Last week, I found myself crawling along a deserted road in south-western NSW. My legs were barely turning the cranks and not another soul was in sight. How’d I end up here? I’d entered my first country open handicap—a 115-kilometre race outside the town of Cootamundra—and I’d been comprehensively dropped.
In the end, I dragged myself to finish almost half an hour behind the winner. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I make it sound: there are worse ways to spend one’s afternoon than riding through the sunny countryside! I was glad I’d entered and glad I’d finished the challenge.
But with only the canola fields for company, I started thinking how these larger regional races, which Cycling NSW classifies as “state opens”, differ from my usual club races in Sydney. The following is a shamelessly city-centric view (sorry to my rural cousins), but here’s a few ways in which country open racing is different from city racing.
At Sydney club races, you see the same riders over and over again. Sure, the composition of the field changes depending on whether you’re racing in the north (e.g. Beaumont Road), east (Heffron Park), south (Waratah Park) or west (SMSP, Oakville, etc.), but you’ll still only meet Sydney cyclists.
You can easily forget that out in the sticks is another pool of competitors. There are some very strong country riders out there, even at the lower grades. One only needs to look at clubs like Dubbo and Illawarra, whose masters and juniors achieve success after success, to recognise that reality.
What’s more, they have the home advantage. They’re used to racing these tough, long handicaps. The same strong riders will turn up to country opens across NSW again and again, so they become highly experienced at that style of racing.
Like a rider from Dubbo once told me, “it’s not country bumpkins you’re racing against.” There are no pushovers at country opens.
Sure, Sydney races can be windy. Heffron Park, for example, is notorious for stiff coastal gusts. But there’s a key difference: Heffron’s longest straight is only 500 metres long. The race circuits in Sydney are so short that any crosswind sections only last a few hundred metres—two kilometres at most, at Penrith’s Regatta Centre. If you’re in the gutter, you always know that if you can hang on for a few more seconds, you’ll turn into a headwind or tailwind for some sweet relief.
Not so in the country. About 78 percent of NSW’s land is used for farming, so picture open fields for grazing and crops: there isn’t a lot of shelter out there. On longer circuits, crosswind sections can last for twenty kilometres at a time. In point-to-point races, the whole race could play out in crosswinds! If you’re struggling, you’ll soon be found out.
The Gunnedah to Tamworth, the Ken Dinnerville Handicap and the latest team time trial course at Singleton are all renowned for having wind as their defining factor. So, if you want to succeed at a country open, you need to be able to deal with wind.
As mentioned, the race courses at country opens tend to be much longer than those the city. Obviously, there’s more space and less traffic out in the country. Sydney’s longest race circuit is West Head, at about 20 kilometres. The rest are under 10 kilometres long, with most being criterium circuits between 800 metres and 3 kilometres.
This affects the style of racing at country opens. There’s far less emphasis on cornering ability, for example. You can race for an hour without having to turn your handlebars.
Climbs can be longer. Sydney racing’s climbs are short and punchy; a few hundred metres long. Country racing allows for longer, sustained climbs like, at the extreme end, the 16-kilometre Gibraltar Range in the Grafton to Inverell (though admittedly, there aren’t any massive alpine climbs in NSW racing at the moment). Most NSW open courses use rolling terrain rather than any significant climbs, but you still get hills of 1-2 kilometres, which are longer than anything in Sydney racing.
Obviously, the traffic is different in the country. Sydney racing is mostly off-road. The on-road courses (West Head, Oakville, Beaumont Road) usually attract only passenger cars or slow-moving trucks. Country racing, in contrast, can take place on main roads with fast traffic (speed limits of 100km/h are common). Although vehicles are few and far between, you can come across big trucks and farm vehicles out on course. Don’t be surprised if an enormous semi-trailer overtakes your peloton mid-race.
Sydney racing reflects a fast-paced, busy urban life. People want to squeeze in a one-hour crit after work, then head home for dinner. They want to race at the crack of dawn, then spend the rest of the day with family. Racing is a standalone activity, not so much connected with the wider community.
Country open racing has deeper links with the culture of the community. Instead of hosting a hasty roadside podium ceremony and sending everyone on their way, many clubs like to invite riders to a presentation dinner back in town. That’s how they show hospitality while supporting their local businesses. They want riders to stick around for a drink and a yarn, to slow down and enjoy their town. Racing becomes a social event, not just an activity.
The local cycling club rightly makes a big deal of it. In a smaller town like Cootamundra, an incursion of 130 cyclists can’t be ignored; it’d be their biggest event of the year. At some Sydney races, a similar number would be considered a good, but not necessarily unusual, turnout. So for opens, country clubs have to rally all their volunteers, get their biggest sponsors on board and put in a huge effort to get the race off the ground. Everyone has to pitch in.
Because of the connection to community, tradition is important. The race is a proud part of the club’s heritage, one that they seek to continue every year. It may seem a bit old-fashioned, but awarding sashes to winners and listing the honour roll in a rough-around-the-edges race booklet are just some ways a local club acknowledges and celebrates its history.
That’s why regional clubs worry when they hear that country opens are dying and entry numbers are falling. Their biggest event of the year, their biggest source of income and exposure, is at threat. They want more city riders to come out to support their racing. But that’s another topic for another time.
Did we miss any major differences between country and city racing? Let us know in the comments below!