It’s one thing to climb a mountain by bike. It’s another thing entirely to climb that mountain against the clock while competing in an official event. In this guest post, Josh Goodall describes his experience competing in C grade in a recent individual time trial (ITT) up Mt. Donna Buang.
The other week Jason Spencer wrote a terrific guest post about his third place at the Baw Baw Classic. It’s the kind of performance that few of us can aspire to, least of all myself. I’m one of ‘the rest of us’, the also-rode, the pack fodder.
The good news is that you don’t have to be on the A-grade podium to enjoy racing – it’s a social sport, and there’s always someone your level to work and compete with.
But a couple weekends ago I found myself in a very different place – an uphill battle: the Cycling Express Warburton ITT to the summit of Mt. Donna Buang.
I should confess that nature did not intend for me to ride a bicycle, least of all up hills. No, rather, I think rugby player, or perhaps nightclub bouncer was my intended calling. Imagine a great big bear on a cruiser bike and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how I feel next to the mountain goats. At 181cm tall with 44″ shoulders and tipping the scales at 99kg I’m the guy you want to draft behind on the flat.
So what the heck am I doing racing in the hills? And a mountain time trial?
I entered my first road race just a few weeks ago. In fact it was the same event you’ll find written up by my fellow first-timer, our host Matt de Neef, the Climbing Cyclist himself. I’ve had the opportunity to ride a crit or two, but having recently dipped my weight below 100kg I felt ready for some hillier racing.
I’ve been up Mt. Donna Buang a few times. Donna’s an iconic challenge for Melbourne locals as it’s the only climb over 15km long that’s close-ish to the city. The very first time I tried it, I didn’t finish. The second time, in December 2009, I made it with a time of 2 hours 20 minutes.
Those of you who know Donna will be smirking at that. ‘2 hours 20? Did you have a mechanical?’ But let’s recognise the extraordinary here. It’s not that the bear on the bike is slow. The amazing thing is that he goes up at all.
Fast forward to May 2012. This is a big year for me in cycling as I’ve decided to race a lot. Maybe I’ll even build up to entering the Tour of Bright if I can place in the rush for the start list.
In the meantime, the plan is to experience as much road racing as I can, in every format available. So here I am at the, er, ‘Tour of Warburton’, two days of open graded cycling. My worst-case scenario is that it’s a good, hard training weekend.
The day before the Donna Buang ITT I’d ridden the road race in C grade. I’d entered in D because E was unavailable. But due to insufficient numbers, D&C grades were amalgamated.
So when I turned up for the ITT on the Sunday I was thus thoroughly fatigued, having held on as long as I could in the road race, two grades up in chilly, wet conditions. And now I was suiting up for a time trial nature never intended me to enter.
So, come with me, if you will, to the morning of the Donna Buang ITT.
It’s my second ITT – I was at the Kew Boulevard ITT last month – so I have a fair idea of what to expect at the start. I register and collect my numbers with plenty of time to spare — I don’t want to stand in a long queue. There’s less than an hour to departure. I have been fretting all morning about what to wear – the area forecast says cold and foggy, and my experience of Donna Buang tells me to expect drizzle as well as a 10° temperature drop as we climb.
I assemble my bike and decide to include a rain jacket even at the risk of overheating. My wife gives me a supportive smooch and drives up to the summit to cheer me in.
It’s time for a warm-up. I have now seen some of the other participants. I am riding my recently restored titanium roadie with box-section alloy wheels. There are some in the same boat as me with a regular steed but quite a few are on mega-dollar aero dimpled deep-section Teflon superbikes.
They seem to be warming up on rollers and trainers, following a carefully planned sequence of efforts. I have read about this and devised my own highly sophisticated protocol to start my energy systems: I will head up the hill a bit.
It starts to rain.
