THE DAY FAME TOUCHED GRAEME DAWS

To those in the bike game, it is colloquially termed ‘The Warrnambool’

It’s a gruelling, tortuous test of physical and mental strength, where upwards of 240 riders contend with the howling cross winds which sometimes batter Victoria’s western coast, on the 166 mile (266km) journey from Melbourne to Warrnambool.

Some of the sport’s legendary figures have been unable to conquer the challenges of Australia’s oldest ( and the world’s second oldest ) one-day race.

But if you take time to scroll through the 99 winners of the famous event, you’ll find a few romantic tales of the ‘battlers’ who have risen from obscurity to enjoy their moment in the sun.

This is one such story……….
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The ‘Warrnambool’ has been a scratch event since 1995 and now attracts the nation’s best road riders. But prior to that – going back to 1895, in fact – part of its charism was that it was a handicap race. A serviceable club rider with plenty of stamina and a tidy mark, could, with a bit of luck, stand a real chance of victory against the ‘guns’.

Thus it transpired, on a threatening late-September day in 1959, that a 19 year-old shy introvert, Graeme Daws, rode into the history books.

A Wangaratta contingent had headed off to Melbourne that morning. Daws’ new dark blue Volkswagen was loaded to the hilt. His three mates – Charlie Larkins, Peter Laverty and Jack Sommer – were on board, with plenty of gear and three bikes in a rack at the rear.

“Dawsy was concerned that he couldn’t get the car to go any faster than 50 miles per hour and it was really chugging up the hills. So he pulled into the ‘Volksy’ dealer on the way and asked him what was wrong,” Charlie Larkins recalled the other day.

“The bloke said : ‘Look, you’re chock-a-block and you’ve got four people on board, what do you expect. It’s a Volkswagen, mate. It would’nt pull the skin off a rice custard ! ”

“Well, we made it with time to spare. Graeme had followed his second-cousin Russell Hiskins, when he finished runner-up the year before, so he had a good idea of what it entailed. But, of course, that’s no substitute for experience. ”

Daws was a cycling fanatic and was used to chalking up long hours in the saddle. He took a month off work to prepare for the race and covered more than 5,000 miles in pursuit of his dream. Consequently, he dropped a stone in weight and, fitness-wise, was ‘cherry ripe’ when the big day arrived.

Even so, his form chart didn’t look all that good. He had failed to finish in his previous three races and, considering the quality of the opposition, was given no chance. He was such an outsider that his name was mis-spelt on the official program.

It was with a mixture of trepidation and nervous excitement that he set off from Flemington with his fellow out-markers. They set a good pace, although, at the half-way mark, near Colac, there was a strong group of riders just 11 minutes behind them and seemingly set to gobble them up.

Heading towards Terang the Wangaratta boy was suffering leg cramps. Then, as he reached into his jumper-pouch for his flask of brandy and orange it fell and was run over by a passing car.

Now in danger of the road-rider’s greatest bane – hunger flatness – he was saved by another rider, Bob Whitford, who lent him his own flask for a drink. Then the rains came, which also refreshed him somewhat.

For the last 70 miles of the race Daws and the other three cyclists in his group rode on their own, although the following bunch had whittled the margin down to two minutes, as the leaders headed into Warrnambool and sprinted down Raglan Parade, to the line.

Whitford looked like getting the honours, but couldn’t withstand the young legs of Daws. The lead changed a couple of times, much to the delight of the crowd of 2,500 who roared, as the lad drew away to take the coveted race by a bike-length.

“There’s always a fair bit of excitement in the aftermath of the event, as you can imagine. Graeme was the ‘King of Warrnambool’ and everybody wanted a piece of him, ” says Charlie Larkins, who rode in three ‘Warrnambools’ himself.

“But he didn’t hang around long. After the presentations we grabbed a dozen bottles of beer, squeezed into the Volksy and headed home.”

“Graeme was riding at Tocumwal the next day and I was the handicapper for the event. For most of the 700-mile round trip we never needed to say much because Peter Laverty, who could talk under water, kept us entertained, skiting about how good Dawsy’s ride was.”

Graeme Daws never again scaled the heights of that memorable ‘Warrnambool’ win, which earned him a purse of 256 pounds; although he did take out a 3-day Benalla Ensign Tour and the McMillan Memorial 30-miler the next year.

He loved fishing and shooting, but it was his incredible passion for cycling that was never extinguished. Right up to the time of his death, in 2008, at the age of 68, his daily ritual was a long ride on the back roads of his home town.
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#     Bespectacled Jack Sommer made it two in a row for Wangaratta when he triumphed in the 1960 ‘Warrnambool’. He had finished fifth to Daws the previous year and did much of his training for this race with his club-mate and good friend.FullSizeRender

Sommer, of Dutch origin, was only 23 and a relative novice at the time, but proof of his dramatic rise up the cycling ladder was that he was given a tough ‘mark’ of 15 minutes. He overcame fierce winds and two storms to win by half a wheel.

Sommer later rode with some success in European six-day races and was the 1962 Wangaratta Wheelrace winner. In more recent times, he ran a large floor-covering business in Albury.

#   One of sport’s most uplifting stories was that of Barry Burns, the Vietnam veteran who returned to Wangaratta a broken man. He decided to channel his mental demons into physical pain and reached tFullSizeRenderhe top with a series of outstanding cycling performances.

Paramount among these was his courageous ride from scratch in the 1987 ‘Warrnambool’. He was yielding considerable distances to the frontmarkers. There was an attack at Terang and Burns went with it.

He went with three other attacks, then picked his moment and just went away from the field. “I felt like I was floating”, he said later.

His ride from scratch, to win the race by three lengths, was monumental, considering that it was achieved at the grand old age of 41.

#   Long-time ‘Warrnambool’ devotees still rave about the performance of Dean Woods in the event in 1990. Starting from scratch, and with a roaring tail wind at his back , he established a race record of 5 hours 12 minutes, whFullSizeRenderich will, in all likelihood, never be broken.

Woods, Wangaratta’s most decorated sportsman, was one of Australia’s greatest-ever track riders, but it was a Herculean effort to win the Blue Riband, for the fastest time in the toughest road race around.

In 1993 he spreadeagled the field to take out the event from scratch, in a time that that was 2 hours 24 minutes slower than the record he smashed three years earlier. But he earned the plaudits of bike fans for the grit and determination that he showed.

#     Brendan McAuliffe became the fifth Wangaratta winner of the classic when he took it out in 1995. He had just returnFullSizeRendered from a 9-week tour of the Dutch cycling circuit and obviously got under the handicapper’s guard, as he was given a generous ‘mark’ of 60 minutes.

The 18 year-old, possibly the youngest-ever winner of the race, exploited this to the fullest and raced brilliantly, sprinting 300 metres from the line to collect the $5,000 prize.

McAuliffe’s victory sounded the death knell for the ‘Warny’ as a handicap event and it has operated with a massed start from that point onwards.
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FOOTNOTE: Graeme Daws was the recipient of the Russell Mockridge Memorial Trophy, which was struck for the first time in 1959, to honour the legendary Australian cyclist. It was Graeme’s proudest possession.

Before his death he requested that it be given to his great friend Charlie Larkins. A priceless heirloom, it’s a constant reminder to Charlie, of a cycling trail-blazer.

And, as the riders line up on Saturday for the running of the 100th Warrnambool, he’ll be reminded of that day in 195FullSizeRender9……………

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