Cycling is well and truly booming in Australia and nowhere has this been more apparent that in the challenging recreational ride sphere. In the past five years we’ve seen the birth of rides like the 3 Peaks Challenge, Amy’s Gran Fondo and Wiggle’s Bendigo Belter, to name just a few in Victoria. And as of last weekend, we can add another event to that list: the Beechworth Gran Fondo.
I’d heard about the ride earlier in the year but never really looked into it in much detail. But when I got an invite through my work at CyclingTips, I was more than happy to go along. I didn’t train for the event at all — I figured with 3 Peaks and Crux under my belt in the past month or so, riding 173km for the Beechworth Gran Fondo wouldn’t be beyond me. And it wasn’t, but it was still a very challenging day.
We took the start line just before 7.30am with the temperature somewhere on the wrong side of 10°C. The moment I stepped outside the hotel I regretted not wearing gloves (“I’ll be fine — I’ll warm up in just a few minutes”) but with the ride about to start I didn’t bother heading back to get them. Mistake.
I took the start line beside Wade knowing that my chances of staying with him for the entire day were slim to non-existent. But my plan was simple: stay with him as long as I possibly could.
The Gran Fondo field was surprisingly small — roughly 160 riders — and it was clear very early on that the biggest and most efficient group was going to be at the front. The only problem was that that group contained riders from the Drapac and African Wildlife Safaris National Road Series teams.
We took it fairly easy in the opening kilometres but as we started descending out of town and into the first rise of the day, Wade decided we needed to get onto the lead group or we would miss our chance to ride with them. I trusted his analysis of the situation — he does, after all, have a fair bit of racing behind him — but I didn’t trust my legs to go along with the plan.
Over the next 10km I was at my limit just trying to hold Wade’s wheel as we descended (my fingers were frozen) and then climbed our way toward the lead group (and to a Strava co-KOM for me).
We eventually got on and I was more than grateful for the respite. I’d gone far deeper than I was planning to go at any point during the ride, let alone in the first 10km. As I held onto the back of the group I started to wonder long it would be before I would pay for the hard early effort. But I didn’t have much time to dwell on that fact.
Every time the pace backed off a fraction I’d breathe a sigh of relief but invariably things would heat up again and I’d be at my threshold (or above) just trying to stay with the group. It certainly wasn’t relentless — like I say, there were times when it eased up and I was able to recover — but the intensity at other times more than made up for it.
Looking at the profile now I can see that there was a 14km-long section between Chiltern and Yackandandah that was entirely uphill. Sure, it started off easily enough, but the top section was painfully steep and it had me thinking my time with the lead pack was over. But I held on to the top and was able to enjoy the terrific descent to Yackandandah with the bunch.
We covered the first 58km hilly kilometres to “Yack” in about 1 hour and 35 minutes (~37km/h average). The lead group — which must have had about 50+ riders in it by this point — rolled straight past the first feed station in town and into the next section of the course.
I wasn’t too worried — I had enough food and drink with me to last to the next feed stop. And besides, I was pretty keen to get as far as I could with the group before I gave in, even if the effort of keeping up had been hurting since the first or second kilometre of the day.
We made our way south east on a section of road that never felt flat for more than a few metres at a time. If we weren’t climbing a short rise, we were descending. And if the bunch was pushing hard up the rise, they were taking it easy over the top. While this provided a bit of respite every now and then, it made it very hard to find a rhythm.
About 80km into the ride, over one of the many short climbs throughout the day, I lost sight of Wade as the main bunch strung out along the road. I was still hanging onto the back, but only just, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the elastic snapped.
I spent the next 20km concertina-ing my way between the back of the lead bunch and the no-man’s-land just behind them. As we descended towards Dederang and into the Kiewa Valley I knew there was a rest stop coming up and I willed myself to stay with the bunch, allowing myself the promise of the rest stop as a reward if I did.
The 100km mark rolled by — where I thought the rest stop was supposed to be — and with no-one stopping to find out what had happened to our promised break I had no real option but to push on. I fell of the back in convincing fashion after about 100km and it was only the hard work of Malachi Moxon (of Northside Wheelers‘ fame) that got me (and 3 Peaks ambassador Alison McCormack) back with the group again. But there was trouble up ahead.
