Over the last few weeks we’ve heard about the 130km and 140km versions of the 2011 Audax Alpine Classic. In this expansive but beautifully written guest post, David Sutherland recalls the difficulties he faced during the gruelling 200km version of the event.
A short way into the climb up Mt. Buffalo I gave up and decided to turn back. The heat here was stifling and after 140 kilometres or so of riding I had lost a lot of my energy and enthusiasm for the ride. It wasn’t as though I had ‘hit the wall’. Rather, it seemed that my preparation for the ride wasn’t good enough and I simply didn’t have enough endurance. I didn’t immediately turn around; I vaguely recognised where I was from driving here many years ago in winter, and reckoned that I wasn’t far from Eurobin Falls. Given that I had ridden this far, I decided to go around the next few curves and enjoy the cool of the cascades.
Greeting me as I rounded the last curve before the Falls was a water stop with highly enthusiastic volunteers. ‘Welcome – have some water!’ came the cry. ‘Would you like to have a seat?’. ‘Thanks very much’, I replied, ‘but I’ll have a drink, and then turn back. I’ve had enough.’ ‘No, don’t turn back – just take it slowly. Stop every kilometre if you have to, but keep going! There’s plenty of time!’
I sat there, doused myself with water, and enjoyed watching cyclists ride into the stop and the enthusiastic reception for every one of them. I asked myself how I could turn back to Bright when these people were so supportive? Instead of descending I climbed back onto my bike to continue the climb. ‘Well done!’, came the cry, ‘wave to us on your way back down!’
Much earlier that day my alarm had been set for 5.00am, but had proved unnecessary thanks to some noisy neighbours. I had assembled my breakfast in the harsh light of our motel room, knocked on the door of the unit next to ours to share our milk with its occupants as agreed the night before, and started preparing for the ride. Just how much should I be eating before the ride started? Should I be hydrating in earnest, or would that just inconvenience me by making me need the conveniences? How much supplementary food should I be taking with me? I didn’t know the answers to these questions because this would be my first Audax event. And first 200km ride for that matter.
I packed the bike in the car together with all the cycling clothing, tools and accessories that I could conceivably need; I would choose what to wear and carry when I arrived in Bright. Farewelling my companions until we met again in at the start, I drove from Harrietville to Bright, the drive punctuated by cyclists riding towards the start. As I got closer to Bright cyclists became far more numerous until, as I crawled down the slight hill towards the start, the place was abuzz with them.
I parked the car in a side street and started to work out what I should take with me and what I should leave. Supplementary food? Definitely. Raincoat? There had been predictions of showers, but decided that my light spray jacket would be enough – no need for the heavier rain jacket. I took the thermal gloves just in case, as they are light and compact, and I also packed my long tights and thermal top just in case. I added an extra spare tube to the two I always carry in my saddle bag, checked that the allen keys were there, put on my vest and I was ready to start.
I rolled down the hill to Howitt Park and could see that the very large group starting at 6.20 was building up – that start would be very soon. When I had entered the event I had chosen the 6.40 start because I had thought that the earlier time might be for faster riders. However I found myself wishing that I had chosen the earlier start time to get twenty minutes less of the heat of the day. The crowd on the road cleared to allow the second group of ACE250 riders through – we all cheered them as exhorted over the PA by the start commentator, and shortly after that the 6.20 AAC200 riders started. Being a very large group, it took several minutes for them to clear the start line. It was now my turn to line up at the start.
The wait gave me time to mull over my preparation for the ride. On the presumption that the best way to prepare for a long ride is to ride long rides I had clearly failed in that preparation. Most of my riding consists of 30 kilometres or so in the morning with the Maling Room Riders, a group who follow a route throughout the eastern suburbs of Melbourne most mornings. While an excellent ride, with about 350 metres of climbing, it could not be described as long. Often on a Sunday morning I will ride out to the Dandenongs and enjoy rides of 70 to 90 kilometres, including such noteable hills as The 1:20 and The Wall. However, to find the time required to undertake rides approaching the length of the AAC200 was difficult for me. The previous weekend, nevertheless, I had managed to get out to Mt. Donna Buang late in the afternoon and ride that long hill in temperatures that would approach those of the AAC. From that I had reassured myself that as long as I rode, drank and ate sensibly I should be able to complete the ride.
‘Bonjour my friend, ‘ow are you this morning?’, asked the buxom wench after winding her way through the gathering riders to me. ‘You are looking relaxed, non?’ Further away was the gendarme insulting riders through his loud hailer – the start must be getting closer. Riders moved nervously forward, compressing the numbers near the line. I realised that despite all my care back at the car, I had stupidly left my cycling glasses there. That could be simply fixed: after the start I would leave the route, ride to the car, and get them. However doing that would mean I would lose the assist of the peloton in riding to the base of Tawonga Gap. Perhaps it would be better to stay with the group and pick my glasses up when passing through Bright again? But that would mean three fast descents without glasses.
