A cold morning at Mt. Donna Buang

Route: Warburton to Mt. Donna Buang, return (including Martyr Road)
Distance: 45.6km
Duration: 2 hours 2 minutes

Mt. Donna Buang
The Donvale Demon climbing the upper slopes of Mt. Donna Buang (artistic, right?)

I’m not one of those cyclists that normally gets up before 6am to go for a ride … especially when the outside temperature is well and truly in single digits. But when the Donvale Demon sent me a message at 5.30am on Saturday saying he was on his way to Mt. Donna Buang, I bounced out of bed and got myself ready to go.

It had been many months since I’d last climbed Donna and I was keen to test myself on the great mountain. The Demon swung by a little after 6am and we got on the road, grateful for the heater in the car. Setting up the bikes at Warburton it was clear we were in for a cold one — it must have been no more than 8° in town with a several-degree temperature drop ahead of us as we climbed the hill.

We took off and the Demon got straight into the climbing. I was keen to have a bit of a warm-up first so I headed past the Donna Buang turn off for a kilometre or so before heading back and then up the hill. I’d given the Demon a 6-minute headstart and he would act as a good carrot as I worked my way up the mountain.

Mt. Donna Buang
Looks cold, and it was.

My previous best up the climb was 1 hour 15 minutes, set more than a year ago and I was confident of going under 1 hour 10 minutes on Saturday. A work colleague (and member of the 6amers cycling team) Gus Gollings had told me earlier in the week that an average of 17km/h is necessary if you want a sub-1-hour time up Donna. With that in mind, I took off at 17km/h and tried to hold it as long as I could. I even took the unusual step of popping in the headphones and listening to some tunes as I tried to find a rhythm and the Demon further up the road.

It didn’t take long for 17km/h to become an untenable average and instead I decided to try holding my heartrate at about 180bpm (about 90% of my max) — certainly not comfortable. In fact, after a few kilometers I started thinking I might have gone out a little hard. It was definitely the hardest I’d ever tried to climb Donna before — an intensity of riding I’d normally save for shorter climbs such as the 1 in 20.

When I reached the tough final kilometres before Cement Creek, my speed inevitably dropped but my heartrate hovered in the low 180s. I knew I’d only have to put up with a couple of kilometres of pain before I’d have a chance to sit up and rest. And while those few kays certainly didn’t tickle, they were actually over far quicker than I expected. Perhaps it was the fact I could focus on music, I’m not sure.

Mt. Donna Buang
The Demon climbs through the black and white wasteland that isn't Mt. Donna Buang.

At the Cement Creek hairpin I took the opportunity to stretch my back and let my heartrate return to something more manageable. It wasn’t long though before I was climbing again and my heartrate was back around 183 with no sign of dropping.

A few kays after Cement Creek I spotted the Demon ahead of me. He appeared to be climbing well and it took me a couple of minutes before I could pass him. With a comfortable rhythm dialled in and the tunes pumping, I kept ticking off the kays.

One of the things that’s become clear to me in a few months’ worth of physio appointments is that my glutes are very weak and my quads are quite strong. The two are related: it seems I spend a fair bit of time climbing out of the saddle (using mainly my quads) and at the slightest sign of distress in my glutes, I seem to stand up and let my quads take over.

Since realising this, I’ve been making a concerted effort to stay seated as much as possible while on the bike. While climbing Donna, this approach left my glutes sore — which is good — and my lower back aching. I think it will take a while for my body to adjust to the new strategy, especially on long climbs.

Mt. Donna Buang
The Demon had some colour back by the time he reached the last kilometre of the climb.

The whole way up I’d been keeping an eye on the time on my Garmin. I wasn’t trying to; I just couldn’t help looking, working out in my head how long I’d been climbing for. With 3km to go it looked as if a time of less than 1 hour 5 minutes was on the cards. I would need to absolutely motor for those last 3km — no mean feat when you consider the nasty pinch you have to get over in the final kilometre.

But I gave it a crack, pushing as hard as I could. My heartrate hovered uncomfortably close to 190bpm for the last kilometre (95% of my max) and it took a fair bit of stubborness to keep pushing past those car parks to the lookout tower. I hit the lap function on the Garmin as I crossed the finish line: 1 hour 5 minutes 22 seconds. Not quite fast enough to break 1 hour 5 minutes but still well ahead of the time I was aiming for. In fact, I’d managed a PB by 10 minutes: an improvement of 13% on my previous best.

I rolled back down the hill to meet the Demon and together we climbed the final kilometre or so. We didn’t wait around long at the top — after all it was about 3° and neither of us fancied getting frostbite.

Now I’ve descended Donna Buang in the cold before (including a couple of times in the snow and once in winter with only shorts and short-sleeved jersey) so I knew what to expect on Saturday. And despite it being cold, it was actually one of the most enjoyable descents I’ve done in a long time. I felt like I was taking the corners well and it was simply a joy to be riding through a beautiful part of the world … without my heartrate lapping at its threshold.

