Six-foot tall sprinters can certainly roll me in the final sprint of a crit race, and others might wonder at the look of anguish on my face when my nose is in the wind on the flat bitumen of Beach Road. But I’m willing to endure this for one reason: it’s climbing that’s my speciality.
When the road heads towards the sky, I head towards the front of the pack, and it’s my turn to wonder why everyone else is slowing down. At 5’6” and 58kg, I’m built like a pure climber — the same size as Nairo Quintana, but without the talent.
My training for Bright started in earnest when I received a ballot entry in early October. Since then, I have been putting in 350-400km a week in preparation for the race. I bought a set of Garmin Vector power meter pedals to track my progress, I started logging every ride and every single thing I ate on TrainingPeaks. I stopped drinking, and started waking up earlier on Saturdays and Sundays than I usually would for work. But I think that once you’ve made the decision to shave your legs, all of this stuff probably seems trivial in comparison.
Things had been going pretty well for me in the lead up to Bright. I’d managed not to get sick or injure myself despite the ridiculously increased training load. I’d utterly decimated my previous personal bests on some of my favourite climbs, and set some times that I was very happy with on climbs that I’d never done before. It was a real confidence boost to see all the training paying off, and to know that I was in the form of my life.
Stage 1: Individual Time Trial (13.5km)
My plan for the weekend was pretty simple – race to my strengths, and leave no regrets out on the road. I knew that I wasn’t likely to set the world on fire in the time trial, so my goal was just to lose as little time as possible on the leaders. Besides, the big guys smashing the time trial aren’t likely to be able to climb hills well, right?
I rolled up to the start line with three minutes to spare, sporting a snazzy borrowed aero time trial helmet (thanks, Locky!). The whole starting procedure is very professional – this is as close as I’ll ever come to Tour de France glory. I walk my bike up to the top of the start ramp, and clip in whilst being held by a marshal. The adrenaline rises as a big digital clock counts down, pro style. Ten seconds. I feel eerily calm. “Good luck,” the marshal says, and releases me down the ramp just as the clock ticks over to 15:59.
The first rule of time trialling is “don’t start out too hard”. The second rule of time trialling is “don’t start out too hard”. My goal for the stage is to put out around 300w for 20 minutes. I look down at my Garmin – less than a minute in, and I’m pushing out over 400w. Damn, I started out too hard. I force myself to back off a little bit, even though my legs are absolutely raring to go, and I’m flying along at about 45km/h.
I spend the next 20 minutes punching out just a little above my threshold power. I figure that the adrenaline of race day, along with my footlong Subway lunch, will help me put in a better performance than I have been doing in training. There are a couple of people here and there watching us ride past. I’m overtaken by rider #440 – Nick Mahoney – during my ride, but it’s largely a lonely affair out on the time trial course.
I roll across the line absolutely spent, and end up finishing 31st out of 69, 2 minutes 18 seconds behind the leader, with an average speed of just over 39km/h. I set a new 20 minute power record, which I’m very happy with, as time trialling isn’t usually my forte. I could have eased up a little at the start, which might have helped me go faster at the end, but at the end of the day, 2:18 isn’t a lot of time, and I figure that I can more than make up this time in the hills over the next two stages.
Time behind leader: 2:12
Click here to see Nick’s Strava file from stage 1.
Stage 2: The Gaps Loop road race (91km)
Today’s course is a pancake flat 91km punctuated by two climbs. The first, Rosewhite Gap, is a fairly easy climb at the halfway point. The finish line sits atop the second climb of the day, Tawonga Gap, a fairly steady 6.3% climb which should take most C graders somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes to summit. “Nothing matters but Tawonga”, I say to myself, sitting on the start line for stage 2. Barring a miraculous break away, the climbers will win this stage on Tawonga, and the rest of the course is really just a warm up.
The beginning of the course takes us through the middle of Bright. People stand outside their houses cheering us on. Bemused tourists look on as they see a huge bunch of 70 cyclists riding down the main street. I really hope that they’ve mistaken us for professionals.
