Well, I think this report is as long as the ride itself...
On Saturday we got to Falls Creek, just in time to miss the start of the last briefing, but as we walked towards to the crowd, I heard something that sounded wrong. “The riders would be released, slowest to fastest. They will be sent down in groups of 5 to 10...”
What? Did I hear that correctly? Slowest to fastest? I wasn’t really close enough to the briefing to hear that right, but if true, that has to be a recipe for disaster. Well, turns out that wasn’t the disaster. Instead, the weather was.
We got to the starting line on time. My riding buddy was supposed to be in the slowest group, me in the 2nd slowest. We wanted to ride together, so we thought we would both start with the slowies. And it turned out I did hear the previous days announcement correctly, and we were in the first group. We started at 7:01.
The early morning rain had stopped, but the roads were still wet. I’m definitely not an experienced descender, and definitely not in the wet. So I was planning to take it easy, and be careful. I was pleasantly surprised by the cautiousness of all my fellow riders on the decent, and brakes were order of the day. I think I hardly turned a pedal for the first 8 km. In the back of my mind was the thought that the speedie guys would be coming through soon and all hell would break loose, but it simply never happened. Maybe the damp roads or the speed limit made it an even playing field, not sure.
We arrived at the base of the first climb. It wasn’t too cold, so we stopped and removed arms, legs and spray jacket. The climb started, and it was surprisingly steep. In preparation, I had been almost obsessed with studying gradients, and people’s posts about Hotham and the back of Falls, and didn’t really consider Tawonga as much of a challenge. Well it is. Fortunately, it was very early in the ride, we had hardly turned a pedal on the Falls descent, plus we had done enough training in the Dandenongs, so it was climbed without too much drama. It has to be said though, it looked like a few people were struggling. Not sure how they would go on the next climbs.
At the top, I was thinking that it was a bad move to bring the arm and leg warmings. I thought they were proving to be lumpy additions to my pockets that I wouldn’t need. In fact, if someone at the top asked if there were unwanted items that could be transported back to Falls, I would’ve thrown them in. I’m glad it wasn’t an option.
The rain started for the descent, so again, I was cautious, and surprised that I wasn’t the slowest.
That sector is now a bit of a blur, but I remember we arrived at Harrietville with anticipation for the Hotham climb. A quick stop to refill bottles, a bit of food, and the climb started. And yes, it was hard. I think this is where my Devil’s Elbow on a 39x23 training paid off. There I simply couldn’t sit down and had to stand for the 18-19 minute climb. And now, with my 39 x 27, I was standing on the pedals again. Not fast, but at least still going. It was tough, and there were a few who had to resort to walking their bikes up some of the steeper sections. I’ve never been up to Hotham, and as I got higher into the cold, wet and wind, it was an eerie sight with clouds above and below. I stopped twice for a photo or two, which didn’t do it justice. The wind now was getting strong, but the climb kept me warm. Despite the harsh conditions, most people seemed in good spirits.
This changed when I hit the top. Now it was downhill to Dinner Plain. I stopped at the Skier bridge, and put on my jacket. Time: Harrietville to the skier bridge, 2:03:50 + 11 minutes stopping for photos and at the aid station half way up.
The expectation was climb, get to the top, then a quick downhill to Dinner Plain. Well, it wasn’t so quick. It was cold, the road was wet, the wind was fierce, hands were shaking, all combining to make it a very LOOONG 10km to Dinner Plain. It seemed to take forever. Being downhill, there was no real pedalling to keep warm, and it was getting colder and colder. Plus, by now it had been over 5 hours since leaving Falls, so everything was contributing to a very unpleasant descent.
Arriving at Dinner Plain was very welcome. We found a (relatively) warm spot in the pub and defrosted while we debated the next move. Everyone around seemed to be on the phone calling for rescue. We didn’t have the luxury of having support back at Falls to come and get us. If there was someone, we probably would’ve pulled the pin. I checked the BOM radar on the phone, there was a break in the rain, but it looked like the wet would return and continue for a while. The announcement came that extra buses were on their way, but the bikes would have to stay. Leaving the bikes alone for a few hours didn’t sound appealing.
It was 2:00, we had been here for almost 90 minutes, decision time. We had warmed up, and relatively recovered, so decided to head to Omeo, and make a decision there. At least it would be warmer.