We’d just turned right onto Running Creek Road which meant the second-most challenging climb of the day was just around the corner: Rosewhite Gap. For those of you familiar with this year’s revised 3 Peaks route or the Tour of Bright, you’ll recognised the name of the climb. But for the Beechworth Gran Fondo we were climbing Rosewhite from the opposite and arguably tougher side.
As the road started to tilt upwards I got spat out the back for the final time. I simply couldn’t hold the pace any longer and my time spent riding with the main bunch was over. I was lucky enough to have the company of Alison McCormack as I hit the climb though, and the two of us started to chip away at the hill.
But a kilometre or two into the climb it became clear that I was about to go from riding in a group, to riding in a pair, to riding on my own. I drifted back gradually as Alison pushed on and finally, 113km into the 173km ride, I was alone.
I’d like to say I was disappointed that I couldn’t stay with the bunch (and with Ali) but to be honest it was a bit of a relief to be able to take my time, to tackle Rosewhite (and potentially the rest of the day) at my own pace.
I’d stopped my lap timer at the foot of the Rosewhite climb when it became clear I was about to get popped, and looking at Strava, I can see I did those first 111.4km at an average speed of 34km/h. It was the fastest I’d ever done 100km — faster even than the pancake-flat Around the Bay in a Day — and I was going to pay for it.
The Rosewhite Gap climb took me longer than it might have but I wasn’t concerned. I just focused on getting to the top and reassessing from there. When I did reach the summit it was to see that there was a water station set up, but no food. My hamstrings started cramping as I peeled myself of the bike and hobbled gingerly to the taps. The expectation of future pain had turned into actual pain for the first time in the day.
With my bidons filled I began the welcome descent of Rosewhite Gap and got comfortable with the idea of riding solo. The last time I’d ridden that stretch of road — Happy Valley Road — was during 3 Peaks when it was about 35°C and when Happy Valley Road felt anything but. But on Saturday, in spite of the building fatigue I actually enjoyed it.
After using the descent of Rosewhite to rest I spotted a bloke a few hundred metres up ahead and decided to try and chase him down. I got into a crude approximation of a time trial position and pushed hard, eventually latching onto his slipstream a short time later.
I was starting to feel alright again after many hours in the hurtbox and I decided a new goal was in order: to finish the day with an average speed of 30km/h or higher. As I blasted along Happy Valley Road my average thus far was somewhere in the vicinity of 33km/h.
I let my new companion drag me along for a while and did a couple of brief turns myself and before too long we were turning right onto Carrolls Road and making our way towards the final climb of the day. As we took that right turn we caught another couple guys and the four of us rode in close proximity as the road reared up at some unexpected and rather unfriendly gradient.
Most of the next 5km were uphill which, combined with a frustratingly rough road surface, saw my average speed come down a fair bit. Crucially, I’d been dropped by the three other guys and it looked as if I’d be doing the final 33km of the ride solo.
I took a left turn onto the Myrtleford-Yackandandah Road after 145km and rolled into the final rest stop of the day. It was the first time I’d stopped for food and even though I still had plenty of food on me, I grabbed as much as I could and shovelled it down.
I’d been suffering from cramp-like twinges ever since I’d gotten off at Rosewhite Gap and so I was desperate for something with a bit of salt in it to help ease the cramping (or at least provide a placebo effect). I spied a packet of BBQ Shapes and set about wolfing them down. Awesome.
After eating and drinking more than enough I got back on the bike and tapped out the 4km to the start of the final climb of the day: the so-called Col du Stanley. I had learned a little bit about the climb a few weeks earlier when I interviewed Matt Clark about his favourite rides around Beechworth. So when the climb started off easily and I felt comfortable, I didn’t let myself think “this is going to be easy”.
Matt had mentioned that it ramps up quite nastily at some points so when I reached a red sign warning of a “steep, winding road” I wasn’t surprised. But being prepared didn’t make the climb any easier.
The steeper stuff might have only been 3km long or so, but at 7-8%, and with the fatigue of a very tough first three hours of riding in my legs, it was slow going. I changed screens on my Garmin, not wanting to see my average speed steadily dropping as I climbed at around 10km/h.
