There are some days when cycling feels easy. When every pedal stroke feels effortless, when climbing is joyfully painfree and when the kilometres seem to fly by. And then there are days when everything feels harder than it should, when you’re labouring on the climbs and when you’re counting down the kilometres to the end.
For a number of reasons, Sunday was one of the latter. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself — I did — but the ride felt a lot harder than it could or should have.
My partner Sharon and her immediate family were heading up to Ballarat for a day at Sovereign Hill and in town more generally. I’d toyed with the idea of coming up with them and doing a ride in and around Ballarat but due to time concerns I decided to ride there instead.
I planned out a route the night before, drawing on suggestions made by Dirty Dozen mastermind David Blom and with a clear intention of avoiding main roads as much as possible. The route was a rather convoluted one with lots of unfamiliar roads so I uploaded the course to my Garmin so I’d have a turn-by-turn guide as I went.
I left home at about 7am and made my way through Melbourne’s inner north and inner northwest, heading past the airport and out towards Melton. I was expecting the roads to be fairly busy around Tullamarine but, given it was about 8am on a Sunday, there was very little traffic to speak of. Come to think of it, there were probably more bikes than cars on the road.
The section from Keilor to Plumpton along the Melton Highway was one of the busiest sections of the day and among the most boring. In those 18km the road deviates from a straight line only a handful of times and with only a couple of brief non-flat sections too, it was hard not to be slightly bored.
Strangely, I was looking forward to being beyond Melbourne’s urban sprawl even though that would mean even longer, flatter sections. Perhaps the promise of having farmland to look at was appealing compared with endless housing developments.
Heading west (as I would be doing for much of the day) there was a slight but definitely noticeable headwind which made things harder than I would have liked. So when I turned left at Plumpton and headed south it was a relief. Not just because I was now riding with a cross-tailwind, but because the scenery was starting to become more rural.
Looking at the course map you might well wonder why I was heading south in the first place. After all, I could have continued west on the Melton Highway which would have taken me toward Ballarat more directly … even if I avoided the Western Freeway.
I was heading south to eventually hook up with Glenmore Road, a road which might sound familiar to some of you. Near its western edge, Glenmore Road is home to the main climb in the Hell of the West Northern Combine race — a climb that demands to be respected. Sure, it’s only 1km long but at an average gradient of 13.5% (with several ramps steeper than that) it really does hurt.
It was the second time I’d attempted the climb, the first being during a Brisbane Ranges ride with eQuipo tranQuilo teammates Marcus, Fletch and Dougie a few months earlier. I knew the climb would be tough, but I was really looking forward to it. If nothing else, it would break up the monotony of the mostly straight, mostly flats roads I’d been riding so far.
But even knowing how hard is was going to be, I was still surprised when I hit the first ramp and found myself searching for extra gears. Before long my heart felt like it was thumping out of my chest, I was grinding away in slow motion and I was moving upward at what felt like glacial pace. I definitely didn’t feel as strong on the climb as I had done the first time around and it would turn out I was roughly 30 seconds behind my previous attempt — roughly 9% slower. It felt a lot worse than that.
After Glenmore Road it was out onto the Geelong-Ballan Road to head north towards Ballan. This section of the ride was particularly grindy, not least because I was now riding into a headwind proper, the road surface was rubbish and, as I found out later, that whole section is on a slightly uphill grade.
Add to that the fact sitting down had become uncomfortable.
A few months ago — around the time of my first Glenmore Road ride actually — I started to suffer from numbness during longer rides, prompting me to purchase a cutout saddle — a Specialized Romin. The saddle was harder than I was used to but I figured it would soften or my undercarriage would get used to it … but neither of those happened.
A month or so back the Donvale Demon generously lent me his Prologo Kappa PAS saddle to test out. It’s considerably softer than the Romin and after a few rides I was sold — I’d decided to buy my own Kappa PAS. But just recently, I’ve started to notice the numbness creeping back in on longer rides.
Sure, it’s got a cutout section to ease pressure on the pudendal nerve but it mustn’t be the right shape or size as I’m still getting numb. I might need a new set of knicks as well.
