Route: Warburton, Don Rd, Mt. Donna Buang, Warburton, Mt. Little Joe, return
Duration: 3 hours 43 minutes
After a week of checking snow and weather reports religiously, and after many weeks of build-up and anticipation, Donna Done Dirty finally landed on Saturday. It was well worth the wait, and if there’s one thing I took away from the day it’s this: the Hells 500 crew do an amazing job of putting on interesting, challenging and well-supported rides.
At around 8am Brendan and I made our way to the Warburton Bakery to join about 20 other cyclists who’d braved the cold and intermittently wet conditions. After a pre-ride address by Andy van Bergen and after dropping off some warmer gear with Team van Bergen (consisting of Andy’s wife Tammy and his parents Tony and Judy) we were off on our first loop for the day.
We took the Lilydale-Warburton Rail Trail out of town and immediatly got a taste of what the day had in store. Riders in front of me were flicking mud in my face and a light drizzle was starting to fall, all within a couple of minutes of starting the ride. Normally when I’m on a road bike rain and mud would be cause for frustration and disappointment, but on Saturday they were almost a welcome addition.
We all knew we were going to get wet, cold and muddy — the ride was called Donna Done Dirty after all — and a few puddles and specs of rain were hardly going to put a dampener on things. Well, psychologically anyway.
Before too long we reached the Launching Place hotel and left the rail trail, taking a right turn on to Don Road. After a few flat kilometres to Dalry Road the climbing started and the group began to break apart. The stronger climbers, including Col Bell (organiser of the Around the Lake ride a few months ago) and Joel Nicholson (who was joining the Hells 500 crew for the first time) went to the front and disappeared up the road.
Brendan and I found a rhythm somewhere in the middle of the field and started ticking off the kilometres. Neither of us had ridden the Panton Gap from this side (I’d done the other side) and it was nice to be riding on new roads — roads that were virtually car free. I’m trying to remember if we saw a single car on the way from Launching Place to the top of Don Road. Either way, the traffic was minimal, the company was great and the scenery was exceptional.
In his pre-ride address Andy had warned us about the slippery wooden bridge on Don Road that marks the end of the bitumen and start of the gravel road. And while the bridge certainly looked wet as we approached, Brendan and I both managed to cross with no problems. And then it was on to the dirt.
I was riding my old, Trek 1.2 on Saturday, for the simple reason that my 25mm Schwalbe Marathon tyres were still on it from Melburn-Roobaix. I’m glad I did as the thicker, grippier tyres made light work of the dirt and I never felt like I was in danger of slipping. That said, the unsealed section of Don Road — which starts roughly 6km after Dalry Road — is in excellent condition, even in the middle of winter. I would be more than confident riding it on regular 23mm tyres in winter, let alone summer.
As with the lower slopes of Don Road, the upper, unsealed section — lovingly referred to as La Strada Don Fangoso — was devoid of cars and we were able to tap away, enjoying the scenery and the sense of occasion.
We regrouped at the Panton Gap — the intersection of Don Road and Donna Buang Road — before continuing to climb. After a handful of kilometres we reached the ‘road closed for winter’ gate, made our way around that obstacle and pressed on. If it was good riding on Don Road with very little traffic, riding on the closed Donna Buang Road was wonderful. We didn’t have to worry about any traffic at all and could ride four or five abreast on the narrow, unsealed road if we wanted to.
We did, however, have to look out for all manner of debris on the road. Sticks and branches littered the way and on several occasions we had to dismount to clamber around, under or over fallen trees. Far from being a frustration these obstacles served to remind us of the remoteness and the adventure of the ride we were on. This was a road that hadn’t seen car traffic (nor a debris clean-up crew) for months and here we were, 20+ adventurous riders, enjoying Mt. Donna Buang in all its untamed beauty.
I’d only every ridden the unsealed approach to Mt. Donna Buang once before and that was on a mountain bike at a significantly warmer time of year. So I had a bit of an idea of how stunning the road was but being back there was even better than I imagined. With no car traffic the only sounds I could hear were those of gears being changed, cyclists chatting enthusiastically to one another and, of course, the sounds of the forest around us. We heard birds aplenty as we climbed and on one occasion we saw a lyrebird scuttle along the road before darting back into the undergrowth.
According to Strava, it’s exactly 15km from Panton Gap to the end of Donna Buang Road and it’s intersection with the Mt. Donna Buang Summit Road. In that distance you climb about 620 metres, which gives an average gradient of a touch over 4%. It’s not the longest or the steepest climb but on an unsealed road which is quite soft in places, the climbing can be reasonably challenging.