I got to the bottom of the hill a few minutes ahead of the Demon who, since his mishap at Mt. Baw Baw, is still a little cautious about descending. I don’t blame him either. I turned around at the bottom and started riding back up to meet him, and I shot this short video along the way:

After returning to Warburton the Demon headed to a local cafe to grab a coffee while I headed to a nearby climb I’d heard a bit about but never tried: Martyr Road. I knew it was short and steep, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for what I saw before me. Generally speaking, photos don’t give you a great sense of how steep a road is, but a sign showing the gradient certainly helps:

Martyr Road, Warburton

I’ve actually never seen a steeper bit of road in my life and as I rounded the corner I may have uttered an expletive or two. I paused for a moment to consider whether or not I’d even be able to get up it (and I’ve got a 34×28 compact setup). My biggest concern was that I’d get halfway up, run out of gas, try to unclip, unsuccessfully, and tumble down the hill.

But I gave it a crack and went full bore at the thing. I’m not sure there’s any other way, really. It’s too steep to try spinning up it and it’s really just a case of bashing it as hard as possible and hoping that your body holds out. I got through the first ramp alright but took the opportunity to have a rest on the false-flat. Mind you, the false-flat probably had a gradient of about 13%.

I rolled down the hill slightly, clipped in and then bashed up the second part to what I thought was the top, panting like nobody’s business, trying to pay back my oxygen debt. Turns out I didn’t ride to the end of the road and tick off the relevant Strava segment but I didn’t mind — that’s something to look forward to next time … I think.

I rolled back down, shaking my head at the craziness of it all, stopping to take a photo along the way.

Martyr Road, Warburton
Looking up the first ramp (>20%) with the second ramp visible in the background.

Thanks very much for reading today and thanks especially to those of you that took the time to fill in the survey I published last week. I’ve had roughly 115 responses so far, which I’m thrilled about, and it all helps to guide the future direction of the site. So, if you’ve got five minutes and you haven’t filled in the survey, it would be great if you could! This link will take you straight there.

If you aren’t already part of the TCC community on Facebook and Twitter, get on it. You can also follow me on Strava and please feel free to leave comments below.

And just before I go, a quick teaser. I’ve written today about my experience at Donna Buang over the weekend but the weekend before a bunch of hardy cyclists tackled Donna in the wet for an individual time trial. One of those hardy souls, Josh Goodall, competed in the event and has written a terrific guest post about his day out east. Stay posted for that later this week.

15 Replies to “A cold morning at Mt. Donna Buang”

  1. Nice post – will have to try Martyr Road the next time I am out there.

    If you want to try riding up the steepest bit of paved road in Melbourne then get to the old Hillclimb circuit at Templestowe. It is to the West of the houses on the West side of The Parkway and you can get onto it via a bike path near the intersection of Sanctuary Place and The Parkway. It has a section aptly named “The Wall” that is about 80m long and a 40% gradient (1 in 2.5)!!!

    You have to see it to believe it. My tip for getting up is to start on the RHS of the road (it’s cambered to the left) and in your lowest gear. It is then a balancing act between lifting the front wheel and losing traction on the rear (especially where it turns to gravel right near the end!!).



  2. Great post (again).

    Although I am not totally blown away by the treatment of the leading image I think it’s fantastic that you try out new stuff. Great to see the video. It makes the whole post more 3D 😉

    Regarding the 180 bpm. Do you do base training also or are you mostly doing intensive rides?

    1. Ha, thanks Mariano. It doesn’t hurt to try new things every once in a while, eh? 😛

      As for base training: yeah, that Donna ascent was unusual. I wouldn’t normally go so hard but having had a taste of racing, I’m keen to do a bit of race-pace training.

  3. Haven’t ridden (or even seen!) Glenvale Road sorry Matt, so not too sure, but it must be tough to beat Martyrs! The first time I went up there, I was running a standard crank with a 25 cassette, nearly pulled my shoulders out trying to get to the top!!

  4. That’s a valuable tip, thank you Matt, about the quads v glutes, I climb out of the saddle a lot and hadn’t made the weak glute connection, something to work on!

  5. I think it’s crazy you can climb with your HR on 180bpm for minutes (or longer) at a time.

    That’s probably why you’re a much better climber than me.

    Good post.

    1. Ha, thanks Albert. It certainly wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. It was as close to a max effort as I’m willing to try up that climb!

  6. Hey Matt, how does the Martyr Rd climb compare to the Glenvale Rd (Donvale) climb with regards to steepness, length, difficulty?

    1. Hi Kris. A good question. According to Strava, Glenvale Road is 300 metres at 16% (http://app.strava.com/segments/glenvale-road-climb-626570) while Martyr Road is 300 metres at 18.6% (http://app.strava.com/segments/martyr-road-27-percent-gradient-714075). Not much difference by those numbers, but I seem to remember Glenvale Road being a little harder. I could be wrong, but I think Glenvale Road is more consistently steep, while Martyr Road has two distinct ramps, both of which are ridiculously steep. Again, I could be wrong. Anyone else rode both? Andy VB? Evan H? David B?

  7. Fantastic write-up Matt! You’re going to be well acclimatised for MDBDD in a month or two! Although your handicap will be severely reduced for the race up Mt Little Joe, after this effort 🙂

    1. Ha! Sounds good mate. I’m heading to the US at the end of June (for five weeks) so I might miss MDBDD at this rate, but we’ll see!

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