December 11, 2013

Domestique 7 Peaks Series 2013/14: Mt. Baw Baw

2013 Baw Baw Bunch

Click on any of the images below to see larger versions.

I’ve been asked many times in the past few years to order the 7 Peaks according to difficulty and despite having ridden all of them many times over, I still find it a difficult exercise. Is Mt. Buller the easiest? Or is it Lake Mountain, despite its steep opening kilometres?

And it doesn’t get any easier when you get to the hardest climbs of the seven. To me it’s always a toss up between Mt. Hotham, with it’s imposing length and brutal ramps towards the end, and Mt. Baw Baw with it’s brutal final section which averages more than 11% for the final 6.5km.

Whether you consider Mt. Baw Baw to be the hardest climb of them all, there’s no doubt it’s an extremely challenging climb. With this in mind, it was amazing to see 200+ cyclists at our pre-ride briefing at Tanjil Bren on Sunday morning, ready to take on the beast as part of our Domestique 7 Peaks Series.

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Some had driven straight to Tanjil Bren, some had done a short warm-up from Icy Creek, many had ridden out from Noojee and at least one person, Joel Nicholson, rode from Melbourne.

After camping the night at Toorongo Falls just out of Noojee, I met up with Andy in town and with a small group we rolled into the 32km ride to Tanjil Bren. I’d been slightly apprehensive about the ride thanks to a bout of patella tendinitis but the road from Noojee to Mt. Baw Baw is one of my favourites and I wasn’t about to miss it.

I took it reasonably easy the whole way there and thankfully my knee didn’t give me any grief. That said, the Vesper Hill climb isn’t easy even when you aren’t pushing it, particularly when you haven’t had a warm-up.

The road between Noojee and Mt. Baw Baw is simply stunning.

The road between Noojee and Mt. Baw Baw is simply stunning.

We were met at Tanjil Bren by our support crew and together we started setting up. Marquees were erected, hydration and merch stalls were set up, volunteers were given jobs and with the scheduled start time of 10am approaching, riders gradually trickled into Tanjil Bren, the atmosphere building.

At 10am Andy and I delivered a pre-ride briefing, including a few words from the Mt. Baw Baw Alpine Resort CEO Stuart Ord, and before too long our marshalls were sending riders off in waves. For the first time I had a chance to think about the tough climb ahead and realised that I was actually reasonably nervous. Sure, I’d done Baw Baw before, but I’d also been out of form and the Baw Baw climb has a way of punishing you if you’re not prepared.

I left Tanjil Bren as one of the last riders and quickly caught Andy and Paris Pollock on the descent out of town. As the road headed up straight after Big Tree Creek I rode alongside Andy and Paris, the pace feeling a little too quick for comfort.

Given the reputation Baw Baw’s got — thanks to its steep final 6.5km — many people forget about the 6km section of climbing that precedes it. With an average gradient similar to that of the 1 in 20 it’s not a particularly challenging start but there’s still a little bit of climbing to get through before you hit the steep stuff.

Volunteer extraordinaire Tammy van Bergen sets riders off from Tanjil Bren.

Volunteer extraordinaire Tammy van Bergen sets riders off from Tanjil Bren.

As we hit The Gantry and the road tilted skyward Paris and Andy danced away while I tried to find a comfortable rhythm. I remember pushing hard up that first ramp in a 25-tooth cog last year and feeling fine. This time around I was well and truly in the 34×28 and already looking for more gears inside the first few hundred metres.

I realised pretty quickly that there would be no forcing the pace for me (as I’d done last time around) — instead it would be a matter of survival; of finding a comfortable rhythm and just chipping away.

I never felt particularly comfortable on the climb and there were more than a few occasions when I reached down for an extra gear, only to learn that, surprise surprise, my cassette hadn’t magically sprouted a 32-tooth cog I didn’t know about.

There's a reason Adam Gruer has a painface award named after him.

There’s a reason Adam Gruer has a painface award named after him.

As I made my way slowly up the climb I started reaching a big bulk of the group. Rather than climbing together in a group as they might have done on an easier climb (or on a flat road), the riders were strung out single file, everyone in their own little world of pain, a long line of carnage snaking its way slowly up the hill.

Having so many riders ahead of you is throroughly motivating and every time I passed someone I got a small jolt of adrenaline that spurred me on. But when the road’s tilted up at 13% overtaking feels like it happens in slow motion. I might have been going slightly faster than the people I was passing, but it would only have been a case of 7km/h compared to 6km/h.

Best mo on the mountain.

Best mo on the mountain.

I managed to chat to a few folks on the way up, in between laboured gasps for air, and this helped to pass the time and bring the summit ever closer. In the end I got to the top in around 48 minutes, roughly 9 minutes slower than my last effort — a reminder that I’m still a long way off peak fitness.

But despite being slower than last year, getting to the top was no less satisfying. And seeing the looks of jubilantion and relief on the faces of the 200+ riders that made it to the top was a timely reminder of one of the big goals of the Domestique series: helping riders to take on climbs they wouldn’t otherwise try.

