A mid-summer ride in the mountains on a new high hill road. 238 kilometres they said, about 4000 metres of climbing. I couldn’t resist it. I doubled my training rides in the Dandenongs. But soon, amidst the pain of yet another ascent of the Wall, started to regret entering. But no, I couldn’t get a refund.
None of my cycling mates were game to come with me. Starting at the top, at Falls Creek, and being such a remote course out in the mountains, I knew that once I set off I was pretty committed to seeing it through. Some way or other I’d have to get myself back to the top of Falls Creek. This was going to be a long hard ride.
My wife came up for the weekend with me and we stayed in Bright, the alpine village on the edge of the mountains. The day before the ride was sunny and warm. But the forecast for Sunday was ominous. Thunderstorms. Possibly turning to more general rain.
The ride started at 7am at the top of Falls Creek ski resort, altitude about 1600 metres. Summer of course so no snow. I was up at 4am to drive to Falls Creek by 5.45am, with the bike in the back of the car. Up till 6am riders could check in bags at Falls Creek to be delivered to one of the three official support points on the course. Driving up the twisting mountain road in the dark there were occasional lightning flashes in the distance, illuminating the hills. I resolved that if it was pouring with rain at the start I’d abandon the ride. I arrived on time to join a small throng delivering plastic bags to three growing piles. I was sending ahead food and electrolyte drinks, a dry towel, and more food. Then the rain started. I trudged back to my car to listen to the rain drumming on the roof and the weather forecast. It wasn’t good. After all my training and the effort to book a place in Bright and so on. Damm.
Then it stopped. The sky cleared and just after 7 the sun rose. I was out of the car, and off. Heading down the 30km descent to Mt Beauty. I worried about cold and inexperienced riders losing control and crashing into me. And the wet slippery roads. I took it steadily. I was well wrapped up to keep warm. At the bottom I planned to strip and carry the warm gear in the back pockets of my cycling jersey during the climb, ready for the next summit and long cold descent.
The first descent completed safely. It was off with my thick warm thermal vest, leaving just a summer weight cycling jersey. Then into the first climb to the top of Tawonga Gap. 12 kilometres of climbing to about 900 metres averaging 6.5%. Not so hard. I was feeling fresh but being careful to pace myself. Still a long way to go. Nearing the top it started to rain. I pulled into the summit lookout carpark, and put on my rain jacket. It was now cold and raining. 190 km to go.
Off on the descent, taking it very easy. Safely down then a 20km fairly flat slog along the valley to Harrietville, the start of the next big climb to the ski resort near the top of Mt Hotham, about 1800 metres up there in the darkening grey clouds. The rain was getting heavier.
A 30 km climb. In the rain. But it cleared near the top giving great views. Cold and windy. Into the descent, and more rain and wind. The effort of climbing for the last hour and a half had kept me warm, but even with my extra warm thermal vest back on I was becoming seriously cold. The road descended gently, straight and cold, draining completely the heat of the ascent.
At about 12:15, 11.5km on from the Summit, I turned into the settlement of Dinner Plain. 115km done. Halfway. But the conditions were dreadful. It was raining heavily and there was a strong cold wind. We were still at 1500 metres altitude. I was now shaking with cold. Over loudspeakers I heard them announcing that a severe storm was forecast for the afternoon and that only very well equipped and prepared riders should proceed. I felt too cold to make a sensible decision, which I knew made the decision obvious. But how to get back from this remote spot on the high plains of the Victorian Alps? “We’re laying on extra buses to get everyone out. They’ll be here in another hour. Or two. But you’ll have to leave your bike here and come back yourself and collect it tomorrow.” That didn’t sound so good. But first some warmth. Some food. The only public building in this barren spot was a large barnlike pub. Squeezing in I found it to be packed with other riders, riders wearing space blankets and plastic bags, huddled together under towels, all shaking with cold. The atmosphere thick as a mountain hut at midnight. I joined the teeth chattering mob, near an open fire thinking that this is how the end of the world might look. Delving into my sent –ahead bag I slowly ate my 9 choc chip biscuits, two energy bars, a banana, somebody else’s abandoned peanut butter sandwich, then went to get my official hand-out lunch which featured cold pasta salad. It would have been great on a hot day.
For a long time I sat huddled by the fire. A picture of disappointment and despair. But then oh so slowly, some warmth returned and I started to look about. I noticed the rain seemed to be easing, even stopping perhaps. Tiny patches of blue sky were appearing. Perhaps maybe I could go on? But it was already 2:45pm. So much time lost. 115km and 2000m upwards to go. It would be a race against darkness. Could I do it?
I set off at a good pace. It was supposedly downhill for 40km to the small township of Omeo. An empty, straight-ish desolate road. I made good speed, but within 5 kilometres it was raining steadily again. I pushed on as hard as I could, catching and passing small groups of riders. But many seemed to have dropped out. The road was quiet. Into Omeo, and a brief stop and shelter under a dripping awning where volunteers plied me with more energy bars and sports drinks. Then onwards, another 30km to Anglers Rest, a solitary pub in the forest that marked the turn in the road to head back towards the top of Falls Creek, the final summit.
There were no other riders in sight now. A narrow winding road through the hills. No houses, no sign of people at all apart from the road. Heavy rain, waterfalls bursting out onto the road from the hillside, flooding across it. Occasional cars passed me with bikes on the back or the roof. Heading home. But I was making good speed. I worked to hold 35kph into the rain. I heard another car coming up from behind, then it slowed beside me. I looked up. It was an ambulance. “They’ve come to take me away, they think I’m a nutter” but I was feeling good, the heat generated was equalling heat lost. Suddenly we rounded a corner to find a small river had burst across the road. We both slowed. “Base One, Base One, this is Ambo 3, conditions are getting seriously bad up here” I thought I heard them say into the radio, then I was on and through the flooding and left them to it.
