There’s a kind of naivety that governs a lot of what I do as a cyclist. A lot of the time I think to myself: ‘I’ve done that before, why can’t I do it again?’
I remember my first ride back from a nine-week European holiday in early 2009, getting on my bike 10kg heavier than I’d been before I left. I’d done no cycling during the trip and yet I thought to myself: ‘Yeah, I’ll just take it easy today: Research-Warrandyte Road. I do that road all the time.’
I was so unfit that one particularly nasty hill left me lying on the footpath for nearly half an hour, trying desperately to keep my breakfast down. It was a real wake-up call and far from my best moment as a cyclist.
All of that was true, but it didn’t make the ride any easier. In fact, if you erase the 3 Peaks Challenge from my cycling memory, Saturday would probably be the hardest ride I’ve ever done.
It all started innocuously enough. Just after 8am roughly 30 of us rolled out from Warburton and headed toward the first climb of the day: the Reefton Spur.
The Donvale Demon (who’d organised the ride) and I led the group in the opening kilometres and it wasn’t long until Col Bell, Dan Abotomey and Evan Henley leapt off the front, much as they’d done at Around the Lake. It was a move I was expecting and I wasn’t too concerned about chasing them down. The day was but young.
The thing about the Demon’s Double is there are basically no flat roads for the entire day. If you look at the ride profile you’ll see that the opening 21km, to the start of the Reefton Spur, are gradually uphill. Throw in a handful of short climbs and you’re looking at a decent warm-up.
As we neared the left turn that marks the start of the Reefton Spur, I started to move to the left, only to notice that the Demon was heading straight ahead. The bloke who was organising the ride had almost lead the 27-strong group off to the Upper Yarra Dam! The best call of the day goes to Andy van Bergen who said to the Demon, not long after starting the Reefton Spur climb: ‘You’ve got about 30km until we get there, but it’s left at the next intersection!’
It’s a bit cruel that the Reefton Spur doesn’t even rate a mention in the title of the event, the ‘double’ referring to the climbs of Lake Mountain and Mt. Donna Buang. But of course Reefton Spur is a sizeable climb in it’s own right — roughly 20km at a little over 3%. As the climbing began I hooked up with my brother Brendan and together we chopped through the kilometres, enjoying the sublime scenery, the virtually car-less road and the perfect weather.
We rode for a while with Josh Goodall, the one who told the Demon about the very ride we were doing, and who had just gotten back from a brutal-sounding training camp in the high country. By all accounts Josh’s climbing has improved out of sight and he’ll be lining up in C-grade at the Tour of Bright in a few weeks’ time. (UPDATE: You can read a write-up of Josh’s Tour of Bright here.)
After a while Josh moved on up the road and Brendan and I pushed on toward the Cumberland Junction together. Just because you’ve reached the end of the Reefton Spur doesn’t mean the amazing roads stop. The 10km stretch between the Cumberland Junction and the Lake Mountain turn-off is one of the most memorable sections of the whole ride and a terrific bit of road.
It’s also home to a great little climb up to Mt. Arnold Saddle. It’s 2.8km at 6.1% but the middle section of that climb approaches 10% as the narrow road winds through trees that were burnt out during Black Saturday.
Just after the Lake Mountain turn-off it was time for the first proper descent of the day — 10 solid kilometres down to Marysville. One of my favourite parts of riding with Brendan is being behind him when he’s descending. His cornering skills and confidence make it a joy to watch and it’s always fun to see if I can keep up with him as he bombs down the mountain.
As we started descending the steep part of Lake Mountain (4.4km from Marysville) we saw Col and Dan smashing their way back up the climb toward the resort. Those blokes are scarily quick!
At Marysville we grabbed something to eat and to drink, having heard there was no water available at Lake Mountain. Brendan started the climb a couple minutes ahead of me as I filled up my bottles and reapplied sunscreen. I was looking forward to the challenge of catching Brendan on the steep stuff and after a couple of kilometres I did. We worked hard to push through those steep opening kilometres and breathed a sigh of relief when the road flattened off after 4.4km.
As we got closer to the halfway point of the Lake Mountain climb (the left-hand turn toward the resort) it became clear that Brendan was struggling. Sure enough, when we reached the turn-off he said he was going to continue straight on and head back to Warburton.
As Brendan rolled away I looked up and down the road … and couldn’t see anyone. I was in no-man’s-land with a real chance of having to ride the rest of the day on my own if I couldn’t latch onto a group pretty soon.
I knew there must have been 10 or more riders ahead of me on the road to the resort, but it was a question of whether I could catch them before they started descending. I set off at close to a max effort, looking around each corner as I went, hoping to find a group of riders I could aim for. Before long Col and Dan flew past me on their descent.
After about 5km of close-to-threshold effort (I must have been quite fatigued because I really wasn’t climbing that fast) I spied two riders on the road ahead of me. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘I won’t be riding back to Warburton alone.’ And then I realised the two riders weren’t part of our group.
I rode past them, saying ‘Hi!’ as I went and tried to find the next group on the road. With a couple of kilometres still to go until the summit, a few more riders started to pass me on their way down the mountain. But I knew there were still a few between me and the resort and I pushed on.
As I rounded the final corner to the resort carpark I saw that Josh Goodall, Sam Slaney, Tim Lier and another bloke I hadn’t met before, Jeb, were still there, getting ready to descend. I was certainly glad they hadn’t already left and after getting a second stamp in my 7 Peaks passport, I joined the others on the descent of Lake Mountain.
Back at the turn-off a handful of riders had waited for us (thanks guys!) So with a small contingent I set off toward Cumberland Junction, climbing the so-called Deliverance climb — the other side of the Mt. Arnold Saddle — as we went. That short rise of about 2.5km hurt after the long climb of Lake Mountain and was a taste of things to come.