The goal was still to finish with an average of 30km/h+ but I was better of pacing myself on the climb and giving it everything on the downhill section from the top of the climb in Stanley back to Beechworth.
While I didn’t get close to the level of suffering I’d had to endure at 3 Peaks and Crux, that final climb certainly wasn’t easy. It felt like a slow drag even with a 34×28 and it was a relief when the road flattened off somewhat and I was able to flick up through the gears. That said, I did quite enjoy the climb with it’s great views and, closer to the top, its roadside orchards.
Stanley really is a gorgeous part of the world and in the autumn sunlight, with every shade from green to red represented in the leaves of the nearby trees, I was actually really enjoying myself.
As I crested the climb I flicked my Garmin back to the main screen to see what my average speed was: 29.8km/h. I had roughly 10km to go until the end of the ride and fortunately, for my legs and for my 30km/h+ ambitions, it was mainly downhill. I chucked it in the big dog and hammered as hard as I could for those last 10km, the adrenaline taking care of any fatigue or pain I might have been feeling.
About halfway down the hill I knew I was going to achieve my goal, but I kept pushing, just in case. Beechworth came up quicker than I expected and when I took the right-turn into town, all that was left was a sprint for the line and my day was done. Success! 30.2km/h average for a 173km ride with 2,300m of climbing. I’ll take that.
In the past two months I’ve done three endurance events — 3 Peaks, Crux and the Beechworth Gran Fondo — and each of them has been very different. The 3 Peaks Challenge was an epic sufferfest that almost broke me, Crux was a study in perseverance and a lesson in the ups and downs of long-distance riding, and the Beechworth Gran Fondo was a ride with two distinct challenges: maintaining a high intensity for a long period, and battling through the effects of that high intensity later on.
Despite finding the first 3 hours of the ride very tough, it was still a great experience. As mentioned earlier, we were joined on the ride by the Drapac squad and it was beyond cool to be riding with the likes of Darren Lapthorne and Will Walker — both former national champions.
At one point, when I was slipping off the back (not for the first or last time) I noticed Darren Lapthorne just ahead and decided to put in one big effort to reach his wheel. For the next few kilometres I just followed him as he made his way back to the pack with ease.
And much later in the ride, just before I got dropped at the start of Rosewhite, I was off the back of the bunch, about to give up when I felt someone give me a solid shove from behind. It was Will Walker, who motioned to the bunch, saying “You’ll find it much easier up there”. While I was well aware of where I needed to be, my legs were less than cooperative. But Will’s little shove gave me enough momentum and motivation to get back on to the group.
And while I’m fanboy-ing out about getting to ride with riders far stronger than me, I thought this little tid-bit might be worth sharing. Wade rode the 173km course without stopping once and with only the two bottles of water he had with him at the start and one energy bar. That’s it. I think I would have keeled over and fallen off the bike through exhaustion, dehydration and starvation. He kinda shrugged it off, saying “you get to know what your body is capable of” and I guess that’s true.
To him, riding with the Drapac boys probably wasn’t as novel or as exciting as it was for me, and I know he didn’t find the pace nearly as hard as I did (although there were apparently some fireworks on the Rosewhite Gaps when the Drapac lads came out to play). And as for the Drapac boys? Well, they probably saw it as a cruisy Saturday spin, just with a few more people around than they might normally have.
I guess it just goes to show that everything’s relative in cycling and there will always be someone that’s better than you, no matter how much you improve. And that can be motivating, or it can be demoralising, depending on the sort of person you are.
In the end I finished in 68th place (out of 162 riders), about an hour behind the winner (Trent Morey) and about 50 minutes behind Wade. But more importantly I learned a lot from the experience, I got to ride some new roads and new climbs with no traffic (100% closed roads is a big drawcard), and I got to enjoy myself along the way.
Thanks again to Michael Hands and the team for putting on a great weekend that featured much more than just the Gran Fondo I’d ridden in. There were a whole host of other events on and there was a great buzz in Beechworth from Friday right through Sunday. They mightn’t have attracted the numbers they were looking for first time around, but I’m sure word will spread and next year will be bigger and better than last weekend’s inaugural edition.
Thanks for reading!