There was an amazing atmosphere at the top with high-fives and hugs being dished out everywhere. The brutal difficulty of the climb only makes reaching the top that much more satisfying, particularly when it’s your first time. And for Andy and I, as organisers of the ride, it was amazing to see the buzz that we’d had a hand in creating. Thoroughly satisfying.

2013 Baw Baw Bunch

Sadly, an otherwise perfect day was tarnished by the fact that two riders crashed on the way down Mt. Baw Baw and were taken to hospital (one by ambulance, the other by helicopter). Seeing those incidents and the aftermath was a sobering reminder of the dangers of this pastime we enjoy so much. Next time you head out to Mt. Baw Baw please do your utmost to descend safely and within your limits, for your sake and for the sake of your loved ones.

Thankfully, both riders were quickly discharged from hospital — one on the same night that he arrived, the other the following morning — and both are in good spirits. The rider who crashed closest to the summit has a broken collarbone while the rider who crashed near Winch Corner suffered concussion and minor facial injuries. Both were exceptionally lucky.

2013 Baw Baw Bunch

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Pete Caradei, Ethan Edwards and Dr Ryan McMullan for the superb medical care they provided to the injured riders. Watching these guys get to work was simply amazing and we’re more than thankful that they donated their time to help out.

Thanks too to everyone that checked to see if the riders were ok, and to those who stopped and offered their support, however minor. Seeing fellow cyclists jump in and help out like that was quite something.

2013 Baw Baw Bunch

Thanks to our amazing team of volunteers for their tireless efforts in supporting the ride: Tam, Judy, Tony, Sharon and Ron. Thanks to Brian Beardon for taking on lanterne rouge duties and for staying with one of the injured riders for several hours while the ambulance was on its way.

Thanks to our terrific sponsors for their continued support: Croydon Cycleworks, Winners Nutrition, CycleCover, Hammer Nutrition, Nemisis Athletic Apparel and CyclingExpress.com.

Thanks to our fabulous series photographer Kirsten Simpson, whose amazing photos you can see throughout this post. Kirsten has kindly provided low-res versions of all 257(!) of the wonderful photos she took on Sunday, free of charge — just click here and use the password “MtBawBawBunch”. You can help support Kirsten’s work by purchasing high-res versions of any of the images in that gallery for just $7.95 each.

The woman behind the lens: Kirsten Simpson. (Image: Sharon Ridgway)

The woman behind the lens: Kirsten Simpson. (Image: Sharon Ridgway)

Kirsten has also helped us launch the Adam Gruer Annual Award for Excellence in the Field of Baw Baw Inspired Pain Facery, awarded to the rider who showed the best painface during Sunday’s ride. You can help choose the winner by heading here, entering the password “Pain!!” and clicking “Like” on the image that you like best. The rider in the photo with the most votes on Friday will win a Mt. Baw Baw Alpine Resort jersey.

And speaking of things you can win, CyclingExpress.com has provided us with a Bianchi Impulso road bike to give away at the end of the series. All you need to do to enter is do one or more of the 7 Peaks climbs with us. One climb gets you one entry, two climbs gets you two, and so on. If you climbed Baw Baw on Sunday and didn’t write your name down (see below for a link to the full list) then get in touch with proof of some kind (a Strava link or photo at the top) and we’ll make sure you’re listed.

The folks at CyclingExpress.com have also been good enough to provide a $50 voucher for one rider who put in an inspiring effort at Mt. Baw Baw. While there were arguably hundreds of inspiring efforts on Sunday — just getting to the top is a great achievement — we’d like to give the voucher to Ruth Oliver who, after giving birth to a little boy less than a year ago, spent a fair chunk of time off the bike before coming back and succesfully taking on what is arguably the hardest of the 7 Peaks. Well done Ruth!

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And finally, I’d like to leave you today with a message left on the Mt. Baw Baw ride Facebook event page by Hells 500 rider Evan Henley. It’s so great to read things like this, particularly given it fits perfectly with our Domestique charter:

Hey team – thought I would pass on some good feedback of today’s ride that a few of us received from a local back in Noojee today. He came over for a chat to let us know how impressed he was with the riding of everyone out on the road, being sensible and considerate, staying left and waving cars passed etc.

He thought it was fantastic, particularly given the tricky nature of many of the roads out that way. Well done everyone, great to get that feedback given how often many locals aren’t a fan of getting 200-odd riders on their roads!

Thanks very much for reading and we hope to see you up in the Victorian Alps between Christmas and New Years Eve when we tick off four of the 7 Peaks in three days!

Click here to see my Strava file from the ride. Click here to see a full list of riders that completed the climb with us (at least 20 riders didn’t sign their name at the top). Click here to read a report from the day at BRB Cycling, and click here to read another report, this one from Beyond the Call.


