The Crucifix group ride: riding together, suffering alone

Ride: The Crucifix (from and to Thornbury)
Distance: 148km
Duration: 6 hours 20 minutes

Having a much-earned rest after finishing the last climb of the day.
The guys having a much-earned rest after finishing the last climb of the day.

There’s a peculiar paradox at the very heart of climbing. Cycling uphill for any length of time is challenging and more often than not, painful. Yet, at the same time, there’s something so intrinsically satisfying, so rewarding about dragging yourself and your bike uphill, that we do it voluntarily, and often.

Dougie summed it up best on the third climb of the day, The Wall, when I asked him how he was feeling:

Mate, I’m suffering … but I’m enjoying myself.

It’s a statement that, to a non-cyclist, would probably make little sense. Hell, it’s probably even cause to question our mental stability. But to us cyclists — or to me at least — there’s something very familiar, and very appealing about those words.

Dougie (red) and Fletch (black) climb toward Olinda.
Dougie (red) and Fletch (black) climb toward Olinda.

A week or so ago a guy called Dom got in touch and said he was going to ride The Crucifix on Sunday, asking whether I wanted to come. I did, and I asked if he minded if I asked a few others along. He didn’t.

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The kick-off time was 8am at The Basin and I had a couple of options: I could drive out to The Basin (easier, but I wouldn’t get the extra kilometres and climbing*), I could take the train (until I realised the trains didn’t run that early on a Sunday) or I could ride out. When the Donvale Demon and my bro Brendan said they were happy to ride out, the decision was made.

When the alarm went off at 5.30am my reluctance to get out of bed was outweighed only by my desire not to have a repeat of the Dirty Dozen — where I was 15 minutes late to my first group ride. I struggled out of the warm, comfortable bed and by 6.10am I was outside to meet the Demon. We were meeting Brendan 7km up the road and after a bit of a mix up (note: if you’re organising a meeting point in Heidelberg, be aware there’s an Upper Heidelberg Road and a Lower Heidelber Road) the three of us were rolling.

The first climb of the day: the 1 in 20.
The first climb of the day: the 1 in 20.

Being so early on a Sunday the roads were nearly deserted and we were able to roll down Doncaster Road, Mitcham Road and Boronia Road without any hassle at all. It’s certainly quicker to go that way than it is to follow the Eastlink bike track and in the end we got to The Basin 10 minutes early.

A few riders started to gather and by the time we got moving at 8.10am there were 15 of us — a great turn-out. After a quick discussion about the route, we all rolled out and got into the first climb of the day — the 1 in 20. The first attack came within a few hundred metres when the Demon leapt off the front. A few of us bridged the gap before letting him go — it was, after all, the first climb of the day and there was some challenging climbing to go.

Most of the bunch rode together, a handful taking turns at the front as we climbed toward Sassafras. It certainly wasn’t race pace, but we weren’t messing around too much either. After around 19 minutes the main group reached the top to see the Demon perched casually on his BH, waiting for us to arrive. KOM #1: the Donvale Demon.

The first of the Devil's Elbows.
The first of the Devil’s Elbows.

We regrouped in Sassafras before descending toward Ferntree Gully and the second climb of the day: The Devil’s Elbows. At the bottom of the Mt. Dandenong Tourist Road we turned around and started back up the quite-steep climb to Tremont. The steeper gradient caused the group to fragment a little and a handful of riders fell off the back of the main bunch. At Tremont we took a left as ride organiser Dom stamped his way to the front.

I was feeling the 90km I’d done the day before and so I didn’t have the strength to chase him down, nor the inclination. Dom disappeared around a bend as we climbed our way through the lush greenery of Churchill Drive and One Tree Hill Road. As we neared the right-hand hairpin, Dom slowed down, not entirely sure where to go. That was all the invitation the Demon needed.

As we turned around the bend and started the final few pinches to the top, the Demon pulled away with Dom (riding a 39×25 — good effort!) grinding after him. I’d like to think I could have gone after them and just didn’t want to, but I guess we’ll never know. Either way, there was a sort-of sprint for the top of the climb which the Demon snaffled. KOM #2: the Donvale Demon.

Climbing the second half of the Devil's Elbows climb.
Climbing the second half of the Devil’s Elbows climb.