The bunch rolls along at a fairly placid pace, and there are a lot of nervous riders around. I take the chance to size up some of the riders around me in the peloton. If I were sizing up someone for a bar fight (not exactly my preferred way of spending my Saturday nights), then I’d be worried about the huge barrel-chested guy standing in the corner.
For a hilly bike race like this, I’d like to think that it’s the big sprinters who get a little scared when they see me on my novelty-sized children’s bike. As far as I can tell, there are not many guys in this bunch as small as me. I notice #457 – Nick White – in a Kelly Coaching jersey who looks about my size. I decide to keep an eye on him.
A breakaway of three forms at the first sprint point, but there are too many riders in the peloton who want to win this race. The bunch lets the breakaway dangle just off the front, well within sight, and it’s despatched a few kilometres later. It’s about 30 degrees and sunny with barely any wind at all and nobody seems particularly concerned with the pace (or lack thereof). Everybody is smiling. There are a few friendly conversations in the peloton, and a couple of guys cracking jokes. It feels like a Sunday morning coffee ride.
The group arrives at the base of Rosewhite Gap. The conversation stops pretty quickly, and everybody focuses on the individual effort of getting to the top. I make my way slowly to the front of the peloton, but there are so many riders around me that it’s difficult to find gaps. I don’t know if a breakaway will form over this climb, but if it does, I want to be on the right side of it.
The bunch strings out a bit as we get closer to the summit. I punch out a fairly hard effort, passing a few guys on the way up, and crest the hill in about tenth place. I’m a touch disappointed not to have bagged myself any KOM points, but importantly, the leaders are well within sight, and I quickly catch them on the descent. “Nothing matters but Tawonga,” I remind myself.
By the end of the Rosewhite descent, it looks like basically everybody is back with the main field. As it didn’t happen on Rosewhite, I figure there’ll be no breaks in the pack today. We continue along at coffee shop pace for another 20 or so kilometres. Just before Tawonga Gap, a flurry of activity begins as the climbers try to get to the front of the peloton for the final climb. I see my marked man Nick White pushing his way to the front, and figure it’s a good time to make my own way up. There’s a lot of nervous riders around, and I touch wheels with the guy in front, but luckily there’s no harm done.
We turn right on to the climb, and I overtake about ten guys in just as many seconds to end up at the front of the peloton. I look around me. We’ve only been climbing for a minute or two, but there’s already a group of about seven of us with a clear gap on the peloton. The GC contenders. This weekend’s winner will certainly be chosen from this group.
I look down at my power meter, which tells me I’m pushing well over 320w. I’m feeling good at the moment, but I know that this is well above what I can sustain for the whole climb. I stick with the lead group in the hope that they’ll slow down a bit as the climb progresses. #413 – Anthony Bogiatzis – seems to be leading the pace for the first part of the climb.
We swap turns on the front as we wind our way further up Tawonga Gap. There’s not much aerodynamic advantage in rolling turns on a climb like this, but holding somebody else’s wheel certainly provides the motivation that I need to keep going. I’m still riding well above my threshold, and it’s starting to seriously hurt. Thirty degrees no longer seems like a pleasant temperature, and the sweat dripping into my eyes is so salty it burns. I see the “5km” sign, and I look to the sky, and can see the summit still hundreds of meters above. I push on, still well above threshold.
Minutes pass. This is the hardest effort I’ve ever put in on the bike by a huge margin. I stop looking at my Garmin – it’s really not telling my anything useful any more, except that based on my previous threshold heart rate and power figures, I should have collapsed in a ditch on the side of the road about ten minutes ago. But not today. I refuse to give an inch to the leaders.
We pass the 2km sign. Someone puts in an attack, I don’t see who. Another guy follows him up the hill. That leaves five of us. I change up a gear and put in an attack to see if I can chase them down, and the four behind me follow. I last about twenty seconds at this pace before I realise that an attack is a terrible idea – there’s no way that I’ve got anything in reserve to punch the pace, and 2km is still a long way to go.
