Interview: Brendan Canty, winner of Stratford-Dargo 2013

On Sunday 21-year-old runner-turned-cyclist Brendan Canty won the 2013 Stratford to Dargo, a race made (in)famous by a final climb that ranks among the hardest in the country.

In a field that featured some of Victoria’s strongest climbers — including reigning champion Jason Spencer — Brendan rode away on the epic final climb to take an impressive solo victory, much to the surprise of many onlookers. But to those of us that know and have ridden with Brendan, the result was far from surprising.

Brendan took the time to answer some questions about his win and about how he got to this point.

A lot of people have been asking ‘so who is this Brendan Canty?!’ over the past few days. Can you tell us a bit about your sporting background?

It was about year 9 or year 10 where I started realising that I was pretty good at cross country [running]. I think I won every school cross country we had [at primary school] and then going into high school I won all of those as well.

I did alright at district and zone levels and then my sports coordinator, who came into school when I was at the end of year 9, tried to convince me that I should compete at the All Schools State Cross Country Championships.

I did it two years in a row and made the state team and went off to nationals for cross country. That’s when I realised maybe I should join an athletics club and get some proper running training.

I joined up with Diamond Valley Athletics Club in year 11 doing track and fields events. A lot of those guys did triathlons and it sounded like something I’d like to do. I hadn’t really done heaps of bike riding before — I’d done the Great Victorian Bike Ride in year nine with my mum and some of school mates on a mountain bike. But I ended up getting a road bike for my birthday in year 11 — a little Bianchi Composite and basically used that for my triathlon training.

I went out and did a few rides around my backyard, which includes some pretty nice roads around the St. Andrews/Kangaroo Ground area. If I did 200km in total for the week it was a pretty big week. I remember just riding to Kinglake and back and it was a 70km ride and I’d come home thinking I’d done the biggest ride ever. That was when I really started riding and enjoying it. That was in year 11 and the start of year 12 when I was 17 or 18.

I did OK with triathlons but I ended up not really liking swimming too much — I didn’t too well in the swim leg and I couldn’t race ITU Elites because they could draft in the bike leg and there was never any chance of me making the peloton on the bike. So I just raced the age group category, but after two seasons of triathlon I thought I’d better focus on one discipline or another. That’s where I transitioned towards bike riding.

After the Great Victorian Bike ride last year I got a new bike — a BMC Teammachine — and that gave me a lot of motivation over summer. Then I met up with you guys — Hells 500 and The Climbing Cyclist with the 7 Peaks Domestique Series — and did a bit of alpine riding and made a few more mates through cycling.

Over summer I did a lot of riding. I got on Strava and became more social with it and connected with a few guys who suggested I should do some more riding and racing and join some clubs. It sort of progressed from there.

And you’re still doing some running now aren’t you, as a footy boundary umpire?

Yeah this winter I was doing boundary umpiring with the Victorian Football League. It’s my first year down there. I spent two years in the local league football in year 12 and first year uni and that was good, running around the football field for part-time work every weekend, doing something I already enjoyed doing.

It’s a pretty professional environment down there [at the VFL] because a lot of the umpires are aspiring to be AFL level which, for some of them, is a full-time job. I’ve enjoyed it but whether or not that’s something I go on with next year is something I need to be considering at the moment.

Brendan on his way to setting a new Strava KOM on Lake Mountain last year.
Brendan on his way to setting a new Strava KOM on Lake Mountain last year.

Am I right in thinking Stratford to Dargo was your first road race?

Yeah, but personally I think Amy’s Gran Fondo was a bit of a road race. It’s not classified as a road race — it’s more of a recreational type thing — but there were a lot of good riders in there and I approached it as if it was a race and trained hard for it. Officially, I signed up for my racing license with Hawthorn Cycling Club on October 1 so the registration lasts until December next year.

And you’d done a handful of crits too right?

Four criteriums. Three of those were earlier in this year, in February or March. I rode my first one in D Grade and then I won that and moved up to C Grade. I won that one as well. My next race was in B Grade and I ended up finishing in the bunch for that.

I didn’t race that one very well tactically — I think I did a bit of work at the front towards the end. It was the Wednesday following 3 Peaks and it had taken its toll on my body. But not using any excuses that felt good and I thought B Grade was where I was going to be doing a bit more racing.

But before I knew it the crit season had already finished and football umpiring started up so my bike racing had to be put on hold for the winter.

You signed up to race B Grade in Stratford to Dargo but were put in A Grade. Do you think that was based on your sixth place at Amy’s Gran Fondo?

I think so. I’ve got the registration form in front of me [and] it says “Grade you race at open level?” and I wrote “It’s my first open road race and I’m not sure but probably B Grade due to experience but my fitness might be A Grade”.

I wanted to make sure I was comfortable riding in a bunch. I knew some of the descending and some of the riding was quite technical and I didn’t want to be dangerous or have any concerns due to my experience, knowing where to ride in the group and how to move around.