Actually, this is welcome. The day before, at the road race, the drizzle and dirt and fog had stripped my chain of lubricant. Of course, I’d brought a bottle of Prolink and of course I’d grabbed the empty one by mistake. Rainwater isn’t a great lubricant but I know it is marginally better than none at all. The chain stops making a grinding noise and I stop worrying about premature wear and bad shifting. Even better, the rain has validated my decision to wear the jacket. I was not looking forward to de-cloaking mid-ride with heat trouble.
I trundle up Donna at a gentle pace, throwing in a couple of attacks to spike the heart rate. This is my first opportunity to stretch the legs after yesterday’s race. They don’t feel too bad. After 15 minutes of this I feel warmed up, turn around and roll down the hill.
Now the drizzle hits me hard in the face. I’m on the hoods and not pedaling at all but the windchill and rain is still enough to chill my bones straight away. By the time I’m down my warm-up is all but obliterated, I’m cold again and my nose is running.
I hang out in the clubroom. The registration team has taken off, presumably to the summit. Some stragglers are here, grabbing their numbers off the desk and wondering where the start line is. I run into some friendly faces — they are here as volunteers and we pass the time but they have a job to do so I just sit in the warm.
Three minutes to go. I head to the start line.
The atmosphere of a club TT is nothing like the jamboree of a big race. It’s not lonely, but it is much quieter, just the announcer and the bip-bip-bip of the launch timer. Our MC today, Carl, knows me and cracks a few quips about collecting lyrebirds on my coffee ride to the top.
This is actually the most nerve-wracking part of the event, the moment when the marshal holds your saddle and you clip in, balance and put a little tension on the chain. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with it. The fact that I’m listing at 30° starboard doesn’t help — I really don’t want to stack it right here.
Bip-bip-bip. ‘Go gettem’ whispers the marshal. I’m in the wrong gear and I zap forward with my legs doing 130rpm, whoosh! Two shifts and everything’s right and we’re over the bridge and on the hill — the familiar lower slopes of Mt. Donna Buang.
I check in with my body. It is the first of several conversations I will have with myself over the next 17km.
Josh: Hello legs, how’s it going?
Legs: You bastard.
Legs: We can’t believe you’d do this. We were racing yesterday! You were strong! It was bloody cold! Now we’re full of lead. Do we have to do this today?
Josh: Yes, you do. Keep turning.
I leave the legs for now, they are clearly needing a moment. I greet my cardiopulmonary system. I call it the ‘engine room’.
Josh: ‘Sup, yo, heart, lungs.
Engine room: Dude, how’s it hanging?
Josh: The legs are having a whinge, how are you going?
Engine room: We’re fine, man; we were wondering when you were going to start? Is the race on now? Are you warming up yet?
This is odd. This isn’t the usual way round for me – I’m used to running out of puff long before the legs pack up. Whether it’s the cold rain, or the race yesterday, or maybe I just got fitter, but it seems like today is going to be the opposite with the legs causing trouble.
I settle down and ride into a fogbank. I am looking at my Garmin. I don’t have a power meter and instantaneous speed is a poor indicator of climbing performance, so I have programmed it for 30-second VAM (vertical ascent in metres per hour) as a useful measure.
Today’s goal is to keep it over 800 as much as possible. For many of you this is a terrible figure, but for me it’s a target — something I’ve been working on since 2009 when my best VAM was, according to Strava, down in the 400s. So this is, y’know, better.
The VAM reads 850. That’ll do for now. I wonder if it is sustainable. ‘Hm’, I say to myself. To my surprise I get a reply from my right. ‘Hi’, says a lean chap who set off after me and is cruising by. I have been caught for the first time today. It won’t be the last.
Almost every minute someone else comes past. I don’t mind, I am used to this, and many supply encouraging remarks. Others offer only the whoomph-whoomph of carbon wheels disappearing into the mist.
Donna Buang is prettiest in the wet. Foggy conditions don’t do much for the view from the top but rainforest should be just that: rainy. It brings out the atmosphere and the sense of remoteness that a really good mountain needs. Donna Buang has both atmosphere and remoteness in spades. I take a moment to enjoy this.
