BRENDAN Pendergast chuckles and sighs when he reflects on the one Melbourne to Warrnambool Cycling Classic he had a chance to win.
The year was 1995, the last time the race used a handicap start. Pendergast and his bunch reached Colac and realised they couldn’t be caught.
“It was obvious that our bunch was going to win the race,” the Warrnambool lawyer recalled this week.
“I remember thinking ‘this is a magical day, I haven’t touched the pedals yet’. Then the next thing I’m unconscious on the road.
“Two of us had crashed and the other guy was being carted away in an ambulance and taken to hospital in Colac.
“I got back on the bike and rode for another 20 kilometres but I’d been heavily concussed.
“They stopped me and I finished up in Camperdown hospital. Our bunch went on and won the race.”
The decision to use a mass start for the Classic from 1996 meant Pendergast would never realise a dream to win the 118-year-old race.
He did, however, claim handicap honours in 1996 when officials used a “sealed handicap” system.
“That was a great thrill. I shelved cycling for a few more years, then I rode again in 1999,” he said.
“I rode reasonably well that year, finished second in D grade. That was the last time I rode it.”
Pendergast will end a 14-year drought when he saddles up today for his seventh Classic, 28 years after his first in 1985.
His motivation was the advent of his 60th birthday, in February: “I’ve always thought I’d like to do it when I’m 60”.
“It’s an iconic Australian sporting event. It ranks in terms of reputation with the Melbourne Cup and the Stawell Gift,” he said.
“If you think about yachting, you’d think of the Sydney to Hobart. And if you mention cycling to people in Australia, they think of the Melbourne to Warrnambool.
“It’s got such a long history, it’s well over its centenary running, and there are so many wonderful stories about races over the years.”
One of those stories was of three-time winner Peter Besanko, who broke through for his first “Warrny” in 1984.
Pendergast, having shifted to Warrnambool earlier that year, watched the race at Garvoc.
Besanko suffered a tyre puncture in front of him and dropped behind the leading bunch.
“Lo and behold, by the time they got to Cudgee, he’d regained the scratch bunch,” Pendergast said.
“At Premier Speedway he attacked the bunch and rode away from them and went on to win the race.
“It always occurred to me that was a fantastic athletic performance.”
The triumphs of Warrnambool cyclists Michael Lynch (1986) and Jamie Drew (1999 and 2002) also stand out for Pendergast.
“The event has always caught my imagination,” he said.
“I’ve always been passionate about bike racing in general and the Melbourne to Warrnambool in particular.”
Pendergast said the 2013 Classic would be his last, but he was adamant he would reap the benefits for the rest of his life.
He has lost 18 kilograms since he began training, in between bouts of sickness, and has not touched alcohol for months.
As for how his day will pan out, Pendergast, also a talented runner and footballer in his day, is uncertain.
The course changes, which take riders in various directions, have him wary.
“Early in the race it takes us through the You Yangs, up through some climbs,” he said.
“There’s some significant potential for me to get dropped off the peloton.
“If that happens, it’ll be a long day on the bike. But I’m determined to finish.”