What does it take to win the Grafton to Inverell? Ask Will Hodges
The Grafton to Inverell is a brute of a race. At 228 kilometres with 3,382 metres of climbing – including the long ascent of Gibraltar Range – it’s billed as one of Australia’s toughest races.
William Hodges knows it better than most. He won the 2019 edition in a two-up sprint against Inverell rider Dylan Sunderland, breaking the hearts of the partisan local crowd.
That year, Hodges, from Bathurst in central New South Wales, was riding for the Oliver’s Real Food Racing team.
At age 22, you wouldn’t have categorised him as a top climber; more of an all-round rouleur with a good sprint. He’d finished fourth in the Melbourne to Warrnambool, a testament to his strength over distance.
“The race was hard all day. It’s always hard all day,” Hodges said in an interview with AusCycling.
“I’m not the best climber; I got lucky with a headwind over the top of the climb. I wasn’t in the first group, but the headwind put paid to them.
“Through Glen Innes we came back together. From then, it was full gas for the last 100 kilometres.
“With about 20 or 30 kilometres to go, Marcus Culey, Dylan and I got up the road.
“I think Marcus had a hunger knock,” Hodges explained. “I came into the sprint with Dylan, which was – I don’t know about nerve-wracking – but because it’s a big race, you don’t want to lose one of the only chances you’ll get to win it.
“I thought I had Dylan’s measure in the sprint, so I thought I’d back that. Dylan had worked hard all day, but I had a pretty easy ride thanks to the Oliver’s guys until 100 kilometres to go.
“I think I led out from pretty early, and it was more betting on the legs to be there, and they pulled through.”
What does it take to win the Grafton?
According to his Strava file, Hodges averaged 227 watts (271 by Strava’s weighted average) over 6 hours and 27 minutes.
To get over Gibraltar Range, Hodges pushed 326 watts for 45 minutes (keep in mind, he got dropped. Sunderland climbed it in under 43 minutes).
Hodges said his preparation was far from perfect, but a solid training base helped him go the distance.
“I had a disjointed lead-in that year. I had a good training block over summer that gave me a good base through to the Warrny,” he recalled.
“I had 10 days off completely in early March. I crashed in Brisbane and didn’t have a bike for a week. I was just riding an old mountain bike around and didn’t have good training.
“So, it was about putting in a good six or seven months over the Aussie summer. For me personally, I like going into a race fresh, anyway.”
As for the race itself, the mental battle was key. After losing contact with the front group on Gibraltar Range, Hodges kept pushing to get himself back into contention.
“On the day, it’s about perseverance,” he said.
“I felt average. I was dropped into one of the mid-to-back groups over the climb. You have to believe you can come back and still win.
“It’s different over six or seven hours. You never know how anyone’s legs are going to be, so you need to keep going no matter what’s happening in the race, and back yourself.”
Time off to rekindle the flame
After his victory, Hodges enjoyed two successful seasons, winning state-level races such as the New South Wales championships and the Gunnedah to Tamworth.
He switched to the Giant Racing Team for 2021, placing fifth at the Warrny and 14th in his Grafton defence (the race was cancelled in 2020).
But in 2022, Hodges took the unusual step of taking the season off entirely. For a time, at least, he’d lost the desire for competitive cycling.
Hodges kept himself busy, getting engaged to long-time partner Ella Falzarano (herself a rider in the AusCycling National Road Series) and studying to become a physiotherapist while working at Mark Renshaw’s bike shop in Bathurst.
The gap year has rekindled his love.
“I got to a point where I didn’t enjoy the training aspect,” Hodges explained. “A bit of time out of that has got me missing the racing, missing the riding.”
“I just enjoy the freedom and the enjoyment you have from going out with a mate or a few mates, spending three to four hours on the bike. You don’t think about work, you don’t think about uni, you’re just out in the middle of nowhere.
“I like the aspect of pushing yourself. Even if I didn’t race, I would still ride and train, because I enjoy setting fitness goals,” Hodges said.
New season, same big goals
This year, Hodges is racing as an individual rider, not as part of any team. After winning the Grafton, he still has some big goals to check off his list.
“I’m picking and choosing races I want to do,” Hodges said.
“For the first half of the year, given I haven’t raced much, it was more about enjoying racing. I went up to Brisbane for Oceanias, and depending on how that went, I was going to make the decision about whether to put more effort into training.
“I did enjoy Oceanias, so now I’m aiming to get back to just enjoy racing and riding.
“This year, I’ll do some state racing. When summer comes back around, I think I might try to target some of the bigger goals that I’ve had for my domestic racing.
“That will be to finish the Nationals road race – the elite one – and getting a proper result at the Warrny, which I came close to over the years.”
On the new women’s course
Finally, we asked Hodges about his thoughts on the new course for the women’s National Road Series race at the Grafton, which his fiancée will be racing.
The women will tackle the first 119km of the classic route, meaning the race will include Gibraltar Range for the first time.
“I think that is going to be extremely hard,” Hodges said. “For me, that was the hardest whole part of the race. The first 80km to the base of the climb is just non-stop, three- and four-minute punchy climbs. Then you obviously have Gibraltar Range.
“If I was racing that course, as not a pure climber, I would definitely try to get up the road before the base of the climb, so you can hopefully make it most of the way and stay close to the front of the race.
“It is good to see a proper climber’s course for the women.”
The Squadron Energy Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic will be held on April 29. In addition to the men’s and women’s National Road Series races, it includes a non-NRS race for competitive cyclists of all levels. Entries close this Sunday, April 16.
Feature photo: Aaron Liang