We’re all familiar with the popular and well-established recreational challenge rides in Victoria: Around the Bay in a Day, Amy’s Gran Fondo, the Audax Alpine Classic, the 3 Peaks Challenge … and so on.
But one ride you mightnt’ve heard of is Wiggle’s Bendigo Belter … and with good reason: Sunday’s ride was the first time the event’s been held and the pre-event marketing seemed minimal. They don’t even have a dedicated website for the event!
But when the folks at Wiggle got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in going along with a couple of mates, I was more than happy to oblige. For a start, I’ve never done any cycling in or around Bendigo.
The day started with a now-all-too-common pre-5am alarm. A short time later Dougie arrived at my place and by 5.30am we were on the road. The drive to Bendigo took us a little under two hours and by the time we got to the the start of the ride (in the suburb of Strathdale) it was to see a bunch of riders limbering up in preparation for the ride.
And it literally was only a bunch. Wiggle had capped entries at 1,000 for the ride but there mustn’t have been more than 200 taking on the longest version of the event — the 155km ‘Epic’ ride.
A little after 8am we headed to the start line and listened to the briefest of safety briefings. Our small group consisted of myself, Dougie and Fletch from team eQuipo tranQuilo and former Bendigo local and co-founder of the great VVMCC blog Gareth Pellas.
We had been expecting Sean Sampson of Brisbane2Melbourne fame to join us as well but he had to pull out at the last minute due to a family emergency. All the best to you and your family Sean — I hope all is well!
We started toward the back of the small field of ‘epic’ riders and before we’d even ridden 100m we got separated from the bunch. Fletch pushed up the road to grab on to the peloton but Dougie, Gareth and I got caught behind at the traffic lights. A dropped chain meant the three of us had a chase ahead of us before the ride had barely even begun.
With the three of us in pursuit mode we hit the first climb — up One Tree Hill — with the bunch visible a few hundred metres ahead. We expended more energy on that opening climb than we were expecting to but eventually we reeled the bunch in and took the opportunity to have a bit of a rest.
At least we tried to have a rest.
For the first 30km of the ride the pace never really let up, despite a few hilly sections, and it was a close-to-threshold effort just to stay with everyone. We rolled some turns for a while but before long the combination of frequent climbing and strong winds put an end to any organisation in the bunch. From then on it was just a case of follow the strong riders at the front.
This is going to sound strange, but there was a definitely a Bendigo locals vs. out-of-towners vibe in our little peloton. Fletch was taken aback by one rather direct line of questioning from a local rider next to him:
Local: You’re not from around here are you?
Fletch: Haha, nope.
Local: Where’re you from?
Local: Right. *looks away*
When we hit the toughest climb of the day thus far, the aggressive pace brought a swift end to our group. The stronger climbers danced their way up the road while the rest of the pack, shelled by the steeper grades, spread out along the road. For a brief moment I thought about giving it everything I had to try and stay with the front of the bunch … and then I realised we still had 120km to go and there was no guarantee I’d be able to keep up anyway.
A little while later, as Fletch, Gareth and I took a breather and enjoyed the views at the top of the climb, it became clear Dougie wasn’t having his best day on the bike.
He took longer to reach the top than he normally would and sure enough, when he reached the summit, he reported being able to push no real power through his pedals. It seemed as if, even three weeks on, he was still feeling the after-effects of his body-smashing 436km-in-a-day ride.
With our peleton shattered by the climb, the four of us took the opportunity to take it a little easier as we approached the longest climb of the day — Mt. Alexander. I’d done a little bit of reading about the north side climb and knew it was in the vicinity of 5km at 7%, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
On paper it’s not a particularly brutal climb, even when you consider a few steep pinches of around 10%. But the rough road surface and the rising temperatures, combined with the steep sections, made the climb more challenging than I was expecting.
But I managed to summit the climb in a little over 20 minutes with Gareth and Fletch snapping at my heels. Dougie joined us a few minutes later and the four of us bombed down the terrific descent towards the first rest stop of the day.
Looking at the profile for the ride you’d be forgiven for thinking it was pretty flat after that main climb. In fact, a glance at the profile earlier in the week had led Gareth to tell us that the second half of the ride was ‘pancake flat’.
In reality, there were so few flat spots on the ride that any time we were on the flats, it almost felt unusual. The climbing wasn’t relentless but it really did feel like we were either climbing or descending. And if were weren’t doing either of those, we were fighting some truly ferocious winds.
Following Sutton Grange Road east we pushed up and over many rollers, working together wherever we could to minimise the effects of the wind. As we neared the 65km mark Dougie dropped off the back, struggling on one of the steepest pinches we’d tackled in a while. I dropped back to ride with him and after a few minutes we reached Bendigo-Redesdale Road where the course split — the Standard course (~125km) riders going left with Epic riders heading straight on.
Dougie decided to take the left turn and meet us further up the road, saying he was struggling to keep up. As Dougie turned off, I looked up and realised that Fletch and Gareth were out of sight. I’d mentioned that I’d drop back and ride with Dougie and they’d pushed on … so I now I had to catch them.
