7 Peaks Domestique Series rides #3&4: Mt. Buller

The weather at the first two 7 Peaks Domestique Series rides was as close to perfect as you’re likely to get: clear blue skies, sunshine, perfect temperatures and, importantly, not so much as a speck of rain.

Unfortunately we weren’t quite so lucky last weekend when we headed up to Mt. Buller for rides #3 and #4 in the series.

I started the long drive up to Mt. Buller after work on Friday night and the rain started as soon as I got in the car. For the next three hours it rained heavily with little respite, but it wasn’t until I got halfway up the mountain that things started to get really gnarly.

(Image: Maria Baranj)

I drove into what looked like a small bank of fog but which turned out to be some of the thickest cloud I’ve ever driven in. Visibility was so poor I could literally only see 2 metres in front of the car — not particularly comforting on a narrow, winding mountain road with numerous drop-offs.

The headlights’ high beams did nothing but light up the cloud in front of the car and a lack of reflectors on or beside the road made it almost impossible to see where the road went. At times I was inching forward at barely 10km/h terrified of missing a bend in the road and plunging over the edge.

But eventually, after a nerve-wracking half-hour spent creeping up the mountain I reached the Mt Buller village and headed for the Neringa Ski Lodge where I was staying with 15 or so others until Sunday morning.

A lovely spot for a weekend away.
A lovely spot for a weekend away.

It seemed to rain through Friday night without any let up. And any hopes of nicer weather on Saturday morning were dashed when we looked outside to see heavy fog and drizzle atop the mountain. The first ride of the day was scheduled for 10am but as 9am rolled around there were more than a few reluctant faces in the lodge.

It must be one of the hardest things as a recreational cyclist: convincing yourself it’s worthwhile kitting up and getting on the bike while the rain is thumping down outside. It didn’t help that when 9.15am arrived and it was time to descend, the rain only got heavier, the wind picked up and a few claps of thunder rang out over the mounain. ‘Yeah, this is a great idea.’

But somehow we all managed to drag ourselves out into the rain and embark on what was probably the slowest, most reluctant Mt. Buller descent of all time. I was on the anchors the whole way down and it was remarkable I had any brake pads (or feeling in my arms) left when we got to the bottom.

It's not easy to start riding when the weather's so miserable.
It’s not easy to start riding when the weather’s so miserable.

As we neared Mirimbah and the meeting point for the ride I wondered how many riders we would have joining us, given the horrendous weather. To my surprise, there was a very sizable group waiting for us at the tollbooth, huddled undercover, out of the heavy rain.

After a few ‘hello’s and a short rider briefing — ‘We’ve just checked the radar and there might be a little bit of rain on the way’, said Andy as the rain pelted down around us — it was straight into the climb. We’d put a quick call-out to see if anyone was keen on a warm-up but a few sniggers suggested the less time spent in the rain the better.

It was my turn to take on lanterne rouge duties and so as others flew up the hill, I settled in to a nice rhythm at the back of the group. For the next 100 minutes or so I rode side-by-side with a bloke called Peter who told me some amazing stories of his battles with heart arrhythmia, his series of surgeries and his efforts to get back on the bike since then. It was inspiring to hear his story and realise just how tough — physically and mentally — some people truly are.

Peter had some great stories to share.
Peter had some great stories to share.

About half way through the climb I said to Peter ‘at least the weather hasn’t been too awful’. It had been drizzling since we left Mirimbah but we’d been spared the torrential downpour that it looked like we might have had.

Less than a minute after my fate-tempting comment, the heavens opened. I couldn’t help but laugh as the rain got heavier and heavier and as Peter and I got soaked through.

As we rode into the final few kilometres of the climb we entered the clouds and visibility dropped considerably. With the rain pouring down we made our way slowly up the steepest section of the climb — Hell Corner — and pushed through to the village. We could barely see anything in the village at all, but we found our way to the Mt. Buller Chalet and the Après restaurant where the rest of the riders were congregating.

Visibility: low.
Visibility: low.