We regrouped back at the Tourist Road where we lost our first two riders of the day. Both had father’s day committments to attend to and so we waved them goodbye. Of 15 starters 13 remained.

We climbed back to Sassafras and then pushed on to Olinda. The third climb of the day was The Wall which we descended (and what a great descent it is) before regrouping and climbing back up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cyclists on The Wall (coming down and going up) as I did on Sunday. Hey, I can’t blame them — the weather was immaculate.

The Wall is one of those climbs that lulls you into a false sense of security before smacking you about the face a couple of times. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rounded that famous right-hand hairpin and climbed alongside that steep earthen embankment and thought to myself ‘this climb isn’t so hard!’, only to get a nasty shock shortly after. I knew I was in trouble on Sunday when even that easy section felt like a challenge.

Marcus (front) and the Donvale Demon climb the lower slopes of The Wall.
Marcus (front) and the Donvale Demon climb the lower slopes of The Wall.

My legs were starting to remember the effort I’d put in with Fletch to and from Mordialloc the previous day (ouch) and at the same time, I hunger-flatted. But I wasn’t the only one struggling.

If the Devil’s Elbows had split the bunch then The Wall tore it to pieces. Even in my energy-sapped state I found myself halfway up the field which was spread over several hundred metres of road. The Demon danced his way off the front somewhere near the start of the first steep ramp and apart from an occasional flash of red and black every now and then (what other colours would he wear?) I didn’t see him again until the top. I was too busy just trying to keep my bike moving.

It’s funny how riding in a group can be such a huge boost when you’re climbing easier slopes (such as the 1 in 20) or when you’re on the flats, but as soon as the road gets steep, you’re on your own. You could be surrounded by 50 other riders but no-one’s able to help you grind up the hill: you’ve no choice but to suffer through it alone.

When the road flattened off it was a great relief. I was so hungry that even my sweat-drenched forearms were starting to look appetising. I resisted the temptation and instead slammed down most of the food I had while waiting for the bunch to reform at Olinda.

Dougie approaches the famous hairpin 1km into The Wall.
Dougie approaches the famous hairpin 1km into The Wall.

Brendan took about 5 minutes longer to get to the top than I was expecting and when he did arrive it was with the news that he was feeling ordinary. He’d run out of food and drink but not only that, he was feeling unwell, and the climbing hadn’t helped. The steeper sections of The Wall had a been a 6km/h grindfest and he’d had enough. He bailed back to The Basin for some food and then headed back toward the city on his own, taking his time as he went.

While I had been struggling and Brendan had been close to vomiting, the Demon had made another attack stick, climbing his way past everyone and helping himself to a third KOM. A very impressive effort.

In many ways, we’d saved the best for last: a climb up the short but sharp Inverness Road before climbing the Tourist Road to Ridge Road and from there up several nasty pinches to Sky High. The descent to Inverness Road was glorious and the descent down Inverness was equally enjoyable … until we came across a car coming the opposite direction on the narrowest section of the road.

If you’ve ever climbed Inverness Road you’ll know just how narrow the road is in parts. There’s probably enough room for one car and one bike  and we used every centimetre of it, not being able to slow down enough before reaching the car. I’ll certainly be taking it a bit easier down there next time and I’d implore you, dear reader, to do the same.

There's not much room on the narrow sections of Inverness Road.
There’s not much room on the narrow sections of Inverness Road.

No sooner had we reached the bottom of Inverness Road than it was time to turn around and climb our way back up. We didn’t wait for the bunch to reform which meant that the Demon, who was taking things rather slowly, started the climb a minute or so behind the front of the bunch.

Having had something to eat I was feeling far stronger than I had on The Wall and without even trying I found myself opening up a bit of a gap on the rest of the guys. Dom and a couple others caught up to me just as we hit the steepest part of the climb — the near-20% ramp just before the final left-hander. I hadn’t planned to do so, but when we hit that ramp I jumped off the front and tried to pull away.

My effort probably lasted about 50m before my legs gave up and Dom caught back up to me. I think I even muttered something like ‘that’s me done’ as we struggled our way to the top. But with 50m to go I found a bit more in the legs and managed to just hold off a charging Dom, taking the final KOM of the day. It might have been a different story if the Demon had started the climb in the bunch — it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision to start without him!

The bunch heading into the final climb of the day: Inverness Road.
The bunch heading into the final climb of the day: Inverness Road.