We started, and almost immediately I turned right to go to my car. I didn’t take more than a couple of minutes, but by the time I had returned to the highway, the group had disappeared from sight. Riding at an easy pace I headed after them. Another cyclist passed me, clearly in a hurry to catch up to the bunch, and so I tucked in behind him. Soon we started to see groups of cyclists. Passing those in the rear, springing off each group, and taking turns to lead, we arrived at what seemed to be the middle of the groups. At that point I sat at the rear of some cyclists who were going at a pace I felt comfortable with.
The heat had lessened on Mt. Buffalo since leaving Eurobin Falls, but the tiredness in my legs had not. I had taken the advice of the volunteer back at the Falls literally, stopping every kilometre. At the pace I was riding it was taking me between six and eight minutes per kilometre which seems like a short time between stops, but to me it was interminable. At this stage the stops weren’t long – find some shade, stand for a minute or two, and then resume riding – and they were helping me structure my climbing.
I found myself wishing I was doing this ride fresh. As a cycling environment Mt. Buffalo is magnificent. The road constantly curves its way up and up, between trees and rocks. Views to the valley below become more and more pronounced. The road winds up to the face of the rock face and then works its way up to ridges. Unfortunately my primary focus seemed to be my front wheel, and I kept having to remind myself to look around and take in my surroundings.
The ascent became reduced to repetitions of ride – stop – ride – stop. At one point I rounded a bend to find a small grassy meadow in the shade adorned with a large log to lie against. Soon after another rider came around the corner, saw me there, proclaimed ‘not a bad idea…’, and lay down on the grass. A third cyclist joined us and the three of us lay there. Insects vibrated in the hot air, the surrounding forest murmured, the grass grew up around us, seasons passed, civilisations grew and collapsed. Eventually I stirred, looked around and said to the others ‘If we don’t move we never will!’ With that the three of us picked up our bikes and recommenced the climb.
The climb up Tawonga Gap on the way from Bright to Mt. Beauty had been very enjoyable. The air was cool, the gradient fair, the legs fresh and the company of other cyclists appreciated. I kept going past the water stop at the top as I still had plenty with me, and swept downhill. Travelling down at a fast but safe pace I was nevertheless at times rocking in the wake of someone who, clearly knowing the road well, sped past me at what must have been almost twice my speed. I brushed my hair, adjusted my clothes and displayed my better profile as I passed the photo point, and quickly arrived at the bottom of the hill.
At Mt. Beauty a quick water and food stop was on the menu and then I started up the Falls Creek road. After the initial climbing the undulations commenced, the road curving and swooping and the bicycle responding. Passing the deep chill of Lake Guy I remembered the autumn loveliness of a stay at the Bogong Village there many years ago. I flew across the curved bridge over the boulder-strewn Pretty Valley Creek and up to the hairpin bend which announces that the Howmans Gap village is not far ahead.
I rode through the alpine village entry structure with its sign welcoming the AAC riders, excitedly telling us that there was not far to go and exhorting us to keep riding. Far ahead and seemingly far far above could be seen the Falls Creek control – but it didn’t take all that long to arrive there. Cyclists littered the road and packed the deck of the day centre. I put the bike into the rack and relaxed for a few minutes. I tried the famed rice cream – and actually enjoyed it – tucked into the assorted foods arrayed for our pleasure, filled up with water again and then I was back to the bike to enjoy the long downhill.
Finding a pace that was enjoyable for both its pace and safety, and sweeping left, right, left in a continuous ribbon of motion I kept pace with some good downhill riders, but eventually let them go ahead when we encountered a vehicle. I was overtaken by a strong cyclist with a flamboyant beard who yelled to me as he passed by ‘You have too much wind resistance – you need to shave your beard off!’ I slowed down and spun up the undulations to save energy and eventually rounded a bend to see the Kiewa Valley stretched out in front of me, Mt. Beauty below and Tawonga Gap in the distance. Feeling the air change from the blustery cold of Falls Creek to the heat of the valley I paced myself up the long incline to the start of the Tawonga Gap Road, and then settled in to climb to the summit.
I had read how the Tawonga Gap return is much harder than the outbound journey because of the heat of the sun, and now I was experiencing it. ‘It’s just like 1:20, only slightly steeper’, I told myself, ‘you do this all the time.’ Onwards and upwards, past the lookout and up to the top. Again no need to stop as Bright was essentially downhill from here, and I still had water and food with me. I plunged down the other side, rushing through the cooler air, the forest sweeping past in my peripheral vision, the road a blur. I made sure to be careful of the bleeding bitumen on the bends and after a couple of gentle rises I found myself at Germantown crossing the Ovens River and on to the short stretch back to Bright.