It was great to get out of the rain and to peel off  layers of saturated clothing. After getting our passports stamped at the concierge’s desk (three down, four to go!) we made our way to the restaurant to join the rest of the riders. A quick look at the finishers list showed that we’d had 52 riders complete the climb — an incredible effort given the abysmal weather. Not only that, but the vibe at the restaurant was fantastic.

Everywhere I looked there were smiling faces and people chatting about the insanity of what they’d just been through. Riding in the rain is rarely an enjoyable experience but Saturday was one of those rare occasions.

Maybe it was the fact there was a hot shower and warm clothes waiting for me at the top of the mountain, or maybe it was the fact I was riding with 50 other like-minded (read: ‘crazy’) individuals, but the ridiculousness of it all somehow made an otherwise unpleasant ride a whole lot of fun.

The heavy rain didn't stop us from having fun.
The heavy rain didn’t stop us from having fun. (Image: Nigel Welch)

After a while everyone started to leave, stepping reluctantly back out into the rain. I felt for those that had to ride back down the mountain to get back to their cars, and even more so for those that had ridden from Mansfield (a ~100km roundtrip).

But I was also really glad to be able to ride only a few minutes up the hill to the lodge, put my wet kit in the drying room (Neringa is a ski lodge after all) and have a nice warm shower.

But it wouldn’t be long before we’d be riding back down the mountain again.

Andy's breaststroke lessons came in handy.
Andy’s breaststroke lessons came in handy in the afternoon session. (Image: Nigel Welch)

The afternoon session was scheduled to begin at 4pm and so, at around 3pm, those of us at the lodge who were doing a double kitted up and prepared to descend Mt. Buller. Again. As soon as we stepped outside we realised the weather was far more pleasant than it had been earlier in the day. The fog had cleared, the rain had moved on and there was even a hint of blue sky peeking out from behind the clouds.

The road was still wet as we started the descent, but the closer we got to the valley floor, the drier the road became. Down at the gatehouse in Mirimbah it looked as if we might even get a bit of sun for the climb and I remember saying to someone, quite genuinely: ‘If I get sunburnt here, I’m going to be really annoyed.’ In hindsight I really needn’t have worried.

As we waited for 4pm (and a few other riders) to roll around, a rather menacing black cloud rolled along the valley floor towards us. Within the space of a few minutes the sky went from overcast grey to barbecue-plate black and a quick look at the Bureau of Meteorology radar confirmed the worst — there was a big storm heading right for us.

The storm rolled down the valley towards us ... and didn't stop.
The storm rolled down the valley towards us … and didn’t stop. (Image: Tammy van Bergen)

We rounded up our small group as quickly as possible and, right on 4pm, rolled out and into the climb, hoping the rain wouldn’t hit the mountain before we reached the summit. Ha!

With Andy and his sister Nicole taking lanterne rouge duties for the afternoon, I figured I might as well have a crack and see if I could beat my PB of 1 hour 1 minute and, ideally, go under 1 hour.

As we left the gatehouse I sought out two of the strongest climbers in the group — Steve Lightfoot and Joel Nicholson — and tried to stay with them as long as I could. They’d both set cracking times during the morning session — we’re talking 51 minutes or so — so I figured they’d both be taking it easy in the afternoon. If they were, I didn’t notice.

It didn't take long for Steve (left) and Joel to drop me.
It didn’t take long for Steve (left) and Joel to drop me. (Image: Nigel Welch)

I managed to stay with them for maybe a kilometre or two, thanks to a threshold-or-just-above effort. But before too long the elastic snapped and I had to let them go.

I took a few seconds to let my heart rate recover and then pushed on, staying as close to threshold as I could manage for the rest of the climb. And then the rain came.

It started gently at first but before long lightning was streaking the sky, thunder was echoing through the trees and the rain was getting heavier. And boy did it get heavier.

At times it felt like I was riding upstream as well as uphill. Water was pouring down the bitumen in waves, and the wind was whipping rain out of the air and off the road into my face. And I haven’t even mentioned the hail.

Wet, but content.
Wet, but content. (Image: Nigel Welch)

But somehow, it didn’t seem to matter that the conditions were so poor. The hideous weather was distracting me from the discomfort of pushing a threshold effort up the mountain. And by the same token, the discomfort of pushing a threshold effort up the mountain was distracting me from the hideous weather. I just put my head down, concentrated on the task at hand and got on with it.

