It’s not often that recreational cyclists get the opportunity to mix with the best cyclists in the world. But just a few weeks ago, Brendan Edwards had one of those opportunities, taking part in the River & Ranges Winery Ride in central Victoria with riders from Orica-GreenEDGE. This is Brendan’s account of that ride.
I was recently sent an invitation to ride in the inaugural River & Ranges Winery Ride — a recreational ride put together by Gerry Ryan and the GreenEDGE team in Nagambie, 90 minutes north of Melbourne. The event offered a choice of a flat 60km ride or a 150km ride which boasted a Category 2 climb in the Strathbogie Ranges.
For only $120 I had the chance to ride next to some of the best riders in the world so I got online and joined the 150km ride, looking forward to the opportunity to ride alongside the likes of Simon Gerrans, Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwan, Cameron Meyer and more.
When my 4:00am alarm went off it felt as if I had hardly slept, but any die-hard cyclist has to be prepared to lose a bit of sleep every now and again. I quickly got ready and donned the fake GreenEDGE outfit I had purchased online from China earlier this year. With the sun rising I grabbed my two frozen water bottles and set off — I had a 2-hour drive ahead of me to Nagambie.
I arrived in town a good half hour early and I was glad I did — there was a very long line for registration. Eventually I headed out with the first group of 50 riders, which were led by four of the GreenEDGE team including Simon Gerrans.
Even at the start of the event, the weather was warming up and we headed south into a cross-headwind which hit us from right to left. The GreenEDGE boys were pushing at around 30km/h, and with the winds I was already struggling. My scrawny 63kg frame is great for getting up climbs, but aim a gust of wind at me and I blow away.
Although I was suffering, I was still enjoying the beautiful scenery which surrounded us. At the 10km mark we passed the beautiful Goulburn River (see image below) and I breathed a sigh of relief as we turned left onto the Goulburn Highway, out of the wind, and headed east towards Seymour. Unfortunately the GreenEDGE boys left us a few clicks down the road which was a bit disappointing. But it was also a bit of a relief as I wasn’t sure how long I would last with them setting the pace!
Travelling from Seymour to Yea it was a little downhill and we were able to average around 40km/h while I sat back in the peloton and caught my breath. With our police escort, the peleton was able to take up the entire lane on the Goulburn Highway, and it was an amazing to be able to forget about crazy drivers for a while. Almost.
At one point a Commodore driver overtook the peleton over double-white lines into a blind corner. A 4WD came around the corner ahead and the Commodore narrowly avoided a head-on collision. I could imagine the Commodore driver cursing us riders for the near-accident, and I would love to have seen the look on his face when he saw the police cruiser leading us out. Hopefully he will be more respectful of cyclists and road laws in the future.
I enjoy the social side of recreational rides but most of the riders I tried to talk with on this particular ride were either pushing hard or were pretty snobbish and there wasn’t much talk. I sat back and enjoyed the beauty of the Strathbogie Ranges as I let the peleton drag me along.
With the only climb of the day fast approaching, it was already over 30°C and things were really warming up. Our group had been joined by a second group of around 40 riders. This other bunch had a number of really strong riders who worked their way to the front and lifted the pace somewhat.
We hit the main climb of the day — the Ghin Ghin to Highlands climb — and the whole peleton slowed to about 18km/h. I was determined not to get stuck in traffic trying to fight my way up the climb so when I saw the base of the climb I overtook around 30 riders to be in the top three up the first steep section.
I lasted about 300 metres before I got dropped.
I went into the hurt locker for the first time in the day and slowed right down to catch my breath, and was forced to pace myself up the rest of the climb. But my legs were feeling great and I could have really nailed the climb if I had been smarter, but I still managed to end up being around the 15th.
It was a great climb, over 7km long with plenty of twists and undulations. The 6% average gradient was very deceptive, as there were three sections which tipped 10%, and the climb peaked at 15% at one stage.
I found it difficult to read the changes in gradient at times, and I was riding in the red zone most of the way. The heat certainly didn’t help and shade was non-existent.
Thankfully there was a forced rest stop 1km down the road, where I threw a bottle of water over my head. One guy came up and thanked me for the lift up the climb, and I was surprised that I had had someone sitting on my wheel without realising it.
The rest stop featured a smorgasboard of fruit, sandwiches and energy bars but I didn’t feel like eating due to the heat. I just grabbed a single banana. We were forced to wait 50 minutes until being allowed to leave, as there was a delay in sealing off a large section of downhill road after the rest stop.
According to the profile (see above), the next 20km were mainly downhill, and it seemed to be a poor decision to let hundreds of riders hit a steep descent at the same time. My concerns were unfounded as all of the riders I saw were very respectful and most took it easy on the descent. I found it fun to cruise in a big group at speeds between 50 and 65km/h.
