Brett leads riders around Eastern Creek during one of the final races before lockdown. In the months that followed racing continued, but in the virtual world via Zwift. Image: Mark Haughton Photography.

How The Waratah Masters Powered Through Lockdowns

Through much of the past 18 months lockdowns have put a stop to outdoor bunch riding. But where there’s a will there’s a way, as Peter Maniaty writes.

It’s been quite a rise for Australia’s #1 virtual cycling club, WMZ. After only taking its first tentative steps back in April 2020, it today boasts more than 550 active members and recently won the inaugural AusCycling Club Esports NationalSeries, held over four rounds on Zwift. Peter Maniaty caught up with WMZ Co-Founder, Brett McMurtrie, to get the backstory. 

BICYCLING AUSTRLIA: Brett, today WMZ is one of the biggest virtual cycling clubs in Australia. How did it all come about?

BRETT MCMURTRIE: Like a lot of cycling clubs, in April last year our normal Sunday morning racing was cancelled due to COVID-19. I was pretty disappointed as I always loved this time with my cycling friends and knew it was also good for my mental health. It got me thinking others would be feeling the same, so I had this idea to move the Waratah Masters Cycling Club (WMCC) Sunday morning racing to the virtual world. I was already using Zwift for training, so I asked a few friends to try out the idea with me and it seemed to work. Some of my fellow WMCC friends also liked it, so we formed a committee and called ourselves Waratah Masters Zwifters (WMZ).

Brett McMurtrie, in both real life and as an avatar on Zwift, has kept the troops motivated and moving forward despite the serious setbacks many of us have faced through 2021.

BA: What were your initial expectations? Did you think it would just be a short-
term thing?

BM: We didn’t have any real expectations. The committee and I simply wanted to stay engaged with our cycling friends and community through the challenges of lockdown. I have a personal belief in life that ‘what will be, will be’. If others liked it, great. If they didn’t, then at least we’d tried to give something to the community. Looking back, I’m glad our enthusiasm helped develop the culture of the WMZ community, as it’s become one of its cornerstones.

BA: What was the reaction within the Waratah Masters Cycling Club itself?

BM: After the first trial race, I called the WMCC President and ran the idea past him. He thought it had merit, so we organised another race with his support. Yes, some of the WMCC committee were a bit wary, but that’s normal. ‘You can’t please all the people all the time.’ We also started some mid-week rides as well as Sunday racing, and we’ve since had many of the senior figures from WMCC join the WMZ community to assist with leading the rides and races. It’s worth noting that when we could go back to outdoor racing in late 2020, we deliberately cancelled the online Sunday races so as to not conflict with our club interests.

Riders at the Zwift start gate before a race.

With Sydney’s continued lockdown, the WMCC committee has been kind enough to offer their normal prize vouchers for us to give as spot prizes for our virtual races. What’s been particularly pleasing is the response of our female members. From day one we were adamant that we should promote the WMZ community to both men and women—in fact, we now have a higher proportion of women riding and racing online than in real life!

BA: There’s a lovely irony that it was a Masters club that was the first to fully embrace Zwift so wholeheartedly in Australia. Why do you think that is?

BM: We might be Masters riders, but I think we’re all still young at heart! Speaking personally, mental health was always my key driver and knowing how important it was to me, I knew I wouldn’t be alone. Ironically, I’ve had numerous people approach me privately since WMZ started to say ‘thank you for saving my life’.

Wow! What more motivation do you need? The other thing about Masters athletes is they often have great experience when it comes to organising events, communicating with interest groups and giving their time to organisations.

BA: How big is WMZ now?

BM: We have a member base of well over 500 riders, most of whom Zwift regularly. Predominantly our members are NSW-based, however we do have some expats overseas plus some interstate riders who have  joined us. At present we’re reaching out to other clubs, nationally, welcoming them to come onboard to our Zwift community. Many WMZ members who were not originally from WMCC have since added WMCC as an Add-On club to their AusCycling license. This pleases the WMCC committee!

BA: Why do you think it’s been such a success?

BM: I truly believe it’s because we are passionate about creating a Zwift community, and we really do care about our members. We’re transparent in what we do, and we act on feedback from our members. These cornerstones of our community culture are also demonstrated in the strong friendships that have been forged between members who haven’t even met in real life!

…mental health was always my key driver and knowing how important it was to me, I knew I wouldn’t be alone…

BA: You guys have just won, by quite a big margin, the first ever AusCycling Club Esports National Series. What was that whole experience like?

BM: That WMZ won the series was quite humbling. We had members of other AusCycling clubs wanting to represent WMZ, rather than their In Real Life (IRL) club. When we learnt all our participants had to be WMCC members in order to contribute to our point score, we almost had a riot on our hands. Our members are very loyal to the WMZ community, so when I told them they needed to be a member of WMCC to represent us, and—to my surprise—most offered to add WMCC to their AusCycling license immediately.

BA: These days you have a full schedule of weekly rides and races on Zwift. How hard is it to organise everything?

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BM: You certainly can’t do something like this on your own. From day one I’ve been surrounded by like minded people who are amazing. Marcus Judge, Jeff Clarkeburn and John Broughton were instrumental to our initial success. Recently Marcus and John have move onto other priorities in their lives and new committee members have joined such as Michelle Scott (Women participation driver), Jeff Morton (WTRL Racing), Nathan Putnam (Communications) and Paul King (Events Manager). They help organise the rides each week, and we also have loads of ride leaders who we’ve trained to assist with the bunch rides.

BA: Do any of the WMZ guys meet up to ride IRL (lockdowns permitting)?

BM: Funny you should ask. Before Sydney went back into lockdown, we had a few IRL group rides for our members. We had rides for TT Teams and rides for general members. Because of the size of Sydney, we had a one-year anniversary group ride with two bunches—one for the north and a second group for the south. Some members actually do look like their Zwift avatars!

BA: Fingers crossed, the COVID-19 situation gets under control before too much longer, and lockdowns end. What happens to WMZ then?

BM: I don’t want to give away too much or make promises that we can’t deliver on. We do have some grand plans though, and don’t be surprised if WMZ is here to stay on a national scale. That’s all I should say for now—the WMZ committee might kill me if I say too much.

Zwift Tips

Zwift is more difficult and offers more of a workout than typical road riding. A number of factors contribute to this including the fundamental that you are pedaling a lot more of the time. There are no traffic lights, stop signs or cafes on Zwift, it’s typically go, go, go from start to finish.

Ever seen other Zwifters on futuristic, shiny looking wheels? They are Tron bikes – they’re a reward for climbing 50,000m on Zwift … how’s that for a carrot?

Hydration and comfort is more important than ever when riding indoors! Adequate hydration is critical and a fan is highly recommended. 

The Waratah Masters Zwift Race Page.

Sweat is surprisingly corrosive! Indoor trainers or smart trainer/ bike setups are expensive. Don’t damage your investment by allowing sweat to dry and ultimately corrode or damage your indoor platform. Regular cleaning and a wipe down is highly recommended, as is treating your indoor bike just the same way you’d maintain  your real world pride and joy.

Remember that Zwift is designed to compliment and enhance outdoor cycling. There’s nothing like actual riding in real life, but online platforms are a great way to help you get more out of the sport.

Literally hundreds of training and race-focused events are held on Zwift each week, including the WMZ and of course the Bicycling Australia Weekly Training Ride each Thursday morning from 7am.

The similarities are uncanny, left Brett in real life and right his realistic avatar on the Waratah Masters Zwift ride.

Feature Image: Mark Haughton Photography


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