I change back down a gear and continue on, still well above threshold. Just as I do this, two more guys counter-attack, also trying to bridge the gap to the front runners. I have to let them go. I look back, and it seems that Anthony has fallen just off the pace. This leaves just me and Nick White climbing together, battling it out for fifth and sixth place.
We pass the 1km to go sign. It’s a fierce battle. Each of us puts in a series of mini-attacks, but isn’t able to drop the other. The last corner looms, and I muster all the energy I can gather to distance Nick by a bike length or two. He doesn’t respond – I’ve finally cracked him! I round the corner, only to see a sign saying “500m”. My heart sinks. I’ve lost my concept of space and time, and there’s actually one more corner until the finish line. I swear at the top of my lungs. A tactical error: Nick hears me, and instantly realises the mistake I’ve made, and that he’s got me on the ropes. He counter-attacks, and gaps me by a couple of bike lengths.
I try to muster the strength to stay on his wheel, but there’s nothing left in the tank, and my previous attack has hurt me. The last 500m feels like slow motion. I push as hard as I possibly can, but Nick is slowly slipping away. I look behind me, and see Anthony gaining his lost ground on me at the same time. I dig deep, and the finish line arrives.
I’ve slipped three seconds back from Nick, and pulled in another three ahead of Anthony. I roll a couple of meters past the finish line and grab on to a fence to stop myself from falling off my bike, lungs gasping for air. My efforts netted me sixth place on the stage, catapulting me to seventh place on the general classification.
Cyrus Monk, #469, takes the stage victory. Of course, I wish that I was able to push a little harder to finish on the podium. But I’ve just put in an effort far beyond what I ever thought I was physically capable of, and I soon find that for a second day in a row, I’ve smashed my 20 minute power record, and was putting out just over 5w/kg up Tawonga.
Stage Placing: 6th
GC placing: 7th
Time behind leader: 1:18
Click here to see Nick’s Strava file from stage 2.
Stage 3: Mt. Hotham road race (56km)
If you’ve never climbed Mt. Hotham before, you absolutely must. It’s one of the most scenic and challenging climbs you can do as a cyclist. At about 30km in length, it can be divided into three parts. The first third is about 10km of steady climbing, with one steep section known as The Meg. The next third is 10km of false flat, with a very gentle gradient of less than 2%. The final section, by far the toughest, consists of several steep ramps, as well as some sharp downhill sections.
As you push past the tree line after an hour or more of climbing, it feels like you’re on top of the world. But today, I’m not here to enjoy the scenery. I’ve got a list of the top GC contenders sticky-taped to my top tube, and I’m psyched for what could well be the hardest day of racing I’ve ever experienced.
The first 25km of the race take us from Bright to Harrietville, at the base of Hotham. Much like the beginning of Saturday’s race, it’s a fairly pedestrian affair. The bunch strings out a little as the sprinters battle it out at the two sprint points along the way, but everybody knows that this section is merely a warm up for the Mt. Hotham beast that lies ahead.
I work my way to the front of the peloton as we roll into Harrietville. The road heads skywards, and it takes less than a minute for the GC contenders to consolidate their positions at the front of the pack. I look around to see plenty of familiar faces from yesterday’s Tawonga climb. I put my head down and spin up the first steep ramp that denotes the start of the Hotham climb.
I like to spin my legs over quickly, Lance Armstrong style (pre-disgrace), so today I’m running a compact crankset with a 28-tooth cassette on the back. This lets me keep a high cadence up the first part of the climb, and before I know it it’s just me and my nemesis from yesterday, Nick White, riding together with a small gap on the main field. But right now, we’re allies.
“Go, go, we’ve got a bit of a gap,” Nick says to me. We continue along, catching a solo rider up the road pretty quickly. We roll a couple of turns, but Nick and I are too strong, and the mystery rider is again riding solo, stuck somewhere between us and the main field. Nick and I continue up the lower slopes of Hotham, riding just at threshold pace. “Don’t go anaerobic,” I warn Nick, but I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s doing.
