Yesterday morning saw me line up for the first time in the Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort Classic, renowned as one of the hardest one day cycling races in Australia and the 3rd event in the Victorian Road Series. After a week of solid rain in Melbourne and a somewhat enforced tapering, the legs were feeling relatively fresh except for a restless sleep the night before as the nerves steadily built. Luckily the weather gods were kind on the day with sun & 20 degrees by the 10:45am race start in Warragul.
The field of 40 riders was smaller than the 60+ from Mt Buller Road Race a few weeks earlier (perhaps an early sign of what was in store), but most of same faces from the competitive end of that race and all of the VRS series leaders.
A few k’s in and a couple of guys moved off the front in an early break but were kept within sight, and a cross wind in the early exposed section briefly put the peleton in the gutter but when the rolling hills started everyone was still together into the repetitive punchy climbs being paced by strong riders at the front, which before long started to fatigue the legs and stretch out the bunch.
It was a hard pace up the hill into the feed zone at the 46km mark, and looking back over my shoulder saw a few pulling off the road to the company of friends and loved ones with supplies of food, water and encouragement to keep going. Unfortunately my own loved one was 65km further up the road (and 1000 metres up in the sky), along with my mobile phone which I had refused to carry for the temptation it may have offered an easy way out.
After the feed zone there was some brief respite while some snacked and chatted and others recovered vision and normal heart rates, followed shortly after by some fast 75kph decents. At about the 60km mark came Vespers Hill, 4km of climbing at an gradient of 8% which all started rather gentlemanly but then I heard some tactical murmurs and a distinct ‘3km to go’ and the pace was dialed up about 30%, unfortunately about 25% higher than my threshold, dropping the wheel in front about half way up the climb. At this point I was sufficiently disoriented that out of 40 starters I couldn’t have told you if there were 10 or 30 people up the road, all I could see was that there were not many behind, and at this point came my first realignment of my race goal from top 10 to top 50%. (The second being at the 80km mark which was finishing the race, and the third at the 100km mark which was finishing without having to stop – despite seeing a couple of A and B graders stretching on the side of the road which made the whole stopping prospect feel more and more socially acceptable).
Riding tempo to the top of Vespers, a small group of us regrouped at the crest and in the kilometers that followed, and rolled together until the 95km mark along some roads which under different circumstances would have been quite beautiful, until the road turned up for the final time where we each settled into our own respective tempos and worlds of hurt.
The final climb up Baw Baw was every bit as brutal as promised – grinding at 40-50 rpm in 34/28 gearing I just couldn’t get on top of the cadence to generate power. For me climbing is all about setting small goals, and mine were to (a) not stop and (b) not concede any places. Sitting back in the saddle my back was screaming, sliding forward in the saddle my quads were cramping and standing up everything hurt simultaneously and heart rate would hit 91%. For a km or so I opted to do the old zig-zag to reduce the effective gradient, trying to work out whether the faster rolling speed but increased distance was translating into a higher VAM compared with pointing uphill and almost bouncing the front wheel with each pedal stroke.
On sections with good (read: soul destroying) lines of sight I could see half a dozen riders dotted up the hill in front and half a dozen behind. I did manage to overtake about 4 riders in the final km’s, but unfortunately as their numbers came in to focus were all tail end A & B graders and would do nothing for my final standing. At points where the gradient dipped from 11.5% to 10% that somehow that felt like relief and I couldn’t believe how slowly each successive mile marker was taking to appear.
Eventually the 1km marker appeared and then 500m, 250m and then over the crest and the finish line was in sight. A quick head check to make sure no one was going to pip me for position on the line and then 4h 15m 46s I swerved over the line partly for style points and partly exhaustion & lack of coordination, just in time for the A grade presentations. Finisher’s medal claimed & I was changed and halfway down the hill in the car with a sandwich before I learned my result in a text message – 14th place in my first ever crack at the Baw Baw Classic and first time climbing the mountain.