There’s no shortage of epic challenge rides to be found in the great state of Victoria. Bicycle Network Victoria’s 3 Peaks Challenge springs to mind, as does the Audax Alpine Classic, just to mention a few. But for the few cyclists who aren’t satisfied by riding 250km in a day with plenty of climbing, a greater challenge is required. Introducing Three Long Five High, a one-day challenge ride of epic proportions.
The ride was devised by Andy van Bergen and his Hells 500 crew and features 300km of riding, including five epic climbs: Tawonga Gap (both sides), Mt. Hotham, Mt. Buffalo and Falls Creek. Read Andy’s ride report below.
As I strained to see in the feeble light, tears streamed horizontally across my face. I caught a quick flash in my periphery before feeling a solid THUMP as a bird hit me squarely in the shoulder. What the hell were we thinking descending the inky blackness of Falls Creek with no more than commuting lights?
Knowing the road from previous rides did little to assist – only the faint glow from the road reflectors kept us from overshooting the corners. Eventually the first dusty-blue light tinged the sky, providing a backdrop for the towering ridgeline. With eyes now adjusted, the second half of the descent was a little easier.
With some relief we counted off our entire contingent of riders in Mt. Beauty. It was a sketchy, nervous start to the biggest ride any of the Hells 500 crew had contemplated – 300km with close to 6,000 vertical metres, all in one day.
We got to work on Tawonga. The pace was on, but nothing silly at the start of such a big ride. It felt great ticking the legs over, and there was plenty of chatter among the crew. A kilometre up the road our support crew saw a tree come down, but they were able to man-handle it out of the way before we got there.
Apart from that small incident, the climb was out of the way with little fuss. An hour into the ride, and our two premier hill climbers were just starting their descent of Falls. Their plan was to catch us before Bright later in the day.
Our riders cast long shadows down the road as the sun started to peak over the ridge. Legs felt loose, the crew was rolling in a perfect paceline, and the temperature was a very enjoyable 16 degrees. It was a fantastic start to the day.
It felt good to look down and see we had already knocked off 70km before Mt. Hotham – a sizable chunk of the day’s goal. We picked up Col – who had set off down the road in front of us – and the six of us started the long climb up to Hotham.
The chatter was up as we rolled through the dappled sunlight at the start of the Mt. Hotham climb. There was a spike in the heart rate coming through The Meg, but we soon settled back into a rhythm, regrouping for the false-flat and a couple of easy, bonus kilometres.
Before we knew it, we were already hitting the steep pinches, starting with CRB Hill. Still in sight of each other, we were spread along the road; no-one wanting to overcommit this early in the ride. Liam and Col were looking strong out the front, and our hard-man John was grinding away in his lowest gear – a standard crank and 25 tooth cog.
The deep, blue sky provided an incredible backdrop to some terrific views. Aside from the long climb snaking up the mountain, there was little other sign of habitation as far as the eye could see. Looking across toward Mt. Feathertop I could see a carpet of bright, yellow wildflowers contrasted against spindly gums bleached white – remnants of the big fires years ago.
We pulled into the cafe at Hotham, everyone testing their legs for signs of fatigue. We joked that the usual tweaks and twinges we associate with climbing all of a sudden become a source of potential concern a third of the way through an epic. Is this tightness in my hamstring going to be an issue later? Will this dull ache in my lower back come back to haunt me?
When it comes down to it, that’s part of the appeal of an endurance ride – it’s about working with the end goal in mind, and nursing your strength appropriately. We had just put down a quick coffee when our star-climbers Dan and Paddy rolled in. They had made up some great time on the Falls descent in the light, and thumped it up Hotham.
The two of them had worked together for the morning, until Paddy wisely sent Dan (the stronger rider) up the road for the final kilometres of the climb. He didn’t want to fall into the trap of hitting the final pinches harder than necessary. When you are riding with an A-grade hill climber it’s an important call to make.
With the whole crew together, we set off down the mountain. It was an incredible feeling – we’d already knocked out 100km, the legs were loose, and here we were whipping back down Hotham in a cool 22 degrees and blue skies, watching our mates tuck into the rolling corners.
