What it takes to organise the Melbourne Dirty Dozen
It’s been over a week now since the seventh edition of the Melbourne Dirty Dozen. Since then I’ve been trying to work out the best way to sum up the day.
I could write about how tough the ride was, how satisfying it was to see and hear how much people enjoyed themselves, and how grateful I am to my amazing helpers. All of those things are true and you can read about them below. But I also want to do something a little different with this post.
I want to share the story of how an event like DD18 comes together. I want to pull back the curtain and show you what goes into organising even a relatively humble little cycling event. For years I’ve written about how satisfying these events are on the day and how much of a buzz I get seeing people come along and have a good time. But I think it’s only by knowing what goes into pulling it together that you’ll be able to understand why it’s so satisfying.
So, with that out of the way, here’s what went into organising DD18: The 2018 Melbourne Dirty Dozen.
Planning for DD18 started nearly four months before the ride. I’d known since last year’s event that I wanted to hold another edition down in Dromana — there were too many good climbs in the area to cover in just one ride. We’d need another edition to get the most out of the region.
I went back and read my blog post about last year’s ride, trying to jog my memory about the climbs that I could have lived without. And then I got in touch with Blommy.
For those of you that haven’t seen his handiwork here on the site, David Blom has been a key part of The Climbing Cyclist for years now. He’s written articles, he’s put together fictional bike race routes, he’s given me article ideas, and he was the one that first suggested I organise a Melbourne version of the Dirty Dozen, a tough hill climb event that started in the US in the 1980s and that captured Blommy’s imagination.
Every year since that first Melbourne Dirty Dozen, back in 2012, Blommy has helped me design the courses. He has a job that sees him looking at maps quite often and like me, he’s quite fond of a hill. He’s been instrumental in helping me design courses in the Dandenongs, around Warburton and near Dromana — the three locations we’ve held Dirty Dozens in so far.
So as I started thinking about DD18, I went to Blommy and asked him what climbs I should consider adding to this year’s route. He came back with a few suggestions, not least the brutally steep Waterfall Gully Rd which climbs from Rosebud up the back of Arthurs Seat.
I jumped on Google Maps and Ride With GPS to check out all of his suggestions, looking for a combination of tough, sustained gradients and proximity to other climbs. I came up with a shortlist that I felt were worthy of consideration; worthy of checking out in person.
Sometime in early June I drove down to Dromana with my girlfriend Imogen and considered a bunch of the potential new additions. Some seemed like must-includes, others didn’t grab me quite as much. Either way it allowed me to come home and start mapping out an initial course:
As you can see above, Waterfall Gully Rd wasn’t part of that initial route. As I told Blommy via email: “I like Waterfull Gully Road a lot, but it’s a bit out of the way and I’m not quite sure how to do it such that riders aren’t descending Arthurs, climbing Arthurs then descending again.” To his credit, Dave convinced me to put it back in, suggesting that it was worth the detour and descending Arthurs twice. He was right.
I drafted a second version of the course, with Waterfall Gully Road included, and then, in mid July, I went down to Dromana with my brother Brendan to ride the new sections that would eventually made it into the route. We rode Ponyara Rd, we climbed the extra gravel bit of Park Rd, we checked out Hillview Quarry Rd, and then we climbed Waterfall Gully Rd.
Even though I’d driven up it a few weeks earlier, Waterfall Gully Rd caught me by surprise. The steep gravel part was hard enough, but that brutal bit of roughly paved road straight after it? It was like the first time I saw the steep part of Mt. Baw Baw or Martyr Rd or Invermay Rd. It’s a truly imposing bit of road, and more than a little tough on a pushbike (max gradient 28%).
I asked Brendan afterwards whether the climb was too hard. Both of us were unsure. In that original version of the course we’d had it as the second climb of the day — a pretty demoralising start to the ride. When I got home I rejigged the course once more, moving Waterfall Gully Road back to climb seven, making it a sort-of halfway point (much as I’d done with Mast Gully Road in the Dandenongs in the past.) That would be the final change I’d make — we’d arrived at the final version of the route.
Designing courses is the easiest and most enjoyable part of organising the Dirty Dozen. I love the creative process, I love maps, and the trial and error of course design really resonates with me. Sadly, this is also the least time-consuming part of the whole process.
While I was busy designing and refining the course, I was already in talks with the local council (Mornington Peninsula Shire) and VicRoads. I’d need permission from both in order for the ride to go ahead.
I was pleased with the start/finish location we’d used last year — the Dromana Recreation Reserve — and was keen to use it again. Even though I’d been through the same process last year, there was still more than 20 pages of documentation to complete in order to get the council permit I needed. In addition to the main application form, I had to create an emergency management plan, a risk management plan and a site plan. I also had to share the route with them, to make sure their traffic team had no issues with what we had planned.