Pretty soon, we can only catch glimpses of the peloton as we round the inward curving hairpin bends. We’re seriously doing some damage to them even on these early slopes. I’m not putting in the same effort that I was up Tawonga yesterday, but then again, Hotham is a much longer climb, and I don’t want to burn all my matches on this first section. I’m pretty sure Nick is thinking the same thing, and we work well together.
About 15 minutes later, we approach the first KOM point of the day – The Meg, a steep ramp of about 10%. As soon as the gradient ramps up, Nick starts pulling away in search of the KOM points at the top of the pinch. “Take it, it’s yours,” I yell to him, now about five lengths ahead. I don’t do this out of the benevolence of my heart, but because I know it’ll hurt me if I have to chase him any harder than I am now. I’d much prefer to save my legs for a possible GC result, than to waste them battling Nick for KOM points.
He slows down a touch, and crosses the line just ahead of me. We soft pedal for a few seconds to catch our breath, and continue working together. I’m sitting in the top two of this bike race at the moment with a pretty big gap on the main field. I imagine myself standing on the podium later this afternoon, but there’s still a long way to go.
“We need to work together until at least the ticket box,” I say to Nick. He agrees. It’s possible to get up enough speed on the upcoming false flat that drafting behind another rider is a big advantage. With the main field able to work together behind us, we’ll need some serious teamwork to stay away. Not long after this discussion, I can see a lone rider gaining on us. I soon realise that it’s Cyrus, yesterday’s winner, and the overall race leader.
We continue riding at our threshold pace, but he eventually catches us. It must have been a hell of an effort to bridge the gap because Nick and I were hardly slacking. I’m not too disappointed as the three of us will be able to better hold off the group on the flat.
The false flat arrives almost as soon as we’re joined by Cyrus. I change to the big chainring as the road levels out a bit. Crunch. My feet spin wildly, and I look down to see my chain wrapped around my bottom bracket. I didn’t re-align my front derailleur last night when I changed my cranks over, and my dodgy hotel room DIY mechanical job has cost me dearly.
I pull over, jump off my bike and frantically put my chain back on. I get back on and keep riding, but the whole ordeal has cost me about 20 seconds. The commissarie, who had been driving just behind me, tells me that the main field is still about a minute behind. I can see Cyrus and Nick maybe 150m up the road.
I’ve still got the whole false flat section to go, and because of the aero advantage of drafting behind others on this section, it would be unwise to try to tackle it alone. I have a decision to make: I can try and chase down Cyrus and Nick on my own, or I can soft pedal and wait for the main field to sweep me up. I know that if I can catch Cyrus and Nick, then hold off the peloton, I’ll be on the podium tonight. But if I can’t catch them, I’ll have wasted a lot of energy, and could even get dropped when the main field comes by.
“Crash through or crash,” I think to myself. I’m not a fan of Gough Whitlam, but I’m quite partial to the phrase. I power off in pursuit of the frontrunners. After a couple of minutes on my own, I realise just how far ahead they are. I’m very slowly making up ground, but it’s two against one. I’m burning a whole lot of matches here, and I think about giving up and waiting for the peloton to come by.
“Come on mate!” I yell to myself. I manage to peg the gap back to about twenty metres or so, but I hang back at that distance for a few minutes, seemingly unable to make up those last few meters into the slipstream.
The commisaire pulls up beside me and yells a few words of encouragement. That’s all I need. I make one last push, and bridge that final gap back to Cyrus and Nick, who seem a little surprised that I’ve made it back. I skip a couple of turns on the front while I catch my breath, but I think they understand.
Pretty soon, we arrive at the ticket booth, which marks the beginning of the last section of Hotham. With the false flat behind us, there’s much less advantage in working together now. Cyrus jumps out of the saddle and slowly but surely pulls off on his own. I stay with Nick, just matching his pace as we share turns up a steep section of road. Nick waves me through for a turn just before a corner, and I oblige, setting the pace on the front.