That said, I don’t ever remember thinking ‘This is tough, I hope it ends soon.’ It was just a privilege to be riding on such an amazingly scenic and isolated road all the while enjoying the company of other like-minded (read: crazy) cyclists.
As we climbed higher and got closer to the summit road, the temperature began to drop considerably. Sure, it had been cold all day but those final few kilometres before the turn-off were icy. According to my Garmin the temperature was no higher than 5° and with my gloves wet from the showers earlier on, my fingers were starting to get numb.
And then we rounded a corner and saw one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen while out on a ride. From a distance it looked like a bunch of people had come out into the bush for a picnic of sorts, with a table and some kind of burner set up. As I got closer I realised that the people in the group were all cyclists from our ride, all except two — Tammy and Tony van Bergen (Andy’s wife and father respectively, for those that weren’t paying attention earlier).
It turns out they’d packed a wheelbarrow full of goodies and wheeled it down the closed road to set up a mobile soup kitchen for us. As I warmed my hands on a cup of warm, delicious pumpkin soup Andy wandered past and uttered something that seemed to sum it all up: ‘Hells 500: we do it properly’.
He was right about that. It was such an unexpected but welcome addition to the ride and I know everyone really appreciated Tony and Tammy’s efforts, not least because they had to push that wheelbarrow 2km+, in each direction, and stand in the rain while waiting for us to arrive! An incredible effort.
After finishing the last of our delicious soup, and saying a big thank you to the enthusiastic volunteers, we were on our way. At the end of Donna Buang Road we clambered through the ‘road closed’ gate before beginning the steeper final kilometre to the summit. Even though we’d been warmed by the soup a few minutes earlier, it didn’t take long for my fingers to go numb again and by the time we reached the summit I was pretty keen to get into some warmer gear. Thankfully Judy was at the summit with all of the clothing we’d put aside at the start of the day.
I exchanged my cold and wet gloves for some fresh woolen ones, put on a beanie and wrapped a scarf around my face. As a final touch I put a thick winter jersey/jacket over the rest of my gear, and got ready to descend the sealed road to Warburton.
At the mobile soup kitchen we’d heard reports of snowfall at the summit to which there’d been some excited reactions, given an absense of snow (falling or roadside) thus far. Sadly, the snowfall at the summit was limited to a few specs falling here and there but in all honesty, it mattered little. The day was amazing as it was.
Geared up and ready to go Brendan and I began the descent toward Warburton, wondering if, with five layers on, we’d still be cold. To my great delight, my chest, fingers and face were all toasty warm. My feet were still wet from the rain so they were cold but I’d have to say it was the most comfortable winter descent of Donna Buang I’ve done.
Even in the wet Brendan demonstrated his great descending skills and in no time we were back in Warburton and ready for something to eat from the bakery. With the KOM/QOM of Mt. Little Joe (see Strava segment below) due straight after the break, there were a few discussions about how much we should eat and drink. My plan was to have a bit of a crack on the KOM but I was hungry as well so I smashed down a pie and a flavoured milk and hoped they would stay down on the climb.
We’d started the day with two girls in the group (Nicola and Nicole) but after Nicola pulled the pin in Warburton it was left to Nicole to contest the QOM. Rather than handing Nicole the QOM prize in a race of one, it was decided that Nicola should receive the award given the climb of Mt. Donna Buang had been her first ever mountain climb — well done!
With a handful of other riders calling it a day as well, we embarked on the second loop of the day with a group roughly 15 strong. As well as a prize for the first across the line in the KOM, there was a prize called Little Joe, Big Average, awarded to the rider who placed in the middle of the field. There was some discussion about the real battle being for that 7th place but from what I saw, the battle for first was pretty hot too.
After a few neutral kilometres, we all regrouped and then began the 2.8km-long KOM segment. I hadn’t ridden the road before and apart from Andy saying ‘it’s steep’, I really didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the first attack.
No sooner had the race gotten underway than Evan Henley burst off the front with a terrifying burst of speed. At our bakery stop in Warburton I’d asked Evan if he was going to contest the KOM and he shrugged and said ‘Yeah, I’m not sure. I’ll see how I go.’
Well, ‘go’ he certainly did.
I’d seen him mount a similar charge on the final climb of Around the Lake — an attack that took Andy 10km or more to reel in. So I knew Evan had a real chance of staying away and taking the win if we didn’t respond straight away. A few of us wound the elastic up and tried to cut down the gap, but it looked as if it would take all of the 2,800 metres to do that.
