For the past six months, Anthony Gugel has been training for one of Australia’s toughest one-day challenge rides: the 250km version of the Audax Alpine Classic (ACE250). At 4am on Sunday, Anthony rolled up to the start line in Bright and embarked on a 12-hour sufferfest. In this guest post, Anthony shares his experience of the day and offers some tips for riders interested in taking on this challenge.
The Audax ACE250 has developed a reputation as one of the most challenging single-day mass participation rides you can attempt. Testament to this is the fact Audax imposes qualifying criteria to participate. It isn’t a walk up start like its 3 Peaks sister ride.
With six months of training completed I felt confident I had done enough to successfully complete the ride. But on the drive up to Bright the day before the ride I still felt some apprehension as the imposing sight of Mt. Buffalo came into view, standing proud in the midday sun.
My iPhone had been randomly playing songs for the entire three hour drive and it was quite prophetic that it started playing Hunters & Collector’s iconic Holy Grail (see video below) as I approached the ‘Audax Alpine Challenge’ banner strung over the Great Alpine Road in Bright. All I could do was laugh!
I unpacked the car at our accommodation, changed into my riding kit and hit the road towards Harrietville for a short ride to shake the driving kays out of my legs. It was mid-afternoon by then and the temperature was into the mid 30s – a preview of what the weather gods would have in store for us on the big day.
After passing the compulsory lights check and completing my ride registration, it was back to the house for a cool shower, some stretching and a relaxed evening carbo-loading with my housemates. My good friend Frosty cooked up a superb pasta feast to everyone’s delight and second and third helpings were a popular choice.
Alarms were set for 3am but like a kid on his birthday I was awake before the alarm sounded and I got stuck into a huge breakfast. My riding buddy Ian had also opted for the early start (there’s a later start option too) and by 3:45am we were among the growing throng of nervously chatty riders at the start line. It seemed to take forever for those final minutes to pass by but the countdown finally started and to the sound of a small applause from the waiting crowd, we set off in the darkness towards Harrietville.
Adrenalin must have been flowing abundantly as the pace was surprisingly brisk for an endurance ride. We set off from Bright and within 45 minutes we were at the foot of Mt. Hotham and the mystique of the ACE250 was starting to become clear. A line of headlights gradually worked its way further and further down the road as the peloton made its way past The Meg, CRB Hill, the gatehouse and up towards the summit. As I crested the summit I had the amazing sight of the sun peeping over the ridgeline on my right. At the same time a long line of lights seemed to pulsate for kilometres down the still-dark slopes of the mountain.
To this point I had felt comfortable on the climb, riding within myself given what lay ahead. I was feeling confident of a sub-two-hour time for the climb but the final two or three kilometres were a real challenge as I ground away in my granny gear. I was losing the ‘shut-up legs’ argument with my rapidly fatiguing lower quads before I finally reached the summit and commenced the descent to the first checkpoint at Dinner Plain.
A word of congratulations must go to the organisers and volunteers for putting on a feast at the checkpoints. I quickly refueled with the available food and hit the road to Omeo. My goal was to complete the ride in 10 hours plus time for stops so I wanted to keep the breaks to a minimum, as I had done on all my training rides.
A few minutes out of Dinner Plain and lady luck deserted me. I struck an object on the road that flatted my front tyre. No major dramas with the flat itself, but I completely fluffed the CO2 canister refill both times, managing to get the front tyre barely half-inflated and my fingers almost frozen to the canister. My hand pump wasn’t able to get much more air in either so it was a spongy and careful roll to Omeo to avoid the possibility of rolling the front tyre off the rim.
On the outskirts of Omeo, Ian caught up to me and we rolled into the second checkpoint to devour Frosty Fruits and salad rolls. Luckily for me they also had a floor pump and I was able to inflate my front tyre from 40PSI back to 100PSI.
I also took the opportunity to check my seatpost and found the cause of my fatiguing lower quads and grumpy knees up Hotham. I always leave a small gap between the seatpost collar and the bracket for my rear light. This gap had disappeared somewhere and I suspect the seatpost had dropped slightly. With said gap returned and the seatpost collar suitably tightened my grumpy legs and knees were to be no more!
Having read all about the gut-busting efforts needed up the Back of Falls, my plan was to eat well at Omeo, cruise to the Blue Duck Inn at Anglers Rest and top up with a gel and energy bar to avoid any pavement pizza moments on the way up Falls. Ian and I set off together from Omeo and cruised along the highway, rolling turns and enjoying the spectacular views.