The course changed between my first contact with them and getting approval, extending the time it took to get my permit sorted. There’s also a cost attached to getting the event permit.
I also ran into a slight issue with the timing of the event. My good friend Andy van Bergen moved his event Ol’ Dirty back a week in 2018, putting it on the day I had pencilled in for Dirty Dozen. It was my fault — I didn’t get in soon enough so, not wanting to compete with Andy’s event (or Amy’s Gran Fondo a week earlier), I had to push Dirty Dozen back a week too. It meant that the Dromana Recreation Reserve would be in use, for a cricket game, but in the end it worked out fine. Council gave me approval to use the reserve, so long as people parked elsewhere (giving the cricketers somewhere to park).
In the end the cricket match never happened.
At the same time I was going back and forth with VicRoads, trying to see if they had any issues with the course. I’ve worked with VicRoads on a couple dozen events now and I’ve got a pretty good idea what they’re looking for. That certainly helps when designing courses and reduces the need for much back-and-forth.
For the most part, VicRoads is happy if you can show limited impact on other road users. That’s why the Dirty Dozen courses avoid main roads as much as possible (especially those without bike lanes) and why we have a start window rather than a mass start. This ensures small groups on the road, rather than one massive group. VicRoads also prefers to avoid right-turns on major roads, given the safety implications.
Even knowing what VicRoads wanted, the process wasn’t simple. I needed to pay a traffic management company to create an official traffic management plan. Before that though I needed a verbal approval from VicRoads on the course — I didn’t want to end up paying twice.
It took probably a month but in the end VicRoads gave me the verbal all-clear. I got the traffic management plan created, wrote a list of the VicRoads roads affected by the event (with Melways references, as required — bless them) and sent it all over in late July. I wouldn’t get my VicRoads permit until mid September.
The paperwork didn’t end at VicRoads and the local council. I needed to inform local police, the CFA, and Ambulance Victoria of the event, explaining to the last of those that a first aid service would be provided on the day. Then there was the matter of insurance.
In order to hold a public event like this, you need public liability insurance covering up to $20 million — VicRoads and council won’t sign off on the event until you have it. Thankfully, this was easy to organise thanks to an existing relationship from last year’s event.
It’s worth noting that I opened entries to this event in mid July, long before I got sign-off from council or VicRoads. It’s simply not possible to wait until you’ve got your approvals — you’d literally have two weeks to generate interest about your event and sell tickets. And so, every year, I need to take a leap of faith, opening entries before I’ve been given official permission to run the event. I know each year that it’s going to be fine, and it always is (except for that one time in 2014 that it wasn’t and I had to postponed the event), but it doesn’t stop it from being stressful.
About six weeks out from the event I started creating the souvenir map that riders receive when they start their ride. It’s a big project — I’d estimate 15 hours from start to finish, before sending it off to the printers. When the maps arrived, I headed to Officeworks and bought plastic sleeves to help protect the maps from sweat and the rain when in riders’ jersey pockets. Sleeving over 200 maps took probably two to three hours, spread over a week or so.
Every day for roughly the last two months before the ride I had DD18 in the back of my head. It was never overwhelmingly stressful, but it was always there, gnawing away in the background. What did I still need to organise? What was I waiting on? What was within my control? What could I do to keep things moving along?
I started revealing the day’s climbs one by one in early August, on the event’s Facebook page, using photos from last year’s recon ride, and from the recon ride I did with Brendan in July. The plan was to keep the ride front of mind for people while also building some anticipation about what the ride involved.
I got back in touch with my friends at Winners Cycling to see if they’d like to support the ride again. They were happy to be involved, offering bars, gels and chews for riders. I’m grateful they decided to throw their hat in the ring once more — thanks guys!
Then there was the issue of on-the-day traffic management — someone had to execute the traffic management plan that we’d submitted to VicRoads, putting out and packing up signs to let other road users know about the event. In the end I went for the company I used last year, using signs that I bought for DD17 (they didn’t have any “event in progress” signs with cyclists on them).
In the early days of organising DD18 I’d been in touch with South East Water, the owners and operators of a tank site in McCrae. We’d climbed the access road to the site last year, and this year I was hoping we’d be able to get access to the site itself, extending that climb even further. I got in touch with someone at South East Water who, after a couple weeks, came back to me with a polite “no”. I wasn’t surprised. But then something weird happened.
I was searching my email inbox one day, looking for South East Water’s reply, and I came across the email address of a rider who came along to DD17: Orry Thomas. I sent Orry an email, asking if he’d be able to put in a good word for me and get the gate open. He did exactly that.
I drove down to McCrae one day to inspect the site with Orry and do a risk assessment. From there it was basically job done. Orry volunteered to man the site on the day which I was very grateful for. In the end it only extended The Laneways climb by 50-100 metres or so, but being such a steep ramp into the site, I think it added a certain something to DD18. Thanks Orry!