Hell Corner certainly hurt a lot more than it had when I’d been riding lanterne rouge earlier in the day, and in fact those final, steep 1.5km to the village were quite tough. But the pain and discomfort was immediately forgotten when I reached the village, hit the ‘Lap’ button on my Garmin and saw 56 minutes 24 seconds — a PB by nearly 5 minutes.

Mt. Buller: 16km of consistent, scenic climbing.
Mt. Buller: 16km of consistent, scenic climbing. (Image: Maria Baranj)

As enjoyable as the riding was on Saturday — in spite of the torrential downpour — the real highlight for me was the time spent back at the lodge with the gang. It was great to be able to finish a ride and then kick back in the communal living area with the other riders (and our lovely support crew, Tammy and Maria) and talk about just how crazy the day had been.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride and satisfaction at having brought together a bunch of great folks, all united by a love of cycling. And despite the sub-optimal weather conditions we faced for the entire weekend, it really was a great couple days away.

And as a few people suggested on the Sunday morning, if ever there was a weekend of cycling that embodied Rules #5 and #9, this was it.

The rain was far less of an problem than it could have been.
The rain was far less of an problem than it could have been. (Image: Tammy van Bergen)

We’ve been lucky enough in the 7 Peaks Domestique Series to have the support of a number of great businesses, not least Cycling Express, who have provided a Cosmic Mavic Elite wheelset (valued at $400+) for the series’ major prize and five $20 vouchers for every ride, to be handed out to the riders Andy and I deem most impressive.

After a bit of consultation, Andy and I would like to award the vouchers to the following individuals:

  • Peter* for his inspiring story and perseverance in getting through the climb
  • Simon Atkinson for completing the Mt. Buller climb an incredible 3.5 times on Saturday despite the foul weather, including one in the big chainring!
  • Brendan Canty who set the fastest climb time on the day: a scary 48 minutes
  • Darren O’Leary who was one of a few riders who rode to and from Mansfield on the day
  • Nicole van Bergen who was the fastest chick on both rides (note: I suggested this award, not Andy, for those who are considering accusations of nepotism!)
Image: Tammy van Bergen
Image: Tammy van Bergen

Honourable mentions should go to Neil Smithies who completed the morning climb in the big ring, the rest of the guys who rode to and from Mansfield (great effort!) and Andy van Bergen himself. He might be ineligible for the voucher as series co-organiser but his willingness to drive four wet, cold and tired blokes down the mountain to their cars after the arvo session (while being wet and tired himself) was what the Domestique Series is all about. Inspiring work Andy!

So thanks to Cycling Express for the grand prize and vouchers. Thanks to Emma & Tom’s for providing post-climb juice for both rides, to Winners Cycling for providing energy bars, gels and chews for the weekend, and to Darius and Viv at Neringa Ski Lodge for looking after us. Assuming we can get the numbers for the next weekend we’re at Buller, we’ll be back!

Of course, I need to say a huge ‘thank you!’ to our generous and ever-patient support crew, Tammy and Maria, who did everything from taking photos, to handing out nutrition, to helping us clean the lodge on Sunday morning. Thanks so much girls — it really is greatly appreciated.

A big ‘thank you’ as well to Neil and Tanina Osborne who shot and edited the video of the morning ride you can see below. And thanks to Nigel Welch who traded his bike for a camera in the afternoon and snapped some truly amazing photos that really captured the mood of the ride.

Steve Lightfoot was at the pointy end of the field on both climbs.
Steve Lightfoot was at the pointy end of the field on both climbs. (Image: Nigel Welch)

The next few rides in the 7 Peaks Domestique Series will be held on consecutive days — December 28, 29 and 30 — in the Victorian Alps. In many ways these rides are the focal point of the entire series — three days in which we’ll tackle four challenging climbs and, for those of us that have completed Lake Mountain, Mt. Baw Baw and Mt. Buller already, collect our final 7 Peaks stamps.

It’s always good to go riding up in the high country but these rides will be extra special. For a start, we’re super-excited to announce that Tourism Victoria will be filming a video during our Mt. Buffalo climb on December 29 to promote cycling in the Victorian Alps. If you want to be part of the video and have a permanent reminder of your 7 Peaks summer, we’d love to have you along.