I saw just two other riders before reaching Anglers Rest and another brief stop under a sagging awning to gobble down energy bars (I was looking for 70grams of carbohydrate an hour) and sports drink. Bottles and pockets refilled I was off again before someone with sense and reason told me I couldn’t.
I was now racing daylight. Sunset was about 7.45 but with the heavy low cloud it was getting dark already and it was only 6. Only 45 kilometres to go, 1.5 hrs on the flat, but I still had more than 1000 metres to climb to get back to the top of Falls Creek. Could I do it in 2 hours? More like 2.5. At least the final 15km could be in darkness, across the top of the mountain. It would be pitch black up there. I thought of my feeble little flashing bike light. I had to go faster, faster.
Now I was entering the new piece of road, very recently sealed, that had made the mountain loop a possible ride for road bikes. Legend had it that part of this climb was very steep. But where did the climb begin? For kilometre after kilometre there was no sign of it. Just rain, waterfalls, an endless winding road and now a few other riders I’d caught up with.
With 200km done, suddenly ahead I noticed a few riders taking a very sharp left hand turn, uh-oh… it didn’t look good, I frantically changed down gears just in time to make the turn into one of the steepest climbs I’ve done. Straight into 18%, stopping most riders dead in their tracks. In my lowest gear, standing, I could just make way. Slowly I wound my way up, everything burning. After a kilometre when it just seemed impossible to go on, it eased slightly to a mere 12%, still an excruciating climb, for another 7 kilometres. Sheer obstinacy kept me going. Distance to go was all I looked at on my bike computer.
With just 22 km left I pulled into the last stop, Trapyard Gap, halfway up the mountain, in the forest, near dark, Hansel and Gretel could live nearby. Nothing there at all except a meeting with another road appearing out of the dark thick bush. Time for a stretch, more energy bars and sports drinks, hunched under another dripping tarp. “Not far now, you’ve done the worst, easy from here on” some cheerful volunteer lied to me. Off again but within 250 metres I was back into the full climb and for another 10km. Still raining as the twilight deepened.
I knew the summit was about 10km before the Falls Creek settlement, but by the time the road started to fall away before my wheel it was completely dark. My puny light flashing was as if nothing in the expanse of the high plain, there was no moon, and in the driving rain my cycling glasses brought visibility to zero. With them off the wind driven rain pierced my eyes like flung fine gravel but I could just make out the dim shape of the road ahead, fortunately surfaced in white quartz. But the quartz carried its own evil. Ahead the road was populated with an occasional tiny red spot of a rear bike light in the distance. I thought they were curiously still, until I realised the quartz chips were sharp and puncturing tyres as if we were riding through a mine field. After 220 kilometres the remaining bikes and their riders were being brought to a standstill. Some bikers code from fairer weather would have had me stopping to help, to share spare inner tubes, but not this night. With hands too cold to feel the brakes or gears, never mind change a tyre, and a final rush of adrenalin to keep me going, I knew I had to just hang on, to keep pushing, that every metre gained was a metre less to walk after my own inevitable soon to be puncture, and then I’d be like them, bike over my shoulder, foot slogging out the final kilometres, to reach Falls Creek settlement before exposure brought me down.
On and on into the blackness. How many more kilometres? How much longer could my tyres hold out? More speed, Is that the road there? Or there? Does it go that way, or this? A car swept by showing the sheeting rain in its lights and giving a brief vision of the road ahead. On and on.
And then suddenly cresting a ridge, I could see the distant lights of Falls Creek. Alone I suddenly found myself racing into a pool of light, a finishing funnel, crowds of cheering people, numb fingers somehow gripped the brakes, I slowed, someone stepped forward and caught my bike as shaking, I almost fell over. Grinning and blinking in the lights, I stood up. It was done.
A few facts:
- 237 kilometres covered
- Departed 7:13am Falls Creek
- Arrived 8:25pm Falls Creek
- 13 hrs 12 mins total day
- 10hrs 7mins in saddle
- Average speed 23.42kph
- Total climb approx 4000 vertical metres
- No punctures although large piece of quarts was later found embedded in the front tyre leading to it being thrown away.
- Tyres: Front was new Continental 4000S, Rear near new Continental 4000S
- Standard 53/39 chainwheel
- 11 speed Record 12/29 rear cassette
- Pinarello Prince bike, Eurus wheels.
- Garmin 705
- Rear light
For most of the ride I wore:
- Thick long sleeve thermal vest
- Long sleeved summer weight racing jersey
- Wind vest
- A new Pearl Izumi white light rain jacket (very good)
- Short knicks, knee warmers, ankle socks
- Oldish blue cycle shoes with Shimano SPD cleats
- Light summer weight skull cap
- Red Limar helmet
- Clear glasses
- 2 x tubes and levers (in small saddlebag)
- 2x750ml bottles (I Endura, 1 Optimiser) (many refills)
- Selection of energy bars
- Mobile phone double wrapped in polythene (but no coverage after Dinner Plain)
I sent ahead:
- 9x choc chip biscuits to each of three locations
- A serve of Optimiser and Endura
- A towel to Dinner Plain
- Stop and eat the same, but keep it going, spend much less time at Dinner Plain
- Makes sure I have a proper front light just in case
- Send ahead more of my own food eg tinned rice pudding (would have been yum), perhaps another tube to each place
- Staying at Bright was OK but staying in one of the Lodges at Falls would have been more convenient if my (non-cyclist) wife had not chosen to come along (and there was more for her to do in Bright).