Just around that corner is a short, sharp descent, followed by CRB Hill – arguably the most difficult section of Hotham. I tuck myself down in the drops, and appreciate the brief respite of the descent with Nick in tow. Then, just at the nadir, Nick leaps out from behind me and attacks up CRB Hill. I push hard, but the boost Nick got from slipstreaming me down the hill puts him about ten metres ahead. At this pace, and carrying the fatigue that I am right now, I can’t bridge the gap. I realise too late that I’ve been conned. Well played, sir.
Nick’s move turns out to be decisive. It’s only now I realise just how much of a toll the previous two sections have taken. Suddenly, I’m facing the opposite problem that I was on Tawonga yesterday – my heart and lungs are willing right now, but this pinch is sapping all the strength I have in my legs. My usual antidote to this problem is to change down a gear and spin faster, but on the steep gradient of CRB Hill, I don’t have any gears left, even with my ultra-low setup.
I enter what I call the “climbers’ death spiral” – a lack of strength in my legs causes me to pedal slower, which in turn saps even more strength. Pretty soon, I’m struggling to maintain enough speed to stay upright.
As I grind away, I look behind me, and see a few other riders from C grade riding alone and in pairs. Surely they can’t have caught me already? I keep going, but they’re gaining on me quickly. Pretty soon, the first one is past me. Then another, and another. I lose track of exactly what my placing is in the race. I crest CRB Hill and manage to hold on with a couple of guys, drafting behind them on the next short descent. Another couple of guys pass me and float off into the distance, including Anthony, whom I’d just managed to hold off yesterday. I’m seriously paying for my earlier efforts, and I feel like I’m standing still compared to these guys.
Mercifully, the 2km sign approaches. I know I can’t catch the guys ahead, but I can at least try to contain any further damage. I get out of the saddle to try and punch the pace just a bit. My right calf instantly cramps, and I unintentionally scream. There’s no time to stretch, and I have to keep pedalling with my left leg to avoid falling off. Another rider flies past, yelling a few words of encouragement. I think he can see I’m in deep trouble here.
With a little under 1km to go, I can see #440, Nick Mahoney, behind me, gaining ground slowly. I look down at my hit-list, and I know that he’s only three seconds behind me on GC. I can’t match his pace, but I can see the summit, and I think I might just be able to hold him off until the line. I push round the last corner with everything I’ve got, and the finish line is in sight, replete with an honour guard of spectators and photographers. Nick is right on my wheel.
He jumps out of the saddle and makes a sprint for the line. I don’t have enough strength left in me to cover him, and he rolls across the finish just in front of me. He takes another stage placing from me, but it’s by less than three seconds, so luckily he doesn’t take my GC placing.
I soon find out that I’ve rolled across the line in 9th place, also putting me 9th overall, just over four minutes behind the leader. Cyrus and Nick from the breakaway finish first and third overall, respectively. I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t hold on with them on the last section for a podium finish. But at the same time, I’ve achieved a top ten finish in a very competitive grade in my first season of racing. I’ve also demolished my personal best up Hotham by a quarter of an hour, with a new time of 1 hour 21 minutes.
I took a risk going for the break, and it didn’t work out. I might have finished a couple of places higher if I’d conserved more energy at the beginning of the climb, but at the end of the day, I’m happy with my decision. Nobody is going to remember the guy who came sixth or seventh any more than they remember the guy who came ninth. I completely re-defined the limits of what I thought I was capable of as a cyclist, and I’ll never have any lingering regrets that I didn’t give everything shooting for the top.
Stage placing: 9th
General classification: 9th
Click here to see Nick’s Strava file from stage 3.
Congratulations to Cyrus Monk, Ruben Phillips and Nick White for taking out the top three C grade placings for the weekend. After seeing firsthand the strength on display from all three, their results are certainly well deserved.
Thanks to the Alpine Cycling Club for putting on such a professional and well run event, and to all the volunteers who didn’t get the chance to race at their own club’s race, which is surely Australia’s premier amateur cycling race. I’ll definitely be back next year.
Finally, thanks to all my racing mates from the Northern Combine for all your advice and support, and the excellent crew down at Tenax Ride, without whom I’d never have even learned to ride in a bunch.