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