorian event.
After 267km of racing and six hours 24 minutes and five seconds the 36 year old individual rider, who made a last minute decision to take on the race once again on Saturday, got to sit up and celebrate on the finish line on Raglan Parade in the heart of Warrnambool.
“This is lucky number 13 edition of the Warrny for me, so to finally get the win after second, third, fourth and fifth, I’m pretty rapt,” said O’Brien, who in his black kit stood out among the team kit heavy National Road Series race. “I think I can hang the boots up on the Warrny now.”
In second it was Connor Sens (St George Continental) who crossed the line 31 seconds later. The Australian gravel champion had flown out of the lead group a couple of kilometres before O’Brien and while the race winner joined him for a short stint he then took advantage of a small climb to shed the rider from Bendigo and make the final charge alone.
“Connor and I have had some good battles,” said O’Brien in the post-race interview broadcast on the SBS livestream of the event. “He is a real strong guy so once I got away with him I thought ‘you beauty’ but the only real chance I had to get rid of him was on the hill after that. As everyone knows I’m the slowest guy in the bike race so if I’m not solo I’ve already lost.
“I had to try and give it some beans up there and hopefully try and drop Connor as otherwise I would have just ridden for second, because that’s still a bloody good effort. I’m rapt that I was able to get away and engage the old diesel mode.”
The 2023 winner, Tristan Saunders (BridgeLane), claimed third after taking the sprint from the chase group of seven that crossed the line 50 seconds behind O’Brien. Jack Aitken (Royal Bikes) claimed both the sprint and mountains prize, after his efforts out in an earlier break of three which stayed away for around 100km of the race.
Beginning at Avalon airport on the outskirts of Geelong, about 50km away from its historic starting point in Melbourne, the race which first ran in 1895 rolled inland through Colac and hits the coast at Port Campbell before heading up to Warrnambool and the Raglan Parade finish line.
How it unfolded
The peloton of 172 riders rolled out in mild conditions from Avalon and while the early attempts at breaks came flying there were also some early crashes, with one of the riders marked out pre-race as one to watch, Declan Trezise (ARA Skip Capital) among those who came down. Patrick Drapac (DUDA) also fell and was out of the race while a little later Australian Continental team ARA Skip Capital were caught up again, this time with Dylan Parker coming down.
The break attempts continued and the riders that got the lasting gap were Jack Aitken (Royal Bikes), Samuel Eddy (St George Continental) and Nicholas White (DUDA). The move stayed at the front for around 100km and while the gap stretched out beyond five minutes at one point, it was being quickly hauled in by 110km to go.
All along the way Aitken was sweeping up top points. The Royal Bikes rider took the intermediate sprints in Birregurra and Colac and, while it was Aidan Buttigieg (St George Continental) from one of the early breaks who took the first mountain points, Aitken claimed Barrabool and Timboon building the foundation of his dual classification wins.
Aitken was the last remaining rider from the break of three, absorbed just after holding out long enough to claim the points on the Timboon climb. The pressure was then on at 90km to go, causing splits in the peloton with riders being shelled off the back and others trying to shoot off the front and establish a new break, though ultimately it all stuck together for a little longer.
The splits and reforming within the peloton, with its still healthy numbers despite distances having moved well beyond 200km, then continued until the race making moves at just under 50km to go.
There was a noticeable upkick in the wind and the splits began to occur within the peloton, with the U23 winner Australian road race title holder Fergus Browning (Trinity Racing) instrumental in having put the pressure on at the front. The lead group of around 20 riders stretched the gap and then the breaks started to come from within it.
Six now clipped off the front of that lead split, including Australian gravel champion Sens, Samuel Jenner (BridgeLane) and O’Brien. Some more riders then scrambled over, with 2023 winner Tristan Saunders (BridgeLane) and Browning also making the junction.
Saunders was in the box seat in the group of around 10, the only rider with a teammate given he had Jenner along for the ride. Then after working for the defending champion Jenner fell out of the lead group at under 10km to go, leaving nine at the front to battle it out for the podium.
That was until at under 8km to go Sens went on the attack and stretched the gap in a way the numerous flurries of action before hadn’t. As it looked set to be a move that stuck O’Brien then jumped from the back of the group and made the catch. After working with Sens for a short stint, at 6km to go he flew solo and managed to hold off the chase right through to the line.
The Lochard Energy Warrnambool Women’s Classic will be held on Sunday, with Grace Brown (FDJ-Suez) headlining the field at the 160km National Road Series event.
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