Victorian cyclists are blessed with a number of great, hilly challenge rides to choose from, not least the Audax Alpine Classic and the 3 Peaks Challenge. But, of course, there are other great rides elsewhere in Australia that are well worth exploring.
Last weekend, Hells 500 cyclist Evan Henley made the long drive up to Canberra for Fitz’s Challenge, an annual challenge ride in the hills around our nation’s capital.
I first heard about Fitz’s Challenge while riding the Audax Alpine Classic. Given I love endurance events and riding in new places and trying new climbs, it didn’t take too much arm-twisting to convince me to head to Canberra.
Starting in Stromlo Forest Park just a few kilometres west of the city, the event takes place in the Brindabella Mountains, heading north-south via an out-and-back course, with a number of climbs on several side roads to the west (see map below-right).
The event’s organiser, ACT Pedal Power, offers a number of course options catering for all riders — namely 60km, 105km, 165km, 205km and 250km options. I ended up settling on the 205km ‘Epic’ ride, an event that was described as ‘tough’ but received a glowing review from fellow Hells 500 rider, John van Seters, who completed last year’s event.
I heard post-ride that federal opposition leader Tony Abbott was out there in the 105km event, but unfortunately I didn’t see him out there on the road!
To ensure I got the bike up and back in one piece, I drove up on the Friday, settling in for the long, 8-hour hour drive up the Hume Highway.
After rising at 4.00am for Around the Bay in a Day the previous weekend, I wasn’t particularly impressed when the alarm went off at 4.45am alarm come Sunday (the day of the ride).
My enthusiasm wasn’t helped by the fact the coffee machine at the place I was staying just wouldn’t seem to work. In the absence of any instant coffee, two caffeine Espresso Love GU gels were the best I could do!
After a 25 minute drive from where I was staying, I arrived at Stromlo Forest Park where the crowd was starting to build. Following a quick helmet check, the organisers gave a short rider briefing which ended with a minute’s silence in respect for a gentleman who tragically died in the 2006 event after crashing on a descent.
It was certainly the first time I had heard something like this at the beginning of a ride, and while it made for a fairly sombre start, I think it was a wise way to reiterate the importance of added care and doing everything you can to make it back in one piece.
I quickly kitted up, before making a fairly late call to attach the timing chip to my bike, rather than leaving it in my jersey. Before I knew it the 205km and 250km riders were away, leaving me to clip in and chase the bunch which was already 30 seconds up the road.
With the temperature already starting to rise and the sun coming up, I soon caught on to a big bunch, before deciding to press on in search of the next one up the road. I found it reasonably difficult to get in a good rhythm over the early kilometres, with many small rolling hills dotting the landscape.
I hadn’t studied the course profile (see above) in any great detail prior to the ride. I knew I’d be doing about 3,500m of climbing but I was unsure where most of this was to be done.
Before too long I decided to take the initiative and head up the front — a move that used a little more energy than expected when the 15 or so guys behind were happy just to sit on. After at least 10km, a strong rider joined the group and took a long turn, giving me an opportunity to sit up.
It didn’t take long to start seeing some of the beauty of the Canberra countryside — green rolling hills, bushy paddocks, rushing rivers and many a kangaroo. These early kilometres reminded me somewhat of the Adelaide hills, in which I did a little riding back in January.
Although there wasn’t a major climb in the first 60km, I was surprised to look down at my Garmin to see we had already racked up more than 850m vertical. At this point I was having a brief chat to one of the veterans up the front who had completed the ride before. As we rounded a bend, he suddenly said: ‘Well this is it …’.
I somewhat naively asked what he was referring to, to which he replied that we were about to hit Fitz’s Hill, the first major climb of the day and the climb after which the ride is named.
The climb’s only 2.6km long but with an average gradient of 10.5% it felt similar to a shorter version of Victoria’s Mt. Baw Baw. Unsurprisingly, the bunch exploded as we hit the climb, with everyone knuckling down to find their own rhythm.
As the climb isn’t that windy, many sections appear as long ramps, stretching ahead into the distance. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before I crested the climb and I had a chance to quickly snap a few photos and fill up my bottles for the next 15km or so until the turnaround point. After the sombre reminder earlier in the day we all took it easy down the other side of Fitz’s Hill before getting back into a series of rollers.
By this point the weather was starting to warm up. As I pulled into the turnaround point food station, I realised I probably hadn’t been drinking enough, despite having gone through two bidons by the 80km mark.
It was a relief to find a food stop that featured bananas, banana cake, watermelon and muffins, rather than energy bars and gels! After five minutes and a few quick snacks I made a conscious effort to get down lots of fluid, before kicking off again.
Being an out-and-back course, each little climb on the way out was now a descent, and the descents I’d enjoyed in the first half were now nasty pinches. After a sharp descent down the front of Fitz’s Hill, I soon turned off west towards Honeysuckle Creek, a 7km road which climbs approximately 400m. The main section is a nasty 3.7km at 8.4%.