As the descent continued the stronger riders worked their way to the front and small alliances formed. We had the entire road to fly down and this was one of my favourite sections of the ride … until I hit a pothole.
Thankfully my tires didn’t puncture, but one of my drink bottles did fly out. Given it was now over 35ºC I couldn’t really continue with only one bottle of water. I stopped and went back for the bottle, and it was disappointing to see group after group fly by me when I had been feeling so strong.
I tried to latch onto each group that passed me but I simply didn’t have the strength to do so. At least 40 riders passed me in this section and when the ride flattened, I was left to ride on my own. It was a small consolation that this part of the course was probably the most scenic of the day.
Still, with 50km to go I wasn’t too keen on having to ride all the way back on my own. With only my thoughts for company I ploughed on and set a steady tempo.
A car soon passed me, and one of the course photographers leaned out of the window to take some snaps of me. I smiled for the camera and wondered what I looked like, feeling as if I had a long, long ride ahead of me. I heard the sound of bike wheels approaching me from behind, and my loneliness evaporated as I looked over my shoulder and saw the entire GreenEDGE team riding towards me.
I recognised Stuart O’Grady, Michael Matthews, Travis Meyer and Simon Gerrans among the group as the 12 pros overtook me. Amazingly there was enough room behind Simon Gerrans for me to slip in. I went from struggling to being pulled along at 32km/h — you couldn’t get the grin off my face.
It was amazing watching the GreenEDGE boys ride. They seemed so fluid and rode effortlessly, casually chatting among themselves. I rode for about 20km in the GreenEDGE train, and it was a mind-blowing experience. As we continued down the road, we overtook many other riders who slotted into our group, and as we continued I was pushed further and further down the peleton. I started to struggle as we picked up speed and I was eventually dropped off the back doing around 40km/h up a slight hill — nothing to be ashamed of there!
I caught up to the GreenEDGE team at the next drink stop and asked one of the riders — it might have been one of the Meyers — ‘Are you guys actually struggling?’ He looked at me with a wry grin and said ‘We’re actually doing worse than what you think. We’re just really good at hiding it!’.
The boys got back on their bikes and headed off. I was in no fit state to resume getting tortured by them so with 30km to go I resigned myself to the fact I’d be riding alone to the finish. But I was fortunate enough to ride the remainder of the day with a guy named Chris that I had met at the Ballan Cyling Classic the previous week. He’s a powerhouse of a rider and he was using the River & Ranges Winery Ride as a stepping stone towards next year’s 3 Peaks Challenge.
Chris and I were both exhausted and we took it in turns to help each other out. We soon turned left onto a tiny country road and were instantly hit with a hot headwind. There were trees to shade the road, which was a blessing, but the open farmyards to either side of the road offered no protection from the wind. We ploughed on and I was trying to constantly get water into my system to avoid dehydration.
All of a sudden I started to get blurry vision … and then I blacked out for a fraction of a second. I slowed right down and my first instinct was to drink … but then I remembered I’d just been drinking. I realised that in 140km of riding I’d only eaten a single banana. I quickly ate a melted Milo bar which made me feel a bit queasy but, eventually, better.
Over the next 6km I ate everything I could, all the while spending plenty of time in the hurt locker. Heat stroke is far from pleasant and, looking back now, I can’t believe I kept on riding.
All I can remember of this last section was staring hard at my front wheel and just grinding away. It felt like I was riding up a mountain, not a flat stretch of road. We asked one of the marshals how long it was until the end of the ride and he told us 6km. But after six pain-filled kilometres passed the end was nowhere in site, and we were cursing the marshall. Turns out he was actually 11km from finish line.
I don’t know how we managed to get through those last 11km, but the immense sense of pride as we crossed the finish line made it all worth the effort.
After the ride, I was able to get photos with a number of riders including Luke Durbridge, Stuart O’Grady, Michael Hepburn and Robbie McEwan. I was able to have a quick chat with Robbie and talk with him about his inaugural bike event up in Queensland which he’d held the week before.
As I was chatting to Robbie, an old guy walked up to us with a texta and a GreenEDGE top he had just bought. He asked ‘Are you guys part of the GreenEDGE team? Can I please have your autograph?’ It was hard not to laugh.
It was an incredibly hot day and the pace seemed quick throughout. Even after riding the last 20km at a snail’s pace I still managed to average more than 32km/h for the 150km course which I was very, very happy with.
We all have our own motivations and reasons for signing up for the events we do. I entered this event hoping to ride alongside some of Australia’s cycling legends and I managed to achieve that goal. I don’t know if this event has made me a better rider, but of the events I have ridden over the past two years this was one of the most special.
I know that if I work hard and train well, a year from now I could return a better rider. Who knows, I might even be able to ride hard enough to see one of the GreenEDGE boys break a sweat.
The Strava file for Brendan’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.