November 13, 2013

Cycling Victoria's Mt. Macedon Challenge 2013

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It’s been three or four years since I last did one of Cycling Victoria’s Challenge rides. The first one I did was the Marysville-Lake Mountain Challenge Ride just after the Black Saturday bushfires and the route took us north out of Marysville, up to Eildon before heading back to Marysville then up the Lake Mountain climb.

I bonked at the base of Lake Mountain and struggled all the way up, my brother Brendan getting to the summit something like 20 minutes before me. We also did the Whittlesea Challenge a few years back and on that particularly wet and miserable day I bonked badly again, Brendan beating me by more than 10 minutes into the rain-drenched finish.

Coming off a few months of limited riding I was expecting a similar result on Sunday, particularly with the Mt. Macedon climb just before the end.

Marcus takes a quick breather at the first rest stop.

Marcus takes a quick breather at the first rest stop.

A group of five of us met in Gisborne at 8.30am and started the 109km circuit in overcast conditions. Five minutes after the start the rain started to come down and it seemed as if we were in for a long and miserable ride. It’s the age-old quandary when you’re riding in the wet: do you follow the wheel in front of you and get a face full of dirty wheel spray? Or do you sit back and force yourself to do more work?

Thankfully we didn’t have to choose for long as the rain stopped and the roads started to dry up. As we turned left on to the Melbourne-Lancefield Road it felt as if we were along. It’s always the same — you think you’re just having a good day, speeding along at 40km/h without really trying, and then you learn later on that you had a roaring tailwind.

That 17km stretch up the main Lancefield road was fast but it also carried a fair bit of traffic. Cycling Victoria’s Events Manager Steve Nelson told us after the ride that they’re looking to revise the route in future editions to avoid that stretch of road.

From the main road we took a left at the 34km mark and followed the Burke and Wills Track to the north west. It was in this section of the ride that we realised we’d had it pretty easy to begin with. The strong southerly breeze made heading to the west unpleasant, but it would only get worse later on.

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The Burke and Wills Track also featured the first notable climb of the day: a 1.8km stretch that averaged about 6%. I’d been feeling pretty good until that point, hanging on as Brendan, Evan Henley and Marcus Nyeholt did the majority of work at the front. But when we hit that first hill I was quickly reminded how much a couple months of limited riding and a few extra kilos can make while climbing. The other guys cruised up the hill well ahead of me, seemingly doing it easily, while I plodded along just trying to find a rhythm.

The guys must have slowed to wait for me at the top because I got back on without too many issues and together the five of us — me, Brendan, Marcus, Evan and Thomas Price — plus a couple of others, continued in a north-westerly direction.

It was when we took the left-hander at Baynton Road after 52km — the northern-most point of the ride — that the wind really started to take its toll. We’d averaged roughly 32km/h until that point but over the remaining 57km that would slowly be whittled down as we worked into and across the stiff southerly breeze.

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As we headed south we got chatting to Jeremy Cameron from the African Wildlife Safaris National Road Series team. He was doing the ride as recovery from the Victorian Open Road Championships the day before.

It was great chatting to Jeremy, getting an idea of what it’s like trying to balance study and racing at that level, and what it’s like, as a smaller team, trying to compete with the ‘big three’ teams in the NRS: Budget Forklifts, Huon-Genesys and Drapac. If nothing else, it gave me something to focus on other than the strong cross-headwind we were pushing into.

There was another short climb just before the 60km mark — 1.4km at about 5% — and again I struggled to keep up with the rest of the group. But I managed to get back on again — I’m guessing they slowed and waited for me once more.

Keeping up with Marcus and Thomas on a short climb ... at the start of it anyway.

Keeping up with Marcus and Thomas on a short climb … at the start of it anyway.

After 62km we joined up with the Pipers Creek-Pastoria Road, one of the roads used in the Kyneton-Pastoria loop in Northern Combine racing. It was on that circuit that I picked up third place in the final stage of this year’s Three Day Tour — my only podium in a race so far.

On that particular day we’d had a headwind heading north and on Sunday, riding in the reverse direction, we had a headwind as well.

From kilometres 60 through 88 the route took us on a series of roads and through a series of intersections. At times we’d be riding into a block headwind, at other times it would be crosswind, but most of the time it seemed to be a cross-headwind. Marcus did a huge amount of work at the front in this section, driving the bunch along with the rest of us strung out behind in a kind-of echelon.

A few times I thought about taking over the pacemaking and giving Marcus I rest but given I was barely hanging on to begin with, I wasn’t sure I’d have the strength to get around him, let alone tow the bunch.

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The defining feature of the ride, and indeed the feature that gave the ride its name was the climb up Mt. Macedon. The approach from the north side is the easier of the two sides (the south side climb is very steep in parts) but I was still apprehensive about how I’d go. And even though we were climbing the easier side, we were taking a steeper option for the first part of the climb: Straws Lane.