The kilometres tick by. We approach the Cement Creek turning. I know it is coming because the gradient kicks up a little. I get on the phone to my body again.
Josh: Legs. Are you ready? It’s push time.
Legs: Screw you buddy.
Josh: Look, no, you really don’t have a choice here. That’s B grade passing us now. I’m not shifting to the hospital gear, I’m gonna stand now.
Legs: We’d like to see you try pal.
Josh: Ok. *stands*
Legs: Aieeeeeee …
Engine room: *yawns* Hey, are you pedaling yet?
I glance down. My heart rate is still under E3 — the maximum intensity I can manage before going anaerobic. My VAM has dropped a bit — I’m driving the legs but they won’t do much more than this; not today.
We reach the Cement Creek junction. I snort a gel and a drink. On a recreational ride of Donna this is where you back off, get your breath back, maybe even stop and shake out the legs. Today I give them five seconds while snacking before picking up the pace again. The second half of Donna is supposed to be easier. We’re on the second half. I shift to the 21.
Legs: HEY YOU.
Josh: Hey ya.
Legs: WHAT THE [EXPLETIVE REDACTED]?!
Josh: Harden up, princess. This isn’t the Beach Road fashion parade.
Legs: WE HATE YOU. HATE YOU HATE YOU HATE YOU.
I hang up. The conversation can no longer serve any useful purpose. I’m a little warmer, now, and I unzip the jacket. I hear a noise and look behind. Not one, but two from A grade are about to thunder past me like I’m standing still. I read numbers 1 & 3 on their backs. I give them a little ‘whoop!’ of encouragement. They are focused on their dueling and I doubt they notice me but it reminds me of why I’m here.
My VAM is down to the 700s. I ask the legs for a little more. They don’t reply. I am getting the silent treatment from my own body. Everything else is ticking over so I plod on. We reach the carpark — 3km to go. I am not feeling too bad.
I’ve got a rhythm and the time is looking good. The follow car is behind me. I know I am tail-end Charlie but I’m racing against myself and I’m sure there’ll be someone almost as slow as I am.
I go under the 1km-to-go banner. Only kidding, this isn’t the Giro d’Italia and Sean Kelly is not dryly admonishing my performance on Eurosport. But the road kicks up and I know we’re nearly home. The phone rings.
Josh: Hello, you’ve reached your head, can I help you?
Legs: Dude, we’re ready.
Josh: You’re what?
Legs: We said we’re ready. Warm-up over. Let’s hit it. Eat a gel, it’s showtime.
Engine room: Oh thank the heavens. About time.
The gradient rises. My cadence rises. The road kicks up again, I stand and grind away. It’s enough. I feel great. I wish I’d felt like this 16km back, but it doesn’t matter — we’re going to the summit with a good time and I’ve done it with uncooperative legs in rotten weather.
Around the final corner and oh, what a joyous sight! It is my beloved wife, standing on the verge wearing a safety vest and pointing a flag — she has volunteered, presumably out of sheer boredom from all the waiting. To me she looks like Christmas morning and is delightedly shouting my name … assuming my name is ‘GO LEFT DARLING NO LEFT LEFT’.
I am at the top, people are patting me on the back and my time is 1:27:23 — 5 minutes better than my previous best and 50, yes 50 minutes better than my first climb up Donna Buang back in 2009.
I take off my jacket and jersey. It is cold and refreshing at the summit and I towel down in the mist. A change of shirt and I am done. But the event is not over.
Back at the base there are presentations and applause for those podiating. The winning times are ridiculous — under 47 minutes. I cannot even imagine the effort required, let alone aspire to it. I exchange my numbers for my license and collect the sponsor showbag. My race is over. My name may not be celebrated today but with a new personal best I still feel like a winner.
I know my business with this mountain is not yet done.
Have you got a climbing story you’d like to share? You might have just climbed your first mountain. Or perhaps you’re enjoying a cycling holiday in the French Alps. Or maybe you’ve just discovered a magical climb close to home. Either way, we’re keen to hear from you. Send Matt an email with the details.