But I just sent that form off and wrote that I’d come sixth at Amy’s Gran Fondo and that I’d raced A Grade at the Hawthorn ‘teardrop’ crit last week and they used that and put me in A Grade.

What had you heard about the Stratford to Dargo race and what made you want to race it?

Some of the guys that I train with down at Peak Cycles mentioned that Stratford to Dargo was the sort of race that would suit me really well — it’s a very hilly course and it finishes with a big climb.

I hadn’t heard about it until then so when I got home I jumped on the internet and had a look at the Stratford to Dargo website and the profile looked fantastic with the big climb towards the end. I like going up hills and I guess when I saw it and once enough guys said “I think you should race this event, it’s pretty good for you” I signed up.

Then I did a bit more research and checked out some blog posts and race reports from guys who rode the race in previous years. When I read that some guys had to get off and walk on the climb towards the end because they couldn’t pedal any more, and the fact that it was such a hard course I felt a bit apprehensive. [I wondered if it was] going to be outside my range for my first race, particularly when I saw I was going to be riding A Grade and I was saw some of the names that were entered.

Brendan after winning his first race: a D Grade criterium at Hawthorn earlier this year.
Brendan after winning his first race: a D Grade criterium at Hawthorn earlier this year.

What was it like taking to the start line alongside guys like Matt Clark and Jason & Trevor Spencer — some of the best climbers in Victoria?

I knew their names from race results and their various sporting accolades. Matt Clark obviously represented Australia overseas not that long ago and they all race in the National Road Series (NRS). It was a little bit intimidating — I know they are pretty good climbers so my expectations coming into the race were a bit lower than the outcome.

I didn’t know how I’d go but I knew it would be a really good opportunity to actually race alongside these guys and see how I do go against them.

Did you have a particular goal in mind?

It was my first road race so I didn’t really come into it thinking “I want to finish top five or top ten” or something like that. Obviously when you enter a race you want to do as well as possible. You want to say “I want to win the race” if possible.

But being a bit more realistic I thought if I got to the base of the climb with the group or still in contention I’d just ride up the hill as best I could and I’d be happy just to get the experience to race with those guys. So I wasn’t too concerned about where I was going to finish — I wanted to use it as experience to build for other things.

How did the race unfold?

Once the support vehicles had let us off to race the attacks started coming. There were a few Charter Mason guys including Jason Spencer and Trevor [Spencer] and Matt Clark that threw in a few attacks and obviously there weren’t too many people that were keen to see them get away.

So the whole group picked up the intensity and that was something that was quite new to me, being my first road race: the whole group attacking in the first few kilometres. At [Amy’s Gran Fondo] everyone was keen just to ride in a bunch at the one pace.

I remember looking down and seeing my heart rate already quite high in the first five kilometres. It was a little bit stressful but I always knew that if someone like that [Matt Clark or the Spencers] got in a breakaway a lot of guys would be willing to close it down.

In the end there was a breakaway of six riders that got away a handful of kays into the race and after that the group sat up a bit and we got a bit more comfortable and the pace dropped. I think the breakaway of six riders got a lead of up to three minutes throughout the race and by the time they got to the base of the climb they had 90 seconds over us I think.

Because a lot of the main climbers in the race were still in the main group I felt like [the break] was going to be closed down.

What happened once you hit the base of the climb?

I wasn’t too concerned about sitting on people’s wheels or anything — once you’re going up a climb that steep [ed. 10.7km at 8% with plenty of 10%+ ramps] you can just sit at your threshold. If you can ride away from guys or if you can hold onto guys that’s good but if you can’t there’s not much chance.

By the time we got to the base [of the climb] Matt Clark was sitting on the front and he was starting to lift the tempo so I just sort of rode up with him, making sure he didn’t ride away. Basically from the start the intensity lifted. I was looking down and I think I was already above threshold for the first couple of kilometres.

I looked over my shoulder to find it was just me and Matt Clark and Rohan Dever was dropping back about 10 metres behind and then a few metres behind him were the Spencer brothers and a few others. It was a surprise to know that we had a bit of a gap.

It’s pretty hard to throw in an attack at that sort of gradient when you’ve already been racing for that long and when the climb’s 10km long. It was about getting into a bit of a rhythm and holding the best effort you could from then on.

At what point did you leave Matt Clark behind? Was it a case of you attacking or did you ride him off your wheel with a steady effort?

I felt like I held my effort pretty constant, grinding away. I think it was maybe about three or four kilometres into the climb where he just sort of dropped off my wheel a little bit. I looked over my shoulder again and the gap was growing out a little bit and after a while it stabilised.

Over the next couple kilometres I was just trying to ride as hard as I could to sustain my effort and my power. I looked over my shoulder and Matt Clark was still there. I could have sworn there were a few moments in the race where the gap closed and he was getting a lot closer to me and then I went around a corner and looked over my shoulder and the gap opened up again.

I’m not too sure if that was just the change in the gradient or if he’d put in a bigger effort to bridge across to me but I can tell you I was pretty concerned he was going to bridge back across. I was starting to get pretty tired three-quarters of the way through the climb.