With several pinches that hit 10% and with my legs in all kinds of bother from the effort of holding on with the group thus far, I was spat out the back as soon as we turned on to Straws Lane. Actually, if I’m completely honest, it happened before that. There was a short rise before the corner and I fell away there.

The climb from the start of Straws Lane to Cameron Drive (the highest point of Mt. Macedon Road) is only 4.4km long but it felt about twice that length. It was an inglorious effort, suffering alone out the back, but in hindsight I probably should have expected it.

Brendan was looking super-strong on the climbs, far too fast for me.

Brendan was looking super-strong on the climbs, far too fast for me.

Thankfully the guys waited for me at the top (again) and together we bombed down the very steep descent towards the finish in Gisborne. That’s one of the fastest sections of road I’ve ever ridden and on a previous attempt I hit 80km/h without too much hassle. But on Sunday, with the roads a little wet I took it a bit easier.

Good thing I did because just as we were rounding a left-hand bend, doing about 65km/h, a car ahead of us put on the brakes and started indicating right.

There was a brief moment there where I thought I was in real trouble, but luckily the driver must have seen us and pulled over to the left-hand side of the road. Then again, the guys that were behind me said later that the driver started reversing up the hill after I’d passed so maybe he/she didn’t see us! Scary stuff.

Ouch.

Ouch.

Thankfully we all reached the bottom unharmed and ticked off the final few kilometres back into town. We finished the ride in roughly 3 hours 50 minutes, with an average speed of 28km/h.

It was a bit of a mixed day on the bike for me. It was great to be out doing a longer ride and testing myself a little, and there were sections in which I felt terrific (mostly tailwind-assisted, I must admit). But there were also sections were I felt terrible (Straws Lane in particular) where I was reminded how far I have to go to get back to where I was and how much it’s going to hurt to do so.

But I’m motivated to do so and every ride is feeling that little bit easier. Here’s hoping things keep heading in the right direction.

From left: me, Marcus, Brendan, Evan and Thomas.

From left: me, Marcus, Brendan, Evan and Thomas.

Thanks to Brendan, Evan, Thomas and Marcus for towing me along all day and for waiting for me at the top of the climbs. It was greatly appreciated! And thanks to Steve Nelson and the gang at Cycling Victoria for the invite and for looking after us.

And finally, to you, thanks for reading!

Click here to see my Strava file from the ride.

Disclosure: I was invited along to the Mt. Macedon Challenge by Cycling Victoria and given a few free entries to hand out. I was not paid to write this article.

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17 Comments

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  1. Lachlan / Nov 24 2013

    Far out, glad I wasn’t the only one suffering! Although I didn’t have any time off the bike prior, so I don’t even have a valid excuse!

    My writing is not nearly as enjoyable as yours, however my strava file can be found at the bottom of my blog post.

    See you at the next event!

  2. Mike Jones / Nov 18 2013

    Great write up, yep surprised they put us on the main road, so exposed to traffic. I’m saying this in context of doing an event like Amy’s Gran Fondo, totally safe ‘closed to traffic’ course. If it was a normal training ride I could live with it, however as it’s a paid event, not comfortable spending the $$$s on nothing special except a tent with power bars and a tour de france start/finish line. These events have to step up if they want to get the numbers an event like Amy’s attracts along with the rider experience.

    • Darren / Nov 20 2013

      Totally agree with you there, Mike.
      I have done all the CV Challenge events for the last couple of years and noticed the number of participating cyclists dropping off.
      For the amount of money paid by each rider only to have a marquee of power bars, gels, etc and other sponsors materials in the event village and the inflatable start/finish arch, you really don’t get much bang for your buck. Sure there are other vendors such as coffee, hot food and massages available, but at an additional cost to the rider. The event villages are almost ghost towns post-ride as most riders finish, grab a quick bite to eat and drink, perhaps get a rub down then immediately head home.

      Admittedly, they have added some additional value to the events and introduced timing chips this year (or late last year) but this has been a bit of a hit-and-miss affair on some occasions with the system not working or the chips not arriving on time to be sent out to the riders.
      Not so much a worry for the more advanced riders with cycle computers or the Strava app on their phones, but for those more recreational riders who would like to see what time they did the ride in, it certainly detracts from the overall experience of the event.

      Closed roads, even as rolling closed roads like in the AGF, would certainly attract more riders knowing that they would be riding in safe conditions.

  3. Patrick / Nov 13 2013

    Great write up, and great guys to ride with, really cool of them to wait for you.

  4. Darren / Nov 13 2013

    Great write-up as always that details the trials and tribulations that all cyclists experience out on the road with the traffic, the elements and of course, the distance and vertical meters, particularly if you’re a little out of sorts.

