Queens of the King Valley… a tour with a Euro vibe
– By Nick Squillari
– Photo: Con Chronis
The oldest handicap race in the world and the second oldest one-day race in the world both call Australia home. But for all the history that the Melbourne to Ballarat and the Melbourne to Warrnambool represent, there’s still a lack of ‘Euro’ feel to them. Sure it’s not a prerequisite – we are half a world away after all – only harking back to the traditional strongholds of a sport is important to help maintain its identity. Like cricket and The Ashes, races with a real European vibe are important in cycling. The King Valley, host of the women’s National Road Series Tour of the King Valley and (more broadly) the Sam Miranda weekend, encapsulate this feel.
A strong influence from the Italian, Spanish and Yugoslav immigrants from the early to mid-1900’s has resulted in a region now renowned for stunning food and wine culture and a strong affinity with more traditional European pursuits like cycling. All this while being surrounded by amazing Victorian Alpine scenery – who wouldn’t want to race bicycles here?
Truth is the Sam Miranda race weekend, while not being a Johnny-come-lately event, looked rather different before 2007. Before then Sam (Miranda) supported the Wangaratta Cycling Club, but not in a direct event promotion capacity. Enter Marty Tobin, the cellar door manager at Sam Miranda King Valley. A more enthusiastic race director you will struggle to meet. Marty was the man charged by Sam to take the weekend to the next level, all the while showcasing the best the region has to offer. Not content, however, to follow convention and simply make it a three-day men’s and women’s tour, Marty added a women’s National Road Series tour.
The men would have the choice of riding the same course (and nearly the same race format) as the women. Only theirs (this year) would be a time trial, criterium, scratch race and handicap – all stand-alone events. Which, when you consider how many partners of the female NRS racers would already be in the area supporting their wives, girlfriends or mates who were already racing, and the fact the road closures were already in place for the NRS tour, was a masterstroke in increasing race revenue with little additional outlay. Not a racer? Not a worry. The granfondo on the Saturday has you covered too. I was impressed with the entire set-up and that was before either myself or my partner (racing for Total Rush in the NRS tour) had even turned a pedal.
The Friday morning time trial, stage 1 of the women’s Tour of the King Valley, was staged in partnership with another local wine producer, starting and finishing at the Dal Zotto winery. Personally, what turns a good time trial course in to a great one is if, in the event of rain (which in the Vic Alps at the back end of winter is a very real risk), there would there suddenly be a half dozen life-threatening sections to negotiate. I have no issue with technical TT courses, but I’m not a big fan of courses that are strewn with off-camber corners, roads splattered with truck oil or potholes (that tend to come in the middle of fast downhills). You can plot a route through those in the dry, but in the wet it can become a lot like Mario Kart.
The Dal Zotto TT had none of these. The course was testing. A good pacing strategy was essential. But the route choice, road condition and organisation were top level. Vintage even. Some of the women might have felt the race organisation was a little too well structured, as there more than one competitor was asked to alter her TT set-up so that it complied with the UCI regulations. Given how pivotal the time trial was to deciding the general classification for the tour, some very rapid bike alterations were carried out amid blushes for having an ‘illegal’ position. Pedantic? I didn’t see how, given this is a nationally ranked race. The vast majority of the racers adhered to the rules, so it was pleasing to see that the others were asked to make the required changes.
Stage 2, a criterium around the Wangaratta aerodrome, was highway to the danger zone last year. Wet, windy and cold, Total Rush team leader Bridie O’Donnell explained there was plenty of caution in the bunch. Polar opposite conditions this year, with a lack of any weather aside from brilliant sunshine resulting in a bunch kick in each race. Rebecca Wiasak held on to her commanding lead, after blistering through in the time trial with a time that would have placed her in the top 10 in men’s A grade. The only criticism was the length of the course. At over four kilometres, you spent a fair amount of time between laps with the women well out of sight. It’s a small wine (see what I did there) and easily fixed. It would have just been great for everyone spectating to see the girls rocket past a few more times.
Around the same time Sam and Martin were taking over running the race weekend, there was a race in Italy also on the rise. The Strade Bianchi began in 2007 and, just like the Sam Miranda, saw the inclusion of gravel climbs result in it becoming an instant hit with the professionals. Saturday’s course had gravel of a darker colour, the strade nero, but it has proved to be as much of a hit with Australians as it has been in Europe. The fact I had heard so much about the race and the climb, all of it positive, spoke volumes. Balancing the need to lay down the power simply to climb versus the real need to maintain traction made for one hell of a ride. Mountain bikers right now are shaking their heads in a ‘what’s the big deal?’, but for bulging bunches of skinny-armed roadies, the novelty and fun factor of the race were enormous.
The addition of a climb of this nature also meant the women’s race saw riders not renowned as climbers make it over in the front bunches. Ellen Skerritt (who took the QOM) and Ruth Corsett aside, the main bunch included all the general classification contenders bar Ash Ankudinoff. Even then, she was only some Cancellara-esque descending off being back in touch with the leaders. I had the pleasure of watching the stage unfold from the comfort of the race director’s car. So not only were impressive highlights like that on hand, I could also appreciate some of the other sights I’d missed in during my race – like ‘Fridgehenge’, on the outskirts of Greta. Not just the final resting place of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, but also home to a Stonehenge replica… made of old fridges. Grand chateaus of France the King Valley may lack, but how many Grand Tours can claim a sight of this level of magnificence?
Riding out the remainder of the stage in the race director’s car, the appreciation of where well-run races are born came to light. I would dare say most riders, in any of the events across the weekend, would struggle to name the race director. Not that Marty wants his name in the spotlight. In football the best officials are the ones you never notice – same in cycling. However, in the car Marty was never idle. On the phone, pulling up confused residents (who had missed/ignored the police informing them of road closures), chatting to the police force (most of which, handily, are his mates), keeping in touch with all the race commissaries and even offering mechanical assistance to riders. He does it all with a cheerful yet exacting and professional demeanour. Mystery solved as to how every stage runs as smoothly as Myrtleford butter. A bunch kick to finish the stage, Rebecca Wiasak again took the win in front of a crowd that was (quote) “bigger than any of those at the men’s Tour of the Murray.” Nice.
Sunday’s final Tour of the King Valley stage, a handicap race for those outside of the women’s NRS but over the same course and distance, finally saw a breakaway get up and stay away to the finish. There was some surprise at the tactics employed by a well-represented team the day before, sitting up rather than pushing on after the descent off the strade nero. Persistent moves in the final 20km of the last stage, however, finally saw a move go clear, with Crystal Wemyss out-foxing her break companions for line honours. Wiasak kept hold of the GC, with second (Ash Ankudinoff) and third (Ruth Corset) also remaining unchanged.
Having the same finish line as the previous stage also meant the Sam Miranda cellar door was a mere 100 metres from the podium. Logistical windfalls in races like this are rare, but appreciated. Not having prolonged transfers after each day plus quick access to the race sponsor’s product: just more ticks on the extensive list of things in which this race weekend excels. Martin Tobin’s career as a race director, to use a wine analogy, is maturing. Taking over the running of this year’s men’s NRS Tour of the Murray River is certainly a sign he’s a premium blend. And my hope is he’s afforded even more opportunities in that capacity. But until then, pencil in the 2015 Sam Miranda weekend now – it certainly is a fine drop.
Find out more…
- 2014 Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley: stage information and results
- Sam Miranda King Valley ‘Kelly Country Classic’ – Sunday, 9 November 2014
- Wines of the King Valley