As I exited the roundabout where Dougie had turned off I was smacked in the face with an almighty headwind. Fantastic. I got down in the drops and pushed as hard as I could.
I worked my way up the road, jumping from small group to small group, catching my breath briefly before sticking my face into the wind again and powering on. After a few minutes I finally spotted Fletch and Gareth up the road and five tough minutes after leaving Dougie I jumped into Fletch’s slipstream and grabbed a few much-needed deep breaths.
Soon after rejoining Fletch and Gareth, at the 75km mark, we took a left turn at the tiny town of Mia Mia and began the most enjoyable section of the ride.
Where we’d been riding into a headwind for the past few kilometres, this part of the ride saw us descend slightly for the next 10km, on a quiet, narrow road, all with a strong wind mostly behind us. A short time later Fletch’s wife Miriam — who’d driven up with Fletch that morning — met us by the roadside and handed us nice cold drinks.
It was lovely little unexpected gesture that the three of us really appreciated and one that made that part of the ride even more enjoyable. Thanks Mim!
After 97km we took a left turn onto the McIvor Highway and into one of the few flat sections of the ride. Fletch leapt to the front of our three-strong group and did what he does best: pushing hard, driving the group along at great speed. For the next 10km we belted along at close to 40km/h, despite the dead road surface, before reaching the next left turn at Knowsley.
And then it got interesting.
As we slowed down on our approach to the left-hander we noticed a bunch of emergency service vehicles blocking the road. A police officer informed us that there’d been an accident just up ahead and that we’d have to divert through a nearby paddock.
After a couple hundred metres of cyclocross we popped back out onto the road and were promptly battered by the strongest headwind I’ve ridden into in a long time. I’m talking seriously strong, 16km/h-at-threshold-on-a-flat-road strong. This wind was brutal but luckily our southward trajectory didn’t last too long. We took a right turn and headed west across the northern edge of Lake Eppalock.
It was with some surprise at the 116km mark that we came across Dougie, standing on his own, in the shade, at a T-intersection. He’d spent a while resting at a nearby kiosk and had headed down to the intersection just a few minutes earlier — perfect timing!
Reunited, the four of us headed to the nearby rest stop before pushing into the last 35km of the ride.
After nearly 130km we took a left turn and were instantly reacquainted with the headwind we’d sampled a little earlier. Despite feeling a little less intense than it had earlier, the headwind certainly didn’t make for easy going as we hacked our way down Axe Creek Road. Again Fletch came to the fore, riding at the front of our little echelon when the road bent around and the breeze was blowing over our left shoulder.
And then we turned right and right again, and it was time to enjoy having the wind behind us. We flew along at around 45km/h without too much effort before turning left onto the highway to begin the final push back into Strathdale.
With only 7km to go the adrenaline kicked in and we were able to drive it home quite hard, burning any spare matches as we went. After his break Dougie was back to the form we’re so used to seeing him in, punching up short rises and making it look easy at the front of the bunch.
We finished the 155km ride in a little over 5 hours 21 minutes riding time with an average speed of 29.1km/h. Considering the brutal winds, the dead roads and the constant undulations I’d say that’s a pretty good effort.
Thanks to Fletch and Dougie for their company throughout the day, and thanks to Gareth for joining us as an honorary member of team ET for the ride. He impressed us all with his climbing ability (and riding ability overall!) and more importantly, he seems like a great bloke.
And thanks to Wiggle for the offer to come along and be part of the first ever Bendigo Belter. It was pretty hard to fault the organisation of the ride — the volunteers were friendly, the course was well marked out (even if some of us were paying a little less attention to the signs than we should have been) and food and drink were plentiful.
The one thing that made the Bendigo Belter feel different to other organised recreational rides I’ve done though was the number of people out on the road. Or to be more precise, the apparent lack of people out on the road.
Apart from our fast group at the start of the ride, groups of more than two or three riders seemed extremely rare throughout the day. In some parts it felt like we were the only riders taking part in the event, such was the amount of time between seeing other cyclists.
It meant that the ‘big challenge ride’ atmosphere you get at, say, Around the Bay in a Day wasn’t really there, and that was particularly evident at the finish of the ride when there were probably only 50 people hanging around.
Still, the ride’s only in its first year and, as mentioned above, the pre-publicity for the event seemed absolutely minimal. I wouldn’t have heard about the ride had Wiggle not been in touch. Hopefully the event will grow in the years to come as it really was a great day.
With some challenging climbs, stunning scenery and constant undulations, the Epic course certainly made for a tough day out. If nothing else it was just great to be able to ride on some of the roads in and around Bendigo — I’ll certainly be back! Of course we could have done without the wind but it seems a little unfair to hold that against Wiggle!
Thanks very much for reading and don’t forget you can join The Climbing Cyclist community over at Facebook and Twitter, you can follow me (Matt) on Strava and you can sign-up to email alerts about new articles if you like.
Until next time, as always, please stay safe on the roads.
The Strava file for this ride can be found here.