Shortly after The Meg, Paddy caught up to a car which suddenly swerved to avoid a big wallaby lying on the road. With nowhere to go at 60km/h he grabbed the bars, clenched everything, and bunny-hopped it.
I came around the same corner and saw it in time, and frantically tried to figure out what the hand signal for ‘dead wallaby’ was so I could alert the support car behind me. Unfortunately my erratic waving didn’t prevent the inevitable.
The poor girls in the car were a bit shaken by the whole thing, so in Harrietville we did what any group of guys would do – we attempted to gross them out and make fun of their driving skills.
A quick head count confirmed we had our full contingent of seven riders, plus Evan who was feeling good and had decided to join us until Buffalo. Rolling turns back along the road to Bright was fantastic, with everyone making a contribution at the front.
We decided not to stop in Bright. The heat started to kick in properly for the first time as we started climbing out of Porepunkah. Clearly we were all keen to hit our rest stop at the Buffalo waterfall as the pace was on. With sweat pouring off we pulled in for a refuel.
I feel sorry for a poor couple that had found a romantic spot on the rocks by the creek, but who were quickly inundated by eight red-faced and salt-stained cyclists wallowing in the creek. We filled up, slapped on some sun protection, and grabbed nutrition for the road.
Each rider set off individually. By now we were 175km into the ride, the first tendrils of fatigue were wrapping around us, and we were facing the daunting prospect of grinding through a furnace for the following 20 clicks.
Sometimes we rode together, sometimes we held a wheel, sometimes there were some words of encouragement, but in general it was everyone’s own climb to deal with. Tyre tracks in the soft road and the popping of tar bubbles were our only companions. In sight of each other but strung-out down the road we eventually hit the plateau, and those last, easier kilometres into Dingo Dell.
The pre-planned route had us heading to the Chalet, but no one was going to be accused of shortening a climb, so pure, bloody-minded stubbornness saw us push on. One by one the riders came in. There were pained smiles but this really was it — we were well and truly over the halfway point, and essentially all we needed to do now was get home. Easy, right?
We looked to Evan, who had made it this far, despite having only signed on to support us in the opening stages of the ride. Surely he could be tempted to head back with us. With the best decision of the day, he agreed to press on.
It’s amazing how you can really hurt up a climb, only to stop for a minute, knock down a coke, and have a 180 degree turnaround on the descent. There were plenty of whoops as we flew back down the mountain.
Dan was in the drops focusing on the road ahead when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a large shadow tracking him. A quick glance and he was eyeballing a giant wedge-tailed eagle, obviously unimpressed with the intrusion on his territory.
Dan put his head down lower and dropped as fast as possible. He knew he could never outrun the eagle, and thankfully the territorial instincts of the bird subsided. Moments later, Paddy clipped a rock and blew out his rear tyre at speed. Skidding and weaving he was able to pull the bike up before shooting over the edge.
For those that have ridden the second section of Buffalo, you’ll know there’s not much to stop you sliding down the mountain should you come off. We pushed on as the support car swung in to assist what would turn out to be the only flat in a combined 2,400km of cycling.
The most experienced rider amongst us was about to have the rookie move of the day. Deciding at Dingo Dell that his thirst was worth two cans of coke, Dan had started to drink one only to find it wasn’t going down well, so he poured both cans into an empty bidon. 15km of course-chip-descent later his bidon exploded, covering him and his bike in sticky black liquid. Still 10km from town and with the temperature in the 30s, Dan would have to wait to clean up.
After a quick top-up in Bright, it wasn’t long before we were climbing back up to the Tawonga Gap. By this stage there was daylight between riders – we could generally see each other, but again it was a case of everyone just having to deal with their own mental and physical state. Things were starting to hurt. We were approaching the 250km mark, and without even having crested Tawonga, we still had to face the daunting prospect of the final climb up Falls Creek.
That sort of thing really works away at you, and when you are in a dark place, it’s your niggling companion. A mid-climb waterstop was essential in the heat, but we were keen to keep moving so the break was over all too quick. The last two kilometres went on forever, each corner revealing yet another banking corner, but eventually we saw the Tawonga Gap and we rolled in to the cheers of the support crew.