Unfortunately for Ian (but fortunately for me) he’s proportioned like a Clydesdale while I’m more like a miniature horse. Consequently, I wasn’t able to offer too much of a draft for him but rode in a comparative vacuum behind him. Thanks mate! At one point he even requested I sit up more. What also became apparent was the marked rise in temperature, which now hovered in the low 30s.
Arriving at the Blue Duck Inn you could sense the riders knew of the looming battle ahead, like an army ill-equipped for it’s opposition. A half-can of coke was added to my earlier food plan for this stop and I felt for the guy I saw pull out a salad roll he’d carried from Omeo. Surely it was going to make several reappearances along the way to Falls Creek?
Just like the start so many hours earlier, those last few minutes as we cycled towards the infamous WTF Corner seemed to take forever. Ian had ridden the back of Falls climb, starting out from Anglers Rest, a few days earlier and was able to provide some tips about what to expect. Still, nothing quite prepares you for what you’re greeted with at the blind left-hander that signals the start of the climb.
The road pitches up at an incredible angle before taking a sharp right and disappearing out of view. Even with low-range gearing of 34/27, seated climbing was nigh on impossible on the 15% pitch and it took a measured out-of-the-saddle effort to claw up this first section while avoiding the red zone. Upon reaching the following right-hander, any sense of accomplishment is quickly extinguished as you’re greeted with another stretch of road pitched up at a leg-smashing angle, and then another left-hander, and then more road pitched skyward.
By now the temperature was hovering around 38ºC and even with the many water stops provided I found it a real challenge to complete this section of the climb. The reflected heat off the greyish-white granite road surface was unbelievable. Three times the thumping in my head reached a magnitude I’d never experienced before. Each time I desperately sought out what little shade there was to have a short rest, throw cold water over myself, clip back in and commence the grind again. Stinging eyes due to the mixing of sunscreen, sweat and water were my reward for each break.
But I was still pedalling, while many others were sitting by the side of the road, their faces expressionless, or walking their bikes up the hill with head bowed – the ultimate indignity for any self-respecting cyclist?
Finally I reached Trapyard Gap and the realisation that the worst was probably behind me provided an overwhelming sense of relief. There are short sections of climbing that again put you in the hurt box but nothing like the hell just climbed. To finally crest the plateau after Raspberry Hill and catch that first glimpse of Rocky Valley Dam was amazing.
I was able to bridge to a rider ahead of me and together we rolled turns at a brisk pace to the next checkpoint at Falls Creek. I reckon I ate a days worth of food here and the rice crème was sensational. A few minutes later Ian also arrived and once he’d had an opportunity to recharge we set off to tackle the descent to Mt. Beauty, following a warning about a dangerous left-hander not far down the road.
Ian used his Clydesdale stature and 53/11 gearing to full effect on the descent, setting a scorching pace down the mountain. I had trouble keeping up with my lowly 50/12 top-end and let out an ‘oh shite’ at the corrugated left-hander well known for causing over-enthusiastic descenders (like yours truly) plenty of grief. Stiff rims and my reasonably low weight caused the front-end to get a little bouncy and it took some skill (and luck!) to keep the bike upright and on the left side of the road.
Thankfully we were able to roll into Mt. Beauty with another rider who knew of a water tap behind the hardware store. We drenched ourselves, topped up our bottles, I downed another gel and then we headed off to complete the final climb – the infamous Tawonga Gap.
Tawonga is known more for its irrepressible and stifling heat than for its challenging gradients. As a climb it’s only a little longer than Kinglake and not that much steeper. However it offers little respite from the sun, little in the way of any cooling breeze and a dead road surface that was melting in the 40.5ºC heat. Add these ingredients to the 220km I’d already done and you’re looking at a recipe for further pain and suffering.
Once again many cyclists were taking the sitting or walking option while I just focused on keeping the pedals turning in my 34/27 gearing and staying out of the red zone. Just prior to the water stop I sought some shade to take a breather and tipped my helmet at the couple climbing Tawonga on a tandem. Chapeau to the both of you! Meanwhile, Ian had dropped back to down a gel and was grinding his way slowly up the climb. Later he commented that he wasn’t in the hurt locker, he was in the coffin with a crowbar trying to find a way out!