We’ve also got another surprise planned for the Falls Creek climb on December 28 … but we can’t reveal that one just yet. Stay posted.

Thanks very much for reading and be sure to check out the great photos in the gallery below, courtesy of Nigel Welch, Tammy van Bergen and Maria Baranj. Until next time, please stay safe on the roads and I hope to see you up in the high country after Christmas!

More photos from the weekend can be found at the Hells 500 Facebook page.

Honour roll

The order of these names doesn’t reflect the order in which riders finished the climb. If we haven’t got you on the list, let us know! If we’ve spelled your name wrong, you should have written it more clearly in the notebook … but let us know and we’ll fix it up! If you’d like your climb time listed, email me with the details (and a Strava link or similar to prove it!)

Morning session

  1. Neil Smithies
  2. Frank Zgoznik
  3. Joel Nicholson
  4. Stephen Lightfoot
  5. Paul Dalgarno
  6. Matt McCullough
  7. Brendan Canty
  8. Andy van Bergen
  9. Simon Cornish
  10. Ric Falconer
  11. Edward Green
  12. James Hu
  13. Marcus Nyeholt
  14. Nik Chosich
  15. Glenn Hocking
  16. Kris Dieber
  17. Simon Atkinson
  18. Mark Faragher
  19. Greg Pruitt
  20. Matt Fletcher
  21. Daniel Foster
  22. Dave McLean
  23. Brendan Edwards
  24. Victor Essers
  25. David Ablatz
  26. Brad Lyell
  27. Tony Stuyt
  28. David Egan
  29. Tony Egan
  30. George Voros
  31. Tim Ling
  32. Lou Capannolo
  33. Brendan Cheshire
  34. Jamie Green
  35. Jordan Di Luzio
  36. Tim Johnson
  37. Larry Bird
  38. Chris Dunn
  39. David Leong
  40. Stephen Tippett
  41. Nathan Pasco
  42. Nigel Welch
  43. John Gogis
  44. Cyril Dixon
  45. Rohan Wills
  46. Neil Osborne
  47. Nicole van Bergen
  48. Brian Beardon
  49. Greg Sealby
  50. Darren O’Leary
  51. Peter*
  52. Matt de Neef

Afternoon session

  1. Nicole van Bergen
  2. Andy van Bergen
  3. Bruce Halket
  4. Dan Judd
  5. John Van Seters
  6. Marcus Nyeholt
  7. Brendan Edwards
  8. Simon Atkinson
  9. Rohan Wills
  10. Simon Gill
  11. Brian Beardon
  12. Joel Nicholson
  13. Stephen Lightfoot
  14. Matt de Neef

Previous rides in the series:

* Surname redacted to maintain privacy.

18 Replies to “7 Peaks Domestique Series rides #3&4: Mt. Buller”

  1. Wow, this looks like a killer! I’m just getting into cycling and really want to improve my hill climbing ability.

    I’ll definitely keep an eye on your rides and who knows, maybe one day I can join you!

    Merry Christmas!

  2. The ride was a great tough experience, and you guys did a great job putting it together. Many thanks Andy for the lift down the mountain, and hope that that one and all keep up climbing those hills over the Christmas period.

  3. great writeup Matt. Thanks to you and Andy for the experience, I loved every soaking minute! Well done to everyone who made it, especially the hardcore bunch who did it twice.
    Wish I could be with the group next week, but alas… work awaits. Hope to do a few of the ‘second round’ rides with you guys next year.

  4. Matt and Andy made the day possible and hat’s off to the guys. Our achievement was thanks to them.

    And, Matt, for hanging at the back with me and sacrificing your natural ride – eternally grateful, neither gradient nor downpour were too much.

    Memorable yes, hope to challenge the body and mind with another soon.

  5. Awesome day guys and gals, despite the weather!

    Andy and Matt, thanks for the voucher, it will come in very handy to replace my brake pads after the descents! 🙂

    Can’t wait for the 28th/29th x2/30th rides with the video and special guest.
    See you all then and have a great Xmas.

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