Lunch at Bright was a relaxed affair, lying on grass in the twilight shade of a magnificent oak. The feast provided was highly appreciated, mixing rolls with cakes, tarts and fruit. As well as enjoying this environment, however, I also had a decision to make – I had entered the 200 ride because I really wanted to ride it, but it also gave me the opportunity to withdraw at Bright if I needed to. Did I want to withdraw? The answer was an emphatic ‘no’, but did I have the strength and endurance to keep going? I had ridden all of the uphills until the Tawonga Gap return in my second-lowest gear on the basis that I would save the lowest gear for the second Tawonga Gap and Buffalo. I wondered now if that had been a significant mistake; should I have dropped straight down to lowest gear on those hills and taken it a bit easier?
Soon after leaving the grassy meadow on Mt. Buffalo I rounded a bend and found the Waterland water stop right in front of me. The first sign of that was a bee urinating in the bushes at the side of the road and shouting encouragement to me. Further up the road were fairies waving wands of water spray. A human told me as I rode past him that there was only eight kilometres to the summit, and twelve to Dingo Dell. ‘Only one more 1:20’ I reassured myself, clearly having lost any other way of assimilating information. It took me a little while to realise that at my current pace that it would be at least another hour to the summit – significantly more than twice the time it would take me to ride that Dandenongs hill.
The bees and fairies, who resolved themselves into humans with wings, chivvied, cajoled, enthused and reassured the assorted cyclists who arrived at this oasis depleted and tired. Water became the elixir of life and was generously dispensed.
Leaving reluctantly I mustered my waning strength for the remaining climb. Ride. Stop. Ride. Stop. I stopped at the roadwork traffic lights near the summit and remarked to others around me ‘at last a stop I don’t need to feel guilty about!’ The assenting nods were a display of companionship. Ride. Stop. Ride. Stop. The saddle at the top of this climb was clearly getting nearer and nearer. Am I there yet? Another hairpin. Am I there yet? There’s one last corner to round before the summit and I am in my climbing rictus, studying the front wheel intently. From nowhere a shouted expletive erupts just in front of me as a rider whips past my front wheel missing it by millimetres and plunges off the side of the road into bushes and fallen logs. Foliage whips, dust rises, frightened birds fly into the air and I stand there stunned into immobility. Slowly the rider pushes backwards, both he and his bike appear to be untouched. ‘Sorry about that’, he says, ‘missed the corner.’
I am too eager to keep going to be angry. Another hundred metres and I was over the summit and descending to the snow plains. While I knew there was another section of climbing ahead, for the first time in hours I wasn’t climbing and it was wonderful. At the far end of the plains I started the last couple of kilometres of climbing. The eagerness to reach Dingo Dell overcame the inclination to keep stopping, and so it was a continuous ride that at last brought me to the carparks and the trail which led to the last stop before Bright.
Five star catering awaited me at Dingo Dell: cakes, real coffee, the famous icy poles. I sat looking out at the snow meadows, quietly proud of myself for getting to the top, while at the same time wondering why, why, why did I do it? Symbolic of the respect with which riders are treated by Audax and its volunteers, my glasses were washed and dried for me before I climbed back on the bike and headed back down the mountain.
And then a wondrous thing happened. I entered a most exhilarating 20 kilometres of cycling. After stopping at the traffic lights on the way down three of us set out in front of the others, travelling in formation at similar speeds. Braking then banking for the succession of corners, accelerating between bends, the wheels thrumming on the bitumen, our legs alternatively spinning then coasting. Aero position. Sit up. Brake. Lean into the corner. Aero. Sit up. Brake lean into the corner. Wind grabbing at my hair. Wind vest drumming. Adrenalin coursing. The bike pivoting. Left. Right. Left. Right. Past the Waterland stop, my shouted thanks trailing in my wake. Speed past the Eurobin stop waving wildly as promised and down through the entry station. Sit up. Stretch.
As I reached the bottom of the hill my world expanded from one of tight focus on the road ahead to one where other people existed once again. I found myself, surprisingly, sharing the road with other cyclists and we rode as a group back to Bright, legs enthusiastic despite their tiredness, our bikes seemingly eager to find the finish.
A volunteer on the corner waved me left, I turn left. Another waves me right, I turn right. Into Howitt Park, down the path, through the gate, stop. A volunteer snips the timing chip off the bike. ‘Which ride?’, she asks. ‘The 200.’ ‘Well done’, she says and I walk off and lay down, happy.
If you’ve taken part in a great event recently that featured plenty of climbing, we want to hear about it! Send your story to Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org to have it published on the site.