January 6, 2014

Domestique 7 Peaks Series 2013/14: Mt. Hotham

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

This is the second of four blog posts about a recent trip to the Victorian Alps for the Domestique 7 Peaks Series. Part one  can be found here. Stay posted for the remaining instalments. You can click on any of the images below to see larger versions.

The second day of our trip to the Victorian Alps was always going to be the hardest. Climbs of Mt. Hotham and Mt. Buffalo were both on the menu and with the first of those starting at 8am in Harrietville, it meant a 5am start to get there from Falls Creek and to set up.

After our pre-ride briefing at 8am we sent the first waves of riders up the road. While Robert Merkel had volunteered to ride lanterne rouge — the last rider on the road, to ensure no-one got left behind — I was still keen to leave near the back. Doing this gives me a chance to work my way through the field, saying hi to people as I go.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

I set off with my series co-organiser Andy van Bergen and Paris Pollock but before too long the pace (although gentle by their standards!) became uncomfortable. I was still concerned about my knee and what would happen if I pushed it. Plus, I still had the Buffalo climb that afternoon and Dinner Plain the following day to go.

Roughly 5km into the climb I saw Hells 500 rider/photographer/videographer Nigel Welch standing by the side of the road, his front tyre sporting a large gash. He was waiting for some support from further down the mountain but the solution came a few kilometres up the road.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

I was riding with Dom Cryan, partner of our terrific series photographer Kirsten Simpson, when we reached Kirsten who was taking some photos by her car at The Meg.

Dom, having seen Nigel earlier, and knowing he had a spare wheel in the car, ocky strapped the wheel to his back and rode down the hill to meet Nigel. It was a great moment of quick thinking and selflessness from Dom that I’m sure Nigel was most grateful for.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

I continued on, chopping through the first of three sections on the Mt. Hotham climb and reaching the false-flat. I’d spoken in the pre-ride briefing about this section of the climb being good to spend with a group, as the lower gradients mean you can get some aerodynamic advantage from drafting.

I spent my time jumping between a couple of groups, chatting here and there and saving my energy for the tough final 10km of the climb. I definitely wasn’t pushing myself on the climb (as I had been last year while trying to hold Greg Henderson’s wheel) but I knew that steep ramps like CRB Hill and the Diamantina were going to hurt regardless.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

While Mt. Baw Baw is almost certainly the hardest of the 7 Peaks Mt. Hotham is a very close second in my opinion. Those closing kilometres are very tough and with nearly 30km of climbing in your legs before you hit the final ramp, fatigue plays a significant role.

But Mt. Hotham is also one of most picturesque of the 7 Peaks. I love that moment when you end the false-flat section, you climb that steep rise and you pop out above the treeline, on the famous moonscape. The views suddenly open right up and you feel like you’re on top of the world. I don’t know of anything quite like it in Victoria.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

As I approached that section I heard Andy on the two-way radio say that there were strong crosswinds on some of the exposed sections ahead. He wasn’t wrong.

On those two brief descents in the final 10km the wind was howling up the valley and across the road making things a little treacherous. The worst section came just before the second descent on a flat bit of road. I don’t think I’ve ridden in stronger crosswinds than that.

You found yourself leaning into the breeze just to stay upright, just hoping that if the wind dropped suddenly that you had the time and the poise to right yourself before you hit the deck.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

Andy made a great call by stopping just before that nasty crosswind section and warning the approaching riders. When I passed through I saw a number of riders by the side of the road, some waiting for the wind to subside, others just scooter-ing their bikes, one foot unclipped, just to gain some semblance of control.

But as far as I’m aware, everyone got through the crosswinds and were able to tackle the steep final pinches unscathed.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

For some reason I actually felt stronger on the steep ramps like CRB Hill than I had done on the gentler ramps. Sure, it’s never easy climbing at 10%+ for more than a kilometre, but I think on that particular day we had a bit of a tailwind up CRB and I was feeling good.

I spent the final kilometres of the climb riding largely alone but chatting to various people I came across along the way. Everyone was in their own little world, soaking in the amazing surrounds while suffering on some very challenging slopes.

I got to the top feeling excellent. My knee had behaved itself and the gentle pace I had adopted all the way up left me feeling fresh and comfortable at the summit.

Yours truly on the final section of the climb.

Yours truly on CRB Hill.

I spent close to an hour there at the summit, chatting to relieved and satisfied riders as they rolled into the village, and waiting for Robert, our lanterne rouge, to arrive with the last riders. After helping our amazing volunteers (Brian, Maria and Linda) to pack up I started the long descent back to Harrietville.