With the clockwork efficiency of a Formula One pit crew, our meticulously organised support of Tony, Judy, Nic and Tam provided a significant refuel, fresh fruit, and the incredible luxury of a change of kit.
They soon had us back on our way, heading down the broken descent into Mt Beauty. The roadworks did nothing for fried brains having to bunny-hop gravel ditches at speed. But we were through it quick enough, and we soon regrouped for the final push up Falls Creek.
Dan and Col were up the road as the six of us rolled through the roundabout at Mt. Beauty. The kangaroos at the golf course were there to greet us as the first gentle sections of the climb commenced.
Usually I’ll enviously eye off the snaking single track that winds along the road from the mountain bike park, but this time the focus was on not dropping a wheel. Sitting at the back of the pack, I fought once or twice not to fall off the back. As soon as you are mentally broken your speed can drop in seconds, so it was important to keep in contact.
Rather than have the pace dictated, I jumped on the front. I started to feel better and I noticed a tiny gap developing. I thought it might be nice to have a buffer to fall back on later as the suffering would no doubt intensify. Slotting it into the big chain-ring I pushed down each mini descent, knowing the others would just be rolling.
I came into Bogong for the quickest of refuels and to pick up my lights for the final ascent. Col had been patiently waiting for the crew to arrive only to find Paddy and I shooting straight off again (sorry Col). For the next 10km Paddy would be my carrot, dangling 100m up the road.
They say that a sign of breaking is a rider constantly checking over their shoulder, and I had been doing nothing but that since Bogong. Suddenly, far down the road, I could make out a rider in black who had obviously just seen me too. It was on. How long could I hold off?
The fear must have given me a little boost, because I was now within 50m of Paddy and closing. We rounded a corner to the cheers from Paddy’s wife and two sons. Cowbells were ringing, running high-fives were dished out, and colourful chalk writing on the road spelled ‘Go Daddy’ in lemonade-stand letters.
I didn’t see Paddy again – his spirits were soaring. I suddenly felt a strong push in my back. ‘Come on Andy, grab my wheel, we’re so close! Push it! Push it!’. It was Mike, and he was flying. My speed instantly dropped, and with that I was broken, and would be left in my own little world of pain for the remainder of the ride.
The last 4km from the gatehouse seemed to take forever, and by this stage everything was hurting. There was no comfortable sitting position – my back, neck and shoulders hurt; even strange places like toes and fingers were sore. But despite the pain, we were still crawling toward our destination, lit up and visible in the distance.
Pushing through the village we were surprised by the welcome – 15 people screaming, shouting, waving, and clapping us on. We had known all day that we would arrive slightly short of our 300km goal, but that didn’t stop the pain of disappointment when we had to keep riding past the rousing reception, and on to the lake for the final junk miles.
The Garmin numbers were all that mattered at this stage. The climbing was over – we just needed to tick off 8km along the flat road. Adrenaline was pumping as the last gold and pink rays of sunlight bounced off the water. Sucking in the deep breaths, this was for the soul. One by one, as the riders rolled in, we all had a laugh to see that no-one had left anything to chance – we all finished on 301km.
The biggest cheer was for the day’s hero, Evan, who had set out to provide moral support as far as possible, and ended up finishing the whole 300km with us. It’s not often you finish a ride with more riders than you start with.
Trading stories over breakfast the next morning with the rain falling outside it was difficult to recall with accuracy the depths of pain and suffering that we had just been through, other than to apply a general ‘yeah, I was really hurting’.
But the things that do and will stick are riding the Hotham skyline in extraordinary conditions, rolling easy turns on the way into Bright with a tight crew of mates, and the buzz of tearing down the Buffalo descent.
Memory is selective, and I can live with that.
John and Andy would like to welcome Liam, Mike, Dan, Col, Evan, John, and Paddy to the Hells 500 crew. Hells 500 is all about photography, mates, and adventure. To keep in touch with the crew and find out about upcoming rides, visit www.facebook.com/hells500.
Images courtesy of Andy and Tammy van Bergen.