Back on the Reefton Spur it was time for some fun. There are a handful of uphill sections on the way down to Reefton but for the most part, it’s terrific descending on great roads. To make it even better, we must have been passed by only a couple of cars on the 20km descent and the weather was still perfect.
When the road flattened off at Reefton I was riding with the Donvale Demon, Andy and Sam. I mentioned earlier that the road from Warburton to Reefton is gradually uphill, but riding in the other direction feels anything but downhill. That said, I was actually feeling really good for the first few kilometres out of Reefton … and then I hit the wall.
It wasn’t like I bonked — I’d been eating and drink lots and I wasn’t hungry — but almost instantaneously I felt the fatigue hit me and I went from being able to push up short rises, to having to grind up at snail’s pace. It was weird for that transformation to happen so quickly, and somewhat disconcerting given I still had a climb of Mt. Donna Buang to go when I got back to Warburton.
Shortly after I hit the wall the Demon disappeared up the road. I watched him go but didn’t have anything left in the tank to follow. Soon after that, Andy — who’d decided he wasn’t going to give Donna a crack — called Sam and I onto his wheel and proceeded to drag us back to town. It was a struggle even to sit in his slipstream as he burned up the kilometres and any thought of jumping to the front and doing my share was lost as I concentrated on not get dropped. Thanks for the tow Andy!
We caught the Demon just before the Mt. Donna Buang turn-off and I continued into town to fill up my bottles and grab something to eat. As I rode to the car to drop off some food for later part of me realised it was a dangerous move coming back into town — it would be easy to say ‘Yep, I’ve done enough for today.’ To pack up the bike and head home, content with a 140km ride.
But then again, I had unfinished business.
Earlier this year Brendan, Fletch and I set out to complete the Demon’s Double but ran out of time, eventually pulling the pin on the Donna climb. Part of me was disappointed at getting so far through the ride that day and not seeing it through, so on Saturday there was no doubt in my mind: I was going to climb Mt. Donna Buang as well.
The first few kilometres of the climb were actually alright. Sure, I didn’t have anyone to ride with — the Demon was already a few kilometres up the road — but I was feeling OK, I had my iPod if I got bored and besides, I’d done a Triple Donna a few weeks earlier.
As I approached those steeper kilometres before Cement Creek I was still feeling alright. Tired and slow, but alright. And then the road went up, my speed went down and it became a game of survival.
For those 10km through Cement Creek and up to the summit I was deeper in my pain cave than I’ve been for a very long time. The brief respite at Cement Creek was greatly appreciated but before I knew it, the road was going up again and I was suffering like I haven’t suffered since the Back of Falls climb at 3 Peaks in March.
I tried to work out exactly what was making it so hard to go on. Sure, my feet and shoulders were hurting, but more than anything it was just an overwhelming tiredness that was the greatest challenge. My eyes felt really heavy and I had to resist the urge to pull over and have a nap in the long grass by the side of the road.
But I forced myself to continue. Col and Dan had passed me long ago as they flew toward Warburton and as I entered the final 5km of the climb more riders zoomed past, yelling encouragement as they went. And then they were gone, and I was back in my own little world, suffering alone.
But somehow I got there. There was nothing pretty and certainly nothing fast about that climb of Mt. Donna Buang, but I managed to get through it in one piece, and without stopping. The Donvale Demon flew past me about 500m from the summit and said he’d wait for me.
I pushed through the steep final section, rode past the lookout tower and then rolled back down to meet the Demon. It sounded as if he’d been in his own little world of hurt as well. He’d had to stop a number of times as he climbed, largely for fear of throwing up from the exertion and exhaustion.
Slowly and shakily we descended toward Cement Creek, exhausted but very satisfied. After Cement Creek the Demon suggested I go on — ‘I’m going to be pretty slow here’ — and so I did, descending toward Warburton alone. I reached the bottom of the climb in no time flat … and turned around and headed straight back up.
My plan wasn’t to try and climb the whole thing again — although that did come into my mind for the briefest of moments — but rather to do just enough climbing to tick over 4,000 vertical metres for the day. It didn’t take long — less than 1km — and then I turned around and headed into town to call it a (long, hard and very challenging) day.
There’s no doubt the Demon’s Double was harder than a Triple Donna. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve been as shattered after a ride as I was on Saturday evening. As I headed home, I got as close to driving while asleep as it’s probably safe to do so, and on more than a couple occasions I thought I’d have to pull over and take a power nap.
On Saturday night I fell asleep in no time flat, but woke several times throughout the night with sore, restless legs. And Sunday was pretty much a write-off — even moving between bed, kitchen and couch felt like an unreasonably strenuous effort.
A couple of quick shout-outs before I wrap this up. Kudos to Nicole van Bergen for pushing through the ride despite getting a bunch of punctures on the day (to add to the three she got the day before — time for some new tyres Nic!) Inspiring work from Dan who climbed the Reefon Spur in the big ring, making the rest of us look like a bunch of wimpy amateurs in the process.
Congratulations to everyone that rocked up on the day to take on one of the most challenging rides going around. And, in particular, congrats to the nine other guys* who completed the whole course! Their names will be immortalised in the honour roll below.
And thanks to Donvale Demon for organising a terrific ride with some great weather. Everyone seemed to have a great day and even when we were suffering, it was still great to be part of something so epic and so thoroughly challenging.
Until next time, please stay safe on the roads!
- Dan Abotomey
- Col Bell
- Evan Henley
- Thomas Price
- Dom Burton
- Luke Chippindall
- Dana Anderson
- Donvale Demon
- Matt de Neef
- John Van Seters
*If you completed the full ride and I’ve missed you out: sorry! Let me know and I’ll add you to the list.