A couple weeks out from the event I received both my VicRoads and council permits. I was able to breathe a big sigh of relief. With permits in, the maps delivered and sleeved, and everything basically ready to go, the final fortnight before DD18 was surprisingly calm. I was able to go and enjoy an excellent ride at Ol’ Dirty before turning my attention to the finishing touches for DD18. Things like receiving the Winners Bars, giving the signs to the traffic management company, and writing the big ride guide email, all happened in that final week.
On the Friday before the ride — the AFL Grand Final public holiday — I spent most of the day shopping, buying all the food, drink and BBQ gear we’d need on Sunday. I also picked up Imogen’s family’s van so we’d have enough room to transport everything down to Dromana. Then on Saturday, I spent roughly 4-5 hours (with Imogen’s help) on food prep: chopping onions, and making, from scratch, a giant tub of coleslaw. Then it was a case of loading everything into the van and heading down to Brendan’s place in Frankston, picking up a BBQ on the way. We had a family dinner down in Mornington then stayed at Brendan’s place for the night, making it a much shorter drive to Dromana in the morning.
On the morning of DD18, we arrived at the start location at 6:45am, roughly 45 minutes before the start window opened. Riders were already there milling about, ready to get started. We got set up, with Imogen and my step mum Sue getting riders checked in and handing out Winners bars (and some Anzac biscuits that Sue made — thanks Sue!). At about 8:30am, with Dad, Sue and Imogen running everything smoothly, I started the ride with Blommy and a few others in tow. After all the hard work getting DD18 ready, I certainly wasn’t going to miss out on riding it myself.
As for the ride itself — it was tough! To me it felt a touch harder than last year, thanks in no small part to the addition of Waterfall Gully Rd. I’m very glad Blommy convinced me to keep it in the route — it was the toughest and most memorable climb of the day, and the one that the most people were talking about after the ride.
Blommy smashed me up almost every climb. As I spun a small gear trying to conserve my energy, he’d grind away into the distance, always putting 30 seconds to a minute into me by climb’s end. My strategy was to save as much energy as I could for the tough final few climbs.
For me, the early climbs were all about finding a rhythm and trying to wake the legs up. Somewhere around climb #6 or the bonus climb, things started to feel tough. And with Waterfall Gully Rd looming, I was more than a little apprehensive about how I’d go in the latter stages.
But having ridden Waterfall Gully Rd before, I knew what to expect and how to measure my effort. A highlight of the day was rounding the corner after the steep gravel section and coming face to face with the steepest part of the ascent. Long-time Dirty Dozen rider and friend of the site, Marcus Nyeholt, was just ahead of me and I heard him yell out “Oh Jesus!” or words to that effect. Success.
I started to fade in the final climbs, as tends to happen, but I was determined to save something for Arthurs Seat — the final climb. When Blommy ramped up the pace I gave it everything to stick to his wheel, following his pace. With a few hundred metres to go, I could see that he was tiring. So in a most unsporting gesture, I attacked hard and left him behind, catching Brendan just before the top (he’d started a while before me and had had a puncture on Arthurs Seat).
I had no trouble admitting that Blommy was the stronger climber on the day. But I did enjoy getting one over him!
With adrenaline pumping, having just finished the final climb, we rolled back down to Dromana for the BBQ. As ever, my amazing helpers had done a terrific job, setting things up and serving lunch to the hungry masses. Thanks guys — I couldn’t have done it without you! It’s always one of the most satisfying parts of the ride, coming back and seeing things in full swing, and hearing how much people enjoyed the ride. I lost track of the number of people that came up and said thanks for the ride, or that raved about their day. Thanks to those that did — it means a lot.
Once everyone left, we set about getting everything packed up. We left the park at around 2:30pm, dropped off the BBQ, then made our way back to Melbourne. I was exhausted by the time I got home — it had been a long day, a very tough ride, and the culmination of a lot of hard work.
So there you go — a rather lengthy look behind the scenes at DD18. As you can see there’s a fair bit that goes into it, especially when it’s just one person doing the bulk of it, while working a full-time job. And that’s for a relative modest event with roughly 200 riders, a very basic setup, and a simple BBQ lunch. Now extrapolate that into something like Hells 500’s Ol’ Dirty, or CyclingTips’ Giro della Donna, or Bicycle Network’s Peaks Challenge, or Around the Bay in a Day and you can only imagine how much is involved.
Organising rides is tricky and time-consuming and I’m glad the Melbourne Dirty Dozen isn’t any bigger than it is. It’s a lot of hard work but also immensely satisfying when it all comes together. See you in 2019 for the eighth edition?
Click through to see my Strava file from DD18: The 2018 Melbourne Dirty Dozen.