Either way, on Sunday’s ride the numbness started after around 50km and never really let up. I was in and out of the saddle frequently, making it really hard to find any kind of rhythm and to get comfortable on the bike. Very frustrating.
The Ballan-Egerton Road was one of the most scenic parts of the entire ride and with a couple of climbs and descents in the 30km to Buninyong it made the riding considerably more interesting. No less uncomfortable, but more interesting.
I got to Buninyong with 125km on the clock and without having had a break. While the section after the Geelong-Ballan Road had been interesting, it had left me rather tired.
I had planned to take in a lap of the Australian nationals road race course in Buninyong but with time running out before I had to meet Sharon and family, the lap would have to wait until next time. Instead I headed straight for the several-kilometre climb of Mt. Buninyong.
The moment I started climbing I knew I was in for a slow, painful grind to the top. It’s not that it’s a particularly tough climb — there are a couple of pinches approaching 10% but that’s about it — but I was fatigued, I’d run out of water about half an hour earlier and I was starting to notice the effects of dehydration.
I don’t want to come across as being too negative because, really, there were some great moments in the ride. Despite climbing slower and less comfortably than I have in a long time, the Mt. Buninyong ascent was still a lot of fun. Once you get into the final section of the climb — when the road splits into two, one-way lanes that circle the extinct volcano — the views are terrific and it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.
Reaching the top of the climb I saw there was a toilet block with, thankfully, a tap out front. With an ever-growing headache due to the dehydration I made my way over to the tap, flicked it on and … nothing. Not a drop.
It certainly wasn’t ideal. On the plus side, I didn’t have far to go to Buninyong where there would doubtless be some drinkable liquid I could purchase. Even better, it was mostly downhill into town.
But before I did that, there was something I had to do.
At the summit of Mt. Buninyong is a tall lookout tower with great views over the surrounding area. Holding onto the handrails on both sides of the stairs, I dragged myself up to the top, trying to convince myself I was so knackered because of the dehydration.
As expected, the views from the tower were spectacular and I grabbed a couple of snaps before descending carefully, lest my cleated shoes betray me and send me bouncing down the stairs.
I stopped several times on the way down Mt. Buninyong to grab some more photos and after that it was into the final 10-15km to Ballarat. After descending the mountain I realised I could probably push through to Ballarat without water and so I did just that. I arrived in town feeling pretty ordinary, in desperate need of some hydration, but also quite satisfied.
I’d managed a touch under 150km on dead roads with a headwind for large portions of the ride, taking in two challenging but enjoyable climbs along the way. Sure, I’d felt sluggish all day long and the climbs were harder than they should or could have been, but that’s the way it goes sometimes I guess.
As Nick Orloff commented on Facebook:
Sometimes you deliver the pain, sometimes you take delivery of it. That’s cycling.
I met up with Sharon and her family in town and after grabbing something to eat and plenty to drink we got on the road and headed back to Melbourne.
And speaking of heading back to Melbourne, a big shout-out to my Team eQuipo tranQuilo teammates Fletch and Dougie who are in the final day of their epic ride from Sydney to Melbourne. If they get through the final 230km stage (which I’m sure they will), they will have ridden from Sydney to Melbourne, along the coast, in an incredible five days.
I’m super jealous and really wish I could be with them.
And a couple of quick announcements before I wrap up. Don’t forget to check out the 7 Peaks Domestique Series I’m running with Andy van Bergen from the Hells 500 cycling collective. It’s simple — come along to our free rides and we’ll help you conquer Victoria’s 7 Alpine peaks. The next ride in the series is the epic Mt. Baw Baw on November 25. Details can be found here and here.
And if you like long, hard days in the saddle, be sure to check out the Demon’s Double this Saturday. It’s sure to be a challenging but satisfying day out.
And finally, don’t forget The Climbing Cyclist experience isn’t limited to just this site — we’re on Facebook and Twitter as well. You can also sign up to the email newsletter and follow me (Matt) on Strava if you like.
Until next time, thanks for reading and stay safe on the roads!
The Strava file from my Melbourne-Ballarat ride can be found here. Click on the images below to see larger versions in the ‘lightbox’.