With some strong climbers among the group — including Col and Joel (already mentioned), Jem Richards (aka Eat More Lard) and Sam Slaney — I knew a win was very unlikely. I would be happy with a top-five finish. My plan was to stick with Jem, Col and Sam as long as I could (I’d never seen Joel race) and go from there.
After an initial section of climbing in which I managed to stay with all of the those I’d planned to, we started descending and Jem started to pull away. As the road began to head skyward once more Col flew past at great speed and set off in search of Evan and Joel who were just up the road. Before too long I was at my absolute limit just trying to keep up with Jem and Sam and I knew if they went any harder I’d be in strife. Jem pulled away leaving Sam and I climbing together as we made our way into the final kilometre of the short climb.
By a strange coincidence Sam had been in the breakaway group with me in my first (and so far only) bike race a few months back. On that day I’d just managed to edge him out for third place but since then he’s been in a bunch of races, including his first C-grade race a week or so ago. In that C-grade debut Sam picked up fourth, attacking from the peloton on the final climb to the finish. So it was fair to say I didn’t rate my chances against Sam, and my plan quickly became a case of staying with him as long as I could.
Not long after Jem disappeared up the road I saw ‘1km’ written on the road and I wasn’t sure if that meant 1km to go or 1km elapsed. Either way, I found myself pulling away from Sam ever so slightly. A short time later I went past Col who appeared to have run out of gas after his explosive move a few minutes earlier.
Before long we reached a sign saying it was 500m to the top. I wondered if I could dig a little deeper and fight my way back to the front but the others were just too far up the road. As it was I was at my limit and really had nothing left in the tank. At the top of the climb I could see that Evan had been reeled back in and that Jem and Joel were fighting it out for the win. Joel managed to outsprint Jem in the closing stages of the race, Evan rolled through in third and I crossed the line in 4th, just ahead of Sam.
Congratulations to Joel on a hard-fought win and congratulations too to John Van Seters for placing 7th and taking out the award for being the ‘most average rider’*. Sure, the race might have been short, and it might have been a bit of fun among mates, but I was still happy with the 4th place. More than anything it just made me want to do some more racing. It’s amazing how hard you can push yourself under race conditions and how exhilirating that can be.
After regrouping at the top of the climb and congratulating Joel on his effort, we all set off down the other side of the hill and into the final 20km of the ride. A few kilometres from the top of the climb, I was winding my way down the hill when I reached a left-hand bend that came up a lot faster and sharper than I was expecting. As I reached the corner I realised I wasn’t the only one that had been taken by surprise.
Off to the far side of the road I could see a couple of guys hauling themselves and their bikes back on to the roadway. Turns out three or four riders had misjudged the corner and had left the road, bikes and bodies flying all over the place in spectacular fashion. Fortunately, no-one was hurt and there was little if any damage to the bikes. These lucky escapes were made all the more remarkable by the fact there were a number of trees right near where they’d all come off, including one broken branch, at about head height, jutting out on to the road.
After dusting themselves off, and perhaps offering a quick prayer to the cycling gods, the lucky riders saddled up again and, hesistantly, we all continued the descent.
After reaching the bottom without further incident and after a few kilometres on the heavily potholed Wares Road we rejoined the Lilydale-Warburton Rail Trail and headed back to Warburton to end proceedings.
I’d been looking forward to Donna Done Dirty for many weeks and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The day ended with a short presentation ceremony, Joel and John receiving Hells 500 hipflasks and cycling caps for their 1st and ‘average’ placings respectively. And there was another prize too.
At the start of the ride we’d all been given a playing card and asked to attach it to our bikes any way we liked. The winner of the contest would be the person who returned the dirtiest in-tact card at the end of the day. My card had disintegrated somewhere along the way meaning I was ineligible, and the award eventually went to Jem.
A huge thank you to Andy van Bergen for all of his hard work in putting the ride together. His planning and execution of events like these is matched only by his sense of adventure. Thanks mate! We all said it on the day but I’d like to say another huge thank you to Tammy, Tony and Judy for their efforts in supporting the ride as well. From the incredible soup kitchen to the clothing courier service, to the helpful signs posted throughout the route, it all made such a difference and helped make for another very memorable day on the bike.
To quote Andy once more: ‘Hells 500: we do it properly.’
*There was nothing average about John’s efforts in the recent Rapha Rising challenge on Strava. The goal was to climb 6,881 vertical metres in eight days. John ended up amassing a staggering 21,350 vertical metres, the best of any Australian. Well done John!