And then the 1km-to-go mark came up and you hit the really steep bit of road — they say it’s 17% or something like that. By that point I looked over my shoulder again and I was a bit relieved to know I could go up The Wall at my own pace and get over alright.

At that point I realised I was going to be able to hold on and I was pretty happy at that stage. I’d just come to terms with what I’d done and who I’d raced against and how things unfolded.

What gearing were you running on the day?

I had a compact and a 28-tooth on the back. I actually struggled going up the last climb not because I didn’t have enough gears but because my front derailleur was rubbing on the chain while I was riding in a smaller gear! So I tried to keep it in a bigger gear when I could so it wasn’t rubbing and annoying everyone. But yeah, I found that I didn’t run out of gears at any point.

Did you get a chance to speak to any of the other guys after race?

They were great guys and throughout the race a couple of them — Matt Clark and the Spencer brothers and one or two others — actually came up alongside me and said “is this your first road race? It’s pretty good” and introduced themselves and had a little bit of a chat about things like the weather and the race.

At the end of the race they came up and shook my hand, gave me congratulations and we had a bit of a chat. It was quite nice.

What’s the reception been like since the weekend?

It’s been quite overwhelming and a bit of a shock. I didn’t have [phone] reception out in Dargo but during the drive home bits of reception popped in and out and I’d get a handful of text messages. I think I got 15 text messages and a lot of Facebook and Twitter interactions.

I’m not usually that active on Twitter so to find I had heaps of new followers and comments and tweets was a bit of a surprise. And then I had a lot of guys messaging me and calling me. I had guys like you and Hells 500 and CyclingTips posting about me and seeing the number of people that had actually commented and liked it and given me support was awesome.

So what’s next for you? Do you have ambitions to race in the National Road Series?

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It was my first road race so I need to take things one step at a time and make sure if I get into the racing scene that I take it at the right pace and be reasonable about it.

I think next year if I can join an NRS team it’s something I’d definitely consider doing, particularly because it’s my last year of uni and I’ve got a year off next year which means I’ll have a lot of time off to dedicate to training. [ed. Brendan’s studying a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne and has his final exams next week.]

But I want to make sure that I don’t jump into the deep end. Having the right support and team environment where I can get the right experience and learn how to ride at a higher level and potentially progress my cycling to bigger and better things is something I definitely want to pursue.

But as I said, it was my first road race and I had a really good day out on the bike. I don’t know how the others felt up the climb, whether they had a good day out or not, but it’s something I don’t want to get ahead of myself on. I want to make sure I take things one step at a time heading into the future.

UPDATE:A couple weeks after this interview Brendan announced via Twitter that he’ll be riding for the Search2Retain team for the 2014 season. We wish Brendan all the very best of luck!

Thanks to Brendan for taking the time to have a chat. Click here to check out the (scary) Strava file from Brendan’s ride. You can follow Brendan on Twitter here and on Instagram here. Click here to see the results from the 2013 Stratford to Dargo. Feature image by Jo Upton.

Congratulations to Brendan on a terrific race and we wish him all the very best in what is sure to be a very bright future.

14 Replies to “Interview: Brendan Canty, winner of Stratford-Dargo 2013”

  1. I met Brendan at the base of Falls Creek (with my brother in law) before one of the climbing cyclist 7 peaks rides. In the few minutes that we spoke whilst getting our bikes ready, you could tell what such a genuinely nice and humble person he is. He asked us about our times up Mt Buller (which we all rode in the previous few days), ours were not flash, but in return we asked about his time which was on par with Simon Gerrans. I said that is as good as Simon Gerrans time to which he said but that is not his best time. We asked if he raced and it truly appeared that the thought that he would be good enough to race had not even crossed his mind. So happy to hear about his win against some really competitive riders! Looking forward to hearing about his progression in the years to come. I can’t believe he is only 21!

  2. I raced against him in triathlons a few years ago a really nice down to earth guy, gave me a few good hidings too!

    He was an exceptional runner then, running some of the fastest splits in the race (against guys who were able to draft), with his biking prowess maybe he should consider doing some non-drafting triathlons at some stage too

  3. Great effort Brendan, hard work, persistence and talent combined with intelligence still works. Congratulations. Good luck with what’s sure to be an interesting ride into the future . TCC thanks for the great race and ride report.

  4. Brendan is an incredibly talented rider, but I think the reason everyone is so stoked to see this win is because he’s just such a humble guy. He has a great attitude, and is going to go a long way.. Keep an eye out for this one.

    Like many others, we are all going to be telling stories in the years to come remembering “when I was dropped by Canty on [insert anything going uphill here]”.

    1. couldn’t agree more Andy, awesome story of B Canty! Well done on the interview Matt and well spoken Canty. So stoked for you for an awesome ride.

  5. Awesome, it’s good to know I only have to improve my threshold power by about 25% and drop about 15kg to be competitive!

    Amazing ride by Brendan, will be great to see how he goes in the NRS next year 🙂

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