20 Comments

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  1. MICHAEL CONDON / Dec 19 2013

    So, is the first 4km of Lake Mountain in anyway near as difficult as any part of Baw Baw? Those first 4km of Lake Mountain I think have been the toughest for me so far in my 7 peaks climbs. I have 3 peaks left, Hotham, Falls and Baw Baw.

  2. Jon Thornton / Dec 17 2013

    Let me elaborate on the snakes on the picnic table thing. It was a small thing, but it helped to make the event feel like an extended family picnic. Little things make a big difference sometimes.

    These rides have a friendly feel to them that you just don’t get on commercial rides. Matt and Andy’s family play a huge part in this. Special thanks to them for their continued support.

  3. Jon Thornton / Dec 16 2013

    Thanks for another great ride. I really enjoyed the snakes on the picnic table at Tanjil Bren.

  4. Tracey Miller / Dec 11 2013

    Great write up for such a great day conquering the beast of Baw Baw! Even though we showed our pain faces how awesome was the feeling getting that stamp in the passport!

  5. Treve / Dec 11 2013

    Thanks Matt and Andy for inspiring me to climb Baw Baw one of my list. A great day thanks to all your hard work in making it so easy for us to ride. Thanks to everyone who helped

  6. Taz / Dec 11 2013

    Having joined the domestiques Lake Mountain ride in November I was disappointed to have a clash of events that meant I missed out on this one. Being my first 7Peaks, having only started cycling in March, I couldn’t imagine tackling the climbs any other way.
    Baw Baw terrifies me; without the domestiques team at my back I go into a fear-induced coma every time I think about tackling it on my own. Moving heaven & earth to make sure I don’t miss the other climbs with the group

  7. Paul Hart / Dec 11 2013

    Thanks guys for a great day, my first alpine climb and now you have me hooked. looking forward to doing the rest of the 6 climbs. Next time I’ll get a compact crank and some dinner plates on the cassette not the 38-25 combo I tackled this monster with, it hurts to much.

  8. Brendan Edwards / Dec 11 2013

    Hi Matt, would like to make a special thanks to yourself, & and all of the volunteers who helped put together Sunday’s ride & all of the great Sponsors that help make these rides an amazing experience. I hadn’t ridden Baw Baw before, and may not have made the trip out to Baw Baw if it were not for this great event you guys put together and are thankful as it is such an amazing climb, which is arguably Australia’s toughest Road climb.

  9. Trent Franks / Dec 11 2013

    Yes I too didn’t sign, definitely oxygen deprived. Otherwise it was really a great day.

  10. Brad / Dec 11 2013

    Hi Matt, I can’t get my head around the comparison between Baw Baw and Hotham given the difference in length – sure, Hotham is hard at the end, but the cumulative fatigue is a contributing factor at the end of Hotham. If you compare Baw Baw to Back Of Falls, which would be harder? Keep up the good work on the articles too. Cheers.

    • Matt de Neef / Dec 11 2013

      You’re right — they’re hard to compare. But which is harder in your opinion?

    • Ian / Dec 11 2013

      It’s a strength thing. For most climbs, the weaker rides can just go go slower. But Baw Baw is just so unbelievably, relentlessly steep that the weaker riders (like me) just get pushed straight into the red and have to stay there for the whole 6.5 km, you can’t go any slower without falling off. So while the stronger riders (i.e. people who can manage 1000+ VAM) might think sure, Baw Baw is steep but it’s pretty short, for me having climbed Hotham, back of Falls and Baw Baw, Baw Baw sticks out in my memory as being by far the hardest.

      • Owen / Dec 11 2013

        Have to agree with Ian. I’m such a slow climber that the hour it takes me to get up Baw Baw is one of suffering the whole way. On the other climbs, I can find a (slow) tempo and stick with it. On Baw Baw it’s just a struggle to keep any forward momentum.

      • Robert Merkel / Dec 12 2013

        I’ve no doubt, Baw Baw is harder.

        For average climbers, Baw Baw pushes you further into the red for far longer than Hotham does.

        For strong climbers in race conditions, Baw Baw is IMO harder because you get zero draft or other respite anywhere in the last 6km.

        Sure, if you’re a really strong rider and you’re trying to set a time, Hotham is harder than Baw Baw because you’ll be on the rivet for longer. But then, a 40k TT would be harder than Baw Baw.

        BOF is hard but I reckon Baw Baw is harder in isolation; most people’s main encounter with BOF is after 200km of 3 peaks which turns a very tough climb into an extremely tough one.

        Again, I’d like to add an honorable mention for the Dargo hill; Baw Baw is probably tougher but the lack of shade, hot conditions, and positioning of the hardest bit right near the top make it a very very hard climb and in my view harder than BOF.

        • Matt de Neef / Dec 12 2013

          Great insight as ever Robert, cheers. I’m still yet to do the Dargo climb but I’m looking forward to giving it a crack!

  11. liz randall / Dec 11 2013

    I’m one who forgot to sign….I guess a lack of oxygen reaching the brain at the summit could have been the reason!

  12. Marcus / Dec 11 2013

    So what was Brendan’s time? Or was he ‘taking it easy’?

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