Once at the bottom I drove on to Bright Velo for some much-needed lunch and to chat with the riders and our amazing volunteers. It was great to be able to sit down and relax for a few moments before the afternoon session began out at Mt. Buffalo.

2013 Mount Hotham Bunch

Having done two mountain climbs in 24 hours Mt. Buffalo was always going to hurt, but I didn’t expect it to hurt as much as it did.

To be continued …

A big thank you to all of the amazing volunteers who helped us out on this ride: Sharon, Tammy, Maria, Brian, Linda, Nigel, Robert and Dr Carl. Thanks too to our sponsors: Croydon Cycleworks, Winners Nutrition, CycleCover, Nemisis, Hammer Nutrition and CyclingExpress.com.

We’d like to say a big congratulations to Paula Cumbo who wins the CyclingExpress.com voucher for the most inspiring effort on the Mt. Hotham ride. Paula was one of the unlucky riders who came off during our Mt. Baw Baw ride. To see here back on the bike, and back riding mountains (up and down!) was very inspiring. Well done Paula!

All of the amazing photos you see in this post were taken by Kirsten Simpson. To download low-resolution versions of any of the photos Kirsten took at Mt. Hotham, head here and use the password “HothamBunch”. You can support Kirsten’s great work by buying a high-res version of any image for just $7.95. She took more than 300 shots on the ride and it was a real struggle narrowing them down to just 20-odd!

You can see my Strava file from the ride here. A full list of finishers can be found here. If you completed the climb but forgot to write your name down, send an email to Matt with a link to a Strava file or equivalent and I’ll add you to the list.


13 Comments

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  1. Ron Webster / Feb 6 2014

    I have enjoyed the account of the climb and the great comments. So far I have only taken part in the Alpine Challenge 200 climbs and have not ventured past Harrietville . I feel that I am now inspired to give Hotham and the back of Falls Creek a go. Hopefully sooner rather than later, Thanks for a great Alpine Challenge .

  2. Alex / Jan 8 2014

    A great read Matt and fantastic pictures from a colossal ride.

    My most memorable “exciting” part was when I heard the crack of a dead tree falling in that eery looking stand of mountain ash before the last gate and CRB. The tree that crashed to earth was bringing down others with it, luckily they were falling parallel to the road and up high.

    Nevertheless the “flight” part of my brain engaged and I sprinted away where I normally struggled to pedal.

    I’m looking forward to my 7th Peak Buller which I’ve never done. Fantastic ride, thanks again for organising.

  3. Marco Luthe / Jan 7 2014

    Great to see that everyone made the climb, and kudos to Paula for her courage!

    I knew that this day was gonna be a hard one, and after struggling at Falls Creek the day before, I was sure I wouldn’t make it up Mt Hotham (although I had never seen it before, thus being unable to really judge it). I had read about it on your website, though, and I was warned.

    I drove Adam to the start of the climb and then continued to drive up to the summit by myself when I finally realised that it was the best decision I could’ve made not to participate:

    What a hell of a climb!

    The MEG and CRB look really terrifying, especially when you think that you will have to descent as well. And those first kilometers look really hard. I know Mt. Baw Baw is considered the harder climb, but only for the steepness. If you combine steepness and length, I think Mt. Hotham is not too far behind, maybe even more challenging.

    I stopped at the water recycling pool to take a photo of the spectacular views, and as soon as I stepped out of the car, I was almost blown away (literally) and had to lean into the wind to not fall over. When I passed the yellow ‘wind signal flag’ it was completely horizontal! It must have been hell on the bike in those crosswinds. Kudos to everyone for making it to the summit in those conditions – I am glad everyone returned safely.

    Hope I’ll be able to make it next time.

    • Robert Merkel / Jan 7 2014

      Hi Marco,

      Hotham is very long, but it is very doable with just a little bit more fitness than Falls, particularly in relatively benign conditions like we had.

      Obviously, decreasing weight and increasing power helps, but you don’t have to be Brendan Canty to ascend Hotham (though it helps if you want to do it in an hour and a bit).

      Firstly, gear your bike down as much as you can – SRAM and Shimano both make derailleurs that take a 32-tooth rear cassette these days. They can be a lifesaver if you’re really struggling.

      Secondly, you’ve really really got to dose your effort. There’s a couple of key spots where, if you’re not yet a strong climber, you will need maximum effort – the first initial steep kilometre, the Meg (which is genuinely steep but very short), CRB and the Diamantina. The rest, keep your enthusiasm in check.

      • Marco Luthe / Jan 8 2014

        Hi Robert,

        I think my gearing would have been sufficient, since I have a triple chainring with the lowest gear being 30 x 28, which – according to http://www.bikecalc.com/cadence_at_speed – produces the same cadence as a compact 34 x 32 at any given speed.