Back on the bike it was a case of counting down every 500 metres to get me through the remainder of the climb. At this point I also started to do the maths on achieving my goal of completing the ride in 10 hours riding time. I thought if I crested Tawonga with 40 minutes up my sleeve I’d have a chance. It was enough to spur me on past Sullivan’s Lookout and I let out an almighty scream as I rounded the left-hand bend that signals the start of the descent.
This was also my cue to let adrenalin once again carry me to a performance level beyond my norm and I descended like a neo-pro, my seemingly revitalised legs turning over the compact 50/12 gearing at over 100rpm. Once again I managed to bridge to a rider also descending at a rapid pace and together we pulled some big turns to the Germantown turn-off. It was enough to post a top-20 time for this segment on Strava with an average speed of just under 50km/h, which, considering the circumstances, was a phenomenal achievement.
The time-trial effort continued for the 5km into Bright and we were able to pick up two more riders to form a five-man team. As we crossed the river I knew it was close and we desperately yelled out to the traffic marshal ‘which way, which way?’ He directed us up to the roundabout, which we scooted around, down the next left and then right onto the finishing straight.
With an out-of-the-saddle acceleration and an accompanying ‘yeah baby!’ yell that generated a huge cheer from the assembled crowd, I crossed the line in 9 hours 57 minutes riding time and 11 hours 53 minutes elapsed. A cooling water spray was a just reward followed by food, drink and a dip in the Ovens River to sooth my now-aching legs.
I’d done it. The ACE250 and its 4,360 vertical metres of climbing had been conquered! And in stark contrast to when I’d arrived in the high country, the mountains lay hidden behind a layer of thick mist when I departed on Monday morning. Perhaps this was an acknowledgment that on the day prior they had been tamed by two wheels, some carbon fibre tubing and an immeasurable amount of raw grit and determination.
Thanks to all who donated to help raise over $1,100 for the Kids Cancer Project. A special thanks also to my family for their endless support while I was out racking up the training miles. My wife is a cycling widow no longer!
If you’re contemplating taking on the ACE250, here are some tips that might help:
- Start your training in the winter, building up a solid aerobic base. It can be challenging to hold back on the helter skelter that is group rides but a solid aerobic base is vital for a ride like this. I spent a whole 16 seconds in Heart Rate Zone 5 (HRZ5). Most climbing kilometres were in HRZ4 while I recovered, cruising the flats in HRZ2 or HRZ3 (except the Tawonga descent to Bright).
- Grab a copy of Joe Friel’s Cyclist Training Bible. Read it. Read it again. Make up a training plan. Read it again. Adjust your plan as life throws obstacles at you.
- Lock in your priority 1 training rides for the three months leading up to the ACE250, with increasing climbing kilometres and hours on the bike with each ride. I started with a 110km ride on Melbourne Cup Day and built up over seven rides to 190km with 3,000m climbing just after Christmas. My final training ride was the 2.5 Donna ascent in early January. This was in addition to my usual 200km of commuting and group rides a week.
- Carbo-load and taper in the few days leading up to the ride. This strategy worked for me but I do know other riders who prefer to keep up the climbing kilometres in the days prior to the event. The Australian Institute of Sport has a great fact sheet on carbo loading.
- Set up your bike with the lowest gearing you can justifiably afford. It’s best to have a bail-out gear should things turn nasty. I know of A-grade club riders who were running 39/28 gearing. I chose to go a 34/50 compact with a 12/27 cassette and didn’t regret it for a second as my 167cm/71kg frame is more rouleur than climber.
- Plan your ride strategy. Know when and what you’re going to eat. Practise your food and hydration strategy on you training rides.
- Make up a three-column running sheet in Excel with town, distance and climb length/gradients from CyclingProfiles and tape it to your top tube. This helped me get through the tougher sections by knowing what lay ahead.
- Opt to start the ride at 4am. You’ll enjoy sunrise over Mt. Hotham and be well into the ride before the sun starts to bite. The late bunch will also be wearing the fluoro vests just like you so there’s little downside, other than missing a couple hours of sleep, to starting at 4am. Plus you get first grab of all the goodies at the control points and, more importantly, of the water supplies up the Back of Falls.
Have you got a climbing-related story you’d like to share? Send Matt an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the details.
- Guest post: 2012 Audax Alpine Classic (200km version) by David Blom