2:10, I was back on the bike this time wearing everything I was carrying. We found a small group, and sat in the pack. In no time, that familiar feeling of rain started again. Not too heavy though.
It was at this point that I discovered what a wimp I am. On the wet roads, downhill, I was on the brakes a lot. The pack that I was in, slowly disappeared into the distance, but on the plus side, I always felt in control.
Arriving at Omeo, was far more pleasant. While it was still raining, it was a little warmer, and the wind had dropped to just a breeze. A quick pit stop, and off again.
The rain continued, not too heavy, but still annoying, and this ‘flat’ section seemed to contain a very long gradual ascent. It seemed to drag on for kilometres, but on the plus side, every metre climbed here, was one less metre that would have to be climbed on Falls.
Anglers Rest was a muddy stop. It was still a few hours from sun set, but every bike leaving was ordered to switch on lights. I wonder what the reaction would’ve been, if someone attempted to skip past with no lights. I never found out, as everyone complied. The next 10 km seemed to be very quick, with the anticipation of the last climb. We arrived, at the base of Falls, and stopped for a breather. One more gel, emptied my spare bottle, and a quick leak. This is as light as I’m going to get.
The climb started, it was steep. Not sure if it was as steep as the Meg, but it was much longer. After about a km, I had to stop and remove the leg warmers. It’s surprising how much recovery you get from a 2 minute pause, and off I went again. After almost 200km under our belts, it is a brutal climb. It just seems to stretch on and on. I should probably mention here, a little helper I was carrying. My GPS. It has a feature called a training partner, were you can compete with yourself when you compare your current ride to a previous attempt at the same course. Well, you can also import a ride, which I did of all the climbs. The big bonus is that it will show a course profile, and where you are on it. So, while climbing, I could see that I still had a long way up, but at least I could see that gradient would ease soon. Having said that, the elevations weren’t always accurate, but it gave me some indication of things to come.
The climbing continued, and the number of people walking their bikes increased. No shame there, it is an unbelievable climb, especially having already done so many kms. It felt like hours of climbing, and I stared at the GPS elevation, looking for an end in sight. At one point, I discovered that it levelled out in 2km, which felt very close. Normally with this level of effort, 2 km would take about 3 and a half minutes. Unfortunately, at only 10km/h or less, 2 km it’s closer to 15 minutes. Finally, I reached the last aid station. Refill the bottle, ANOTHER gel and winners bar, and for something different, it was still raining. The sag wagon was there, and the announcement was made, if you want a ride get on now, it’s about to depart.
Hmmm, let me think. 210 km down 23 to go. It felt so near, and yet so far. My batteries were still giving my lights full power, I felt reasonably good (well let’s just say OK), no sag wagon for me. Not many others hopped on either. Leg warmers back on, and it was back on the bike for the last sector.
As the kilometres slowly clicked over, it was slowly getting darker, and darker, and there seemed to be more and more riders stopped fixing punctures. This now became more new obsession. It was cold, but moving kept me warm. The last thing I wanted was to be stopped fixing a puncture. Another poor bugger with a flat, are mine still inflated? Every time there was slight movement underneath due to wet roads or shifting surface, I felt it was a sign of a deflating tyre.
The GPS was saying I’d completed 220km, the end must be getting close, hopefully only 10 to go. Then I see a horrible sight, Falls creek 15km. It started getting darker, almost night fall, and now the wind was picking up. As the road turned and changed direction, we went from lovely tail wind, to turning into icy rain being pounded into your face.
I could see emergency flashing lights ahead, don’t tell me there’s been an incident. As I got closer, I could see it’s an ambulance. Fortunately, no accident, instead the ambo had it’s headlights on two riders fixing flats. Not a bad position. If their temperature dropped, at least help was at hand.
This brought the focus back to flat tyres. Getting very close now, if I have a flat now, would I fix it, or just pump it up and limp home? A decision I hoped I wouldn’t have to make.
At last, the lake. That means only 4 km to go. Please no flats, as I pass another rider fixing a flat. Rain still falling, wind as strong as ever. And at last, the car park, turn the corner, people are cheering (surprisingly), and thirteen hours after leaving the same spot, 10:30:44 of which was on the bike, 236.3 km covered, with 4299m of climbing, and I’m done... It was (almost) an emotional moment.
Post script: After a solid night sleep, I woke to find my front tyre deflated. It survived the ride, just.