        However, my bike is an entry level 2013 Kona Jake CX bike and therefore quite a bit heavier than a decent road bike – I guess at least about +4 kg, if not more. That will surely make a difference. I could probably lose a little more body weight as well if I needed to (although I have lost almost 10 kg since I started cycling and find my weight OK now).

        Apart from the fact that I was as exhausted as could be after Falls, I also think that Hotham is quite a mental challenge. I found that I make climbs worse in my head than they actually are when I am eventually doing them.

        We’ll see how it goes next time, and how other climbs like Lake Mountain and Buller turn out that I might attempt this year. ;-)

        • Darren / Jan 13 2014

          Marco,

          I was of the same opinion in last year’s series for the same rides… “how was I ever going to get over those mountains?”, but i rode with a handful of people over the course the rides and was able to manage myself a lot better than had I gone it alone.
          it’s just a matter of pacing yourself, don’t go out too hard too early and to maintain fluids and nutrition.
          Last year I was running 53-39 chain-ring and a 11-25 cassette.
          Yes, it was hard, as this was really the first time I was doing any genuine climbing and I had no real comparison to what I had done previously at all and I was also considerably heavier last year than this year.
          Time, power to weight and a good nutrition plan will get you over just about any peak.

          Even this year, I admin that Hotham still got the better of me on CRB and coming around Diamantina and I had to rest and even walk some small distance before recommencing turning over the pedals.

          Keep it up!

    • Mick / Jan 8 2014

      Given the conditions, I’m going to disagree with Robert and say I found Falls much more difficult this year, despite Hotham being nominally harder. Accompanying the Lantern Rouge for much of Falls Creek my average HR was only 5bpm lower than the maximum I recorded on Hotham where I didn’t have the pleasure of the LR (and I only exceed the Falls average on the Meg and CRB). Major learning for me was just how much the conditions affect you.
      The Meg, CRB and the Diamantina may be steep, but following Falls, by far the hardest part of the ride was summoning the willpower to get out of bed to go to the start…

      • Robert Merkel / Jan 8 2014

        Oh, agreed. Falls Creek in 38 degree heat is much harder than Hotham in low 20s.

  4. MICHAEL CONDON / Jan 7 2014

    Well done! Having climbed this mountain just last week my memories are vivid and fresh and your article describes the climb really well. I’d love to latch on to one of these organised rides one day. They do sound like great fun. I found Hotham to be the toughest of the 7 peaks yet. Two to go, Falls & Baw Baw.

  5. Robert Merkel / Jan 6 2014

    Was a very pleasant day in the caboose.

    While everyone made their way up at their own pace, obviously, the last riders on the road made steady progress and mostly didn’t look in great difficulty. One gentleman who admitted he’d “ridden less than 1000km since 3 Peaks last year” walked a little bit of CRB Hill, but he then made his way up the Diamantina without stopping.

    That crosswinds in the gullies were not pleasant at all. While they weren’t quite as strong as the winds on the Melbourne-Ballarat race this year, the combination of their strength and the fact that you could be blown straight off the damn mountain made them some of the more intimidating I’ve dealt with. Luckily they were only an issue for a few hundred metres.

    From the top, the Great Alpine Road still isn’t in the greatest condition; it’s not my favourite descent at the best of times. How do others find it?

  6. David Turner / Jan 6 2014

    Hi Matt,
    Great recap as usual.
    My favourite ride of the weekend was Hotham. It was an awesome day, not hot, spectacular views, and great company from the crew along the way. Felt like I had wings even up CRB Hill! You are not wrong about those crosswinds… I came flying down the first roller and then hung on for dear life as my bike was buffeted from right to left. By the second roller and across the top section I was part of the left foot unclipped brigade fearing at any moment I might end up in the valley below!!!

    I am loving Kirstens photos as well. Some of the ones across the top of Hotham are amazing. Waiting for the final batch from Buffalo/Dinner Plain before ordering my set.

    Just wondering was that Wil Gleeson who also taking photos across the weekend with the ginormous flash? He had a great location near the top of Hotham looking towards Feathertop. Would be great to see those pictures as well.

    • Darren / Jan 13 2014

      Agreed. Would be great to see his photos too! Wil’s photos are top quality and always a highlight after the 4-peaks weekend!

  7. Tracey Miller / Jan 6 2014

    Great write up Matt of the Hotham climb, was a totally awesome day, the weather was perfect the climb was amazing and so picturesque a perfect climb!

    Was good of Andy to stop and warn us of the cross wind on one of the bends, its got me, but as I was pre-warned it didnt take me by too much surprise and I was able to hang on to handlebars and glide my way up still!

    Keep up the good work!

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