    Although I had signed up for the series, I didn’t participate in this event due to other commitments.
    I noticed that the course was different to the 2011 and 2012 events (which did the Mt Macedon south-side climb first).

    Based on Matt’s discussion with the officials after the ride where they indicated a revision to possibly avoid the Lancefield road for future events, I find this odd considering that the organisers would have had to recon the route when planning the event. This would/should have alerted them to the amount of traffic that his road carries on any day of the week. It is a busy road as it is a main thoroughfare for those that live between the Calder and the Hume for getting to/from Melbourne.

    The route in previous years travelled along the somewhat busier and possibly, more dangerous, Calder freeway in the last 20-30km heading back to Gisborne.
    Also, the decision to descend the Gisborne side of Mt Macedon was odd considering the steep gradient involved. Inexperienced riders may not be comfortable on the descent and as what happened to Matt and his group, they nearly came to grief with a motorist who was unsure about their own intentions on the road.

    • Marcus / Nov 14 2013

      The descent down the south side I think was a bad choice, given that’s the ‘busy’ side of the mount with many driveways and parked cars.

      • Robert Merkel / Nov 14 2013

        I guess they don’t want people climbing and descending the same side for safety reasons, and the south side is a pretty nasty climb for recreational riders – Straws Lane isn’t trivial but the southern side is definitely harder.

        FWIW while the south side is a fast descent, I don’t think it’s a particularly technical one – the main problem areas are that a couple of corners collect gravel if it rains, and people speed through the township. The Gisborne side is mostly slower, but has a couple of nasty hairpins, including one where Nathan Haas (IIRC) binned it in the Hun Tour early this year.

  5. Michael / Nov 13 2013

    Sounds like a tough, but enjoyable day regardless of your struggle with regaining your climbing fitness Matt.

    It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

    Reading this, I’m sorry I missed it.

  6. Evan / Nov 13 2013

    Great write-up Matt, a pleasure riding with you as always! The crosswinds through Pastoria sure were strong! Marcus did well not to get blown off the road with his 50mm rims! Considering the lack of training and illness, I thought you were actually looking pretty strong out there, and did a couple a big turns yourself – give it a month and you’ll be up and about mate!!

  7. Frosty Remo / Nov 13 2013

    great report – I knew that being passed (at double my speed) at the top of Straws lane by African wildlife safaris was nothing to be ashamed of ! Thanks for doing all that work at the front from 60 – 88 km – I was cruising in the echelon behind : I was admiring those distinctive Hells 500 jerseys.

  8. Annie / Nov 13 2013

    Great write up. I rode this ride also. When I got home I was telling my partner how terrible the wind was and he insisted it wasn’t that bad according to the “BOM”. I am so pleased I have back up to show him!!

  9. Gary / Nov 13 2013

    It was a tough day out there, this sixty six year old battled Straws and won. It didn’t get easier the longer you were on the 109 ride. Thanks for the report, glad to see your getting back .

  10. James Stratford / Nov 13 2013

    You summed up the ride well. Like you, I’m coming back after a few months of broken-up riding with work and travel. On the day it felt quite demoralising at times, but I think it took it’s toll on everyone though. Here’s to a great season. .. and may the wind become our friend (certainly makes for a tough training partner!).

  11. Daniel / Nov 13 2013

    I had a similar experience after having 6 weeks off with a broken collarbone and signing up for the Challenge series at the start of the year, I gave myself a solid 1 and 1/2 weeks of training, if that’s such a thing, for this. Originally I was just going to turn off at the short course but the tail wind was too enjoyable so kept on going. The last 30 k’s was a battle and am experiencing the same issues regarding fitness, in particular any ability to climb hills has almost disappeared. It’s amazing in what takes months of effort building up to a decent fitness level only takes weeks to lose again.

    • Rob Miles / Nov 15 2013

      Hi Daniel ,
      Your words are almost a carbon copy of my ride,except I wasn’t recovering from injury I’m just not fit enough.
      I had signed up for the short course but felt good and rode past the first rest stop and somehow missed the short course turn off.With 30km to go I knew I was in trouble and finished the ride with mud stuck in my new cleats from trudging up sections of Straws Lane.Very embarrassing
      And humbling and yet two days later I’m out slumped over the bars again trying out more hills!

  12. Marcus / Nov 13 2013

    Annoyingly, I spent the next 2 days in bed with gastro, and am still struggling to keep food down. Now I know why straws lane was so tough!

  13. Jason / Nov 13 2013

    Great write up Matt. It was a pretty hard ride with that wind howling. When I woke up that morning and checked the weather there was hardly any wind! I also suffered up Straws Lane but I think a few people did. As a mate said you need to learn to love the wind…I’m not sure I can.

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