Being quite an exposed section, I found this to be the hottest part of the day. On more than one occasion I had the feeling that my rear tyre was flat, only to find it was definitely fully inflated! After another short break and refilling my bottles, I was soon back at the bottom of the climb, having gained an appreciated for how steep it was, given the speed I gathered on the way down!
I motored on the flat section back towards the main road, and joined a few other riders for the journey towards the lunch stop at Tharwa. With roughly 120km completed I was starting to feel really good. And given I had a few snacks with me I decided to bypass the lunch stop.
As I headed on up the road, I soon got chatting to another rider by the name of Wayne who was cruising along at a similar pace. Wayne turned out to be quite a keen (and although he was very modest, I get the impression once rather elite) adventure racer. To my amusement (and surprise given his pace), Wayne hadn’t done many road kilometres recently and was out to ‘just smash the legs’ in preparation of some big mountain rides over summer!
Before long we were swapping tales of some the great rides and other events we’d been involved in. I remember thinking to myself it was lucky my mate Andy van Bergen, plotter of Hells 500’s events, wasn’t there to get too many ideas. Wayne’s stories included the likes of an 800km adventure race in the Victorian Alps, which included a 200km mountain bike leg!
I was enjoying the cruise along the open road, taking in the hills to the east, approaching the 140km mark and starting to count down the final 60km or so, when Wayne suddenly said ‘left here, left here!’.
As it turned out, I hadn’t studied the course profile at all well. The left turn Wayne had alerted me to marked the start of the longest climb of the day — 11km up Corin Road. Again, what the mountains of the ACT lack in length, they definitely made up for in gradient. The 11km climb averaged only 4.8% — a somewhat misleading figure given a number of short downhill sections — but there were many ramps around the 10% mark.
During the climb I experienced pretty much the only negative of the day, with a group of individuals in a 4WD deciding they would try to throw glass bottles at a number of cyclists, including me. Before long the the road was littered with some fairly large shards of glass which, fortunately, were easy enough to avoid. It was a shame given the roads were generally extremely quiet and the few drivers in the area were patient and careful.
Wayne and I were content to just spin up the climb and avoid the glass but we still managed to keep up a reasonable pace. At the top we were required to tear off a strip from our brevet cards, with the friendly volunteers then recording our names in order to keep track of us — a nice touch.
Wayne proceeded to bomb the descent, putting a decent gap between us. He kindly waited for me at the bottom though and together we set off at a decent pace for the home run.
We started coming across many riders participating in the shorter events, adding a few more bikes to what was generally a very quiet road. As with the early parts of the ride, the final kilometres featured many rollers, before a short additional loop involving three short sharp hills in quick succession, known locally as the Three Sisters (although I did hear them referred to as something a little different on the day!).
After the more testing climbs of Honeysuckle and Corin, these rises didn’t present too much difficulty and, as I often find with epic rides, as the 180-190km mark came around, my legs were feeling great. Wayne and I agreed that the second 100km of the ride had definitely been the more enjoyable.
As we cruised along with a small group on the flatter lands back towards Stromlo, a rider — whom I’d seen several times throughout the day — burst past us. Wayne jokingly called out ‘After the placings mate?!’
For those that don’t know me, I generally struggle to resist the temptation of such a carrot, and I called the group to jump on to begin the chase. We soon brought the rider back, and I kept the power down, with four or so of us having a bit of a sprint towards the line for a laugh. The legs really seemed to have some kick and it was satisfying to cross the line with what felt like quite a bit left in the tank.
Whether intentionally or not, the good folk from ACT Pedal Power slightly understated the course, with my Garmin reading 209km with 3,850m vertical at the end of the day — a truly epic ride by most people’s standards.
What really makes this event tough is the fact the climbing is so spread throughout the course, without any long climbs to find a tempo then recover on when you’re coming down. In hindsight, I probably could have entered the 255km ‘Extreme’ edition which features another 1,300m of climbing! But doing the shorter course has left me with a desire to head back up there at some point, to tackle the longest version of the ride.
A great community BBQ followed the ride, ending what was another fantastic day on the bike. I can’t speak highly enough of the way that ACT Pedal Power organised the event — the course directions, marshalls, motorbike and police presence, and most importantly the friendly volunteers were all fantastic. And, at just $75 to enter, I would say it was very good value!
If you love the challenge of endurance riding and if you’ve already ticked the Audax Alpine Classic and 3 Peaks Challenge off your list, I would highly recommend making the journey to Canberra’s Brindabella Mountains for Fitz’s Challenge.
The Strava file from Evan’s ride can be found here.
Have you got a climbing-related cycling story you’d like to share? Maybe you just rode your first mountain on the weekend? Or maybe you’re on holidays in the French Alps, climbing every col in sight. Either way, we’re keen to hear from you. Please get in touch with Matt via email.