We regrouped at the top of Inverness and there were certainly some shattered bodies rolling in. Thankfully, we only had a couple of kilometres of gentle climbing to Ridge Road and from there, only a couple of steep ramps to the top of the final climb of the day: Sky High.

The group broke up again on the way up Ridge Road, the 10%+ gradients wreaking havoc on riders who hadn’t done much climbing over winter. But all 12 that started the final climb got to Sky High in one piece — a tremendous effort.

It was great to see such a good turn out and to see so many of the 15 starters finish the ride. I have no doubt that Brendan would have made it had he not been feeling ill and if the other two hadn’t had to race off to other commitments, well, we might have had a 100% completion rate.

Which makes me think: is it time to step it up a notch? To find something more challenging? The Super Crucifix perhaps?

Nice day up in the hills.
Nice day up in the hills.

One of the real highlights for me was seeing the Demon dance away and dominate on the climbs. It’s only nine months since he struggled through his first climb — Mt. Donna Buang — in 2 hours. I believe he’s since slashed 45 minutes off that time and judging by his form on Sunday, it might be worth him heading out there again soon.

Thanks very much to the guys that made the effort to come out on Sunday and be part of the fun. It was great to ride in a larger group than normal and to put faces to names that I’ve seen a lot on Twitter, Facebook or just leaving comments on the site. Thanks to Dom in particular for the idea and for being good enough to let me throw it open to others. I’m certainly keen to organise more rides in future, particularly if there’s interest from y’all out there.

So tell me: are there particular rides you’d like to do? Areas you’d like to explore? Get in touch with your idea and I’ll try to help you get it off the ground. After all, if you’re going to suffer through a long tough ride like The Crucifix, better to have people to share the pain with, right?

* For those that are wondering, my goal to ride 10,000km for the year with 120,000m of climbing is going well. With exactly 17 weeks to go in the year, my weekly target is down to 212km and 2,361m of climbing (from 223km and 2,550m) thanks to a couple of big weekends. Fingers crossed those number continue to come down!

13 Replies to “The Crucifix group ride: riding together, suffering alone”

  1. Great write up and thanks to all who came out, good to meet some like minded idiots who like painful climbs! Matt, in particular you deserve a big thank you as it was much more enjoyable than it would have been as a solo effort. Cheers. If anyone is thinking of heading up to the alpine climbs later this year keep me in mind as some of those are on my list…

    1. Hey Dom,

      I’m heading up to Bright with another mate of mine over the Melbourne Cup weekend. We’re heading up Friday to ride Hotham on Sat with Tawonga + Falls on the menu for Sunday.

      It’s not an organised ride or anything, we just decided to head up that way, so you’re more than welcome to come along, and anyone else for that matter.

    2. Hi Dom/Matt,

      Re: Alpine Climbing – I’ve got a membership at a lodge up at Falls Creek which can house about 15-20. I’m thinking maybe early in the NY (pre 3 peaks) we could organise a trip away and tackle front and back sides of Falls.

      Anyway, if you (or anybody else) feels the urge let me know and will get the ‘wheels’ in motion.


        1. I’m in ChrisB & thanks but sadly Chris (no B) I already have family camping plans over Cup weekend…

  2. Thanks for organising Matt and a great write up. With the feeling of pain gone, replaced by a sense of achievement I heard myself commit to riding The Crucifix again with my brother, so he too can suffer the enjoyment.

      1. Hey Tristan. Some of the roads are definitely quiet, yep. The Mt. Dandenong Tourist Road (the main road through the Dandenongs) is very busy though, especially on a nice sunny spring day!

        But yep, the smaller backroads in the ‘Nongs are amazing!

      2. The roads between Monbulk and Warbie and quiet until you hit the Warbie highway for a bit – not the most pleasant road to be on but at least you have the (good) option of the rail trail!

  3. Great write-up mate. Thoroughly enjoyable. We will have to go for a spin in the near future. Sorry for not getting back to you about my Tour de France post but I’ve been crazy busy these past couple of months.

  4. How about Two Bays and Arthurs Seat return? Beach Rd is very flat but once you get past Frankston there’s some nice little climbs.
    My mates and I are signing up for 3 Peaks 2013 so chances are we’ll tag along to one of your rides soon.
    Keep up the good work.

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