Thursday, 29 January 2015

Four peaks


So there I was, lying on the couch with most parts of my body in some kind of pain, and the question was asked. ‘Are you going to write something about your ride like you did last year?’
Last year I rode the 250km loop over Hotham and Falls Creek mostly by myself and had plenty of time to compose things in my head. And the lead-up to the event had been a bit of a saga, including being on crutches and unable to walk only a few weeks before  the ride. So at the end I’d sat down and written about it.

But this year I had my trusty lead-out man and conversation-buddy Nick with me most of the day. And there was the extra 70km of riding to concentrate on. 320km in total. A lap up and down Buffalo at the end, just to be sure. 

Last year was also the first time I’d done the pre-dawn 4am start. This year I was looking out for all of my favourite bits from 12 months ago and they all reported, present and correct. Firstly the bunch ride from Bright to Harrietville, lit up like an MCG night game. Then the cuttings on the lower slopes of Hotham that act as giant screens for bicycle shadow puppets. And then the elevated views from the vantage point at the top of ‘the Meg’ (a particularly steep pinch on the Hotham climb), looking down to the stream of headlights and tail-lights, snaking through the forest.
But I was also using up quite a bit of brain space concentrating on conserving as much energy as possible for later in the day. Every time my legs felt like they were starting to work hard I asked myself if it was necessary. Any gears to switch down to? Would it be any easier to pedal that bit slower? As the top of Hotham approached, the answer started returning negative. Grinding away in my lowest gear, if I rode any slower up these steep ramps near the top of the mountain I’d fall off, especially with the strong wind blowing. So I burned a few matches to make the summit and then settled back into a rhythm that I could sustain all day. Or at least until the next big round of match-burning upon arrival at the ‘Back of Falls’ climb.

In previous years, a long exposed climb out of Omeo has been where I’ve started to notice the heat. But today the forecasted cooler temperatures (forecast top of 28) were already noticeable, helped by a cooling breeze. Or was that a stiff wind? I had a puncture on the bushy and winding valley road toward the base of Falls, but was quickly on my way. I also had a chat with a bloke who had a garage 30 years ago where the person who built the bike frame I was riding started his bike-making business. It is a small world.
The ‘Back of Falls’ climb was as steep and long as it has always been, but the cooler conditions meant far fewer people stopped and panting in the roadside shade than usual. In previous years this climb had been the main event, and getting to the top meant it was time to start planning a fist-pumping victory salute as I crossed the finish line. But this year the ascent of Buffalo at the end of the day was lingering in the back of my mind. Matches needed to be burned here, but I’d definitely need something left in the matchbox to re-light my legs later in the day. 

The stiff breeze had tended head-winderly by the time we reached the plateau across the top of Falls Creek and the relatively benign rolling road was hard work. Even without the wind this transitional section of road always puts me in a melancholy mood. But with Nick doing almost all of the work on the front we were at the Falls Creek checkpoint before I had time to ask the big questions, like ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be nicer back in Bright, relaxing by the river at the brewery?’.
A top up of food (creamed rice, two serves) at Falls Creek and then a long descent toward Mt Beauty had me feeling positive again. Tawonga Gap came and went without causing too much grief. The guy I passed singing along loudly and completely tunelessly to the music playing in his headphones provided some entertainment on the way.

I let my lead-out man off the leash on Towonga, and so was riding by myself as I reached the main road back into Bright. And there, following through on a threat they’d made weeks before-hand, were two friends, Steve and Rhys, ready to pace me into town. Off they set at a cracking pace and I slotted in behind. They had originally promised to pace me into town on a tandem. But their tandem trial-run that morning had apparently not gone well. Perhaps not helped by the loud and public commentary of Rhys riding on the front about being able to feel  Steve’s power from behind.
I really should have known that they’d be there, because they do have form in following things through. I’d noticed some weeks beforehand that the small enclosed trailer Rhys tows around filled with kids bikes and holiday stuff reminded me of a greyhound carrier, but perhaps a bit smaller. Racing ferrets, perhaps? So of course the trailer arrived in Bright with it’s brand new ferret racing team stickers down the side. Including  a photograph of 2 ferrets in a racing car, because that’s the sort of benefit that the internet has delivered to modern society.

I’d been telling myself and everyone else ever since I signed up to the 320km ride option that really it was just the 250km option that I’d previously done with a decision point at the end. And that of course I’d be happy just to finish the 250km and call it a day. But back in Bright at this supposed decision point, buoyed by a bit of banter with my two pacers, I didn’t spend a millisecond thinking about it. Buffalo, here we come.
The headwind had returned, so it was an absolute blessing that Nick had waited for me and promptly took the bit between his teeth and towed me to the base of Buffalo. Having selflessly sacrificed himself in this way, I bid him adieu to ride the climb at his own pace. Which meant I lost sight of him around a corner up ahead within a minute or two.
I’ve ridden the Buffalo climb many times. Including three times in a row a couple of years ago (when bushfires prevented other routes being used on the Audax Australia day weekend). But I’ve never ridden it quite this way before. The sun was getting low in the sky. There were relatively few riders left on the road, so I had the mountain to myself for most of the climb. I settled into a comfortable rhythm and kept moving forwards. My legs were repaying me for being so nice to them all day and were actually feeling good. It turns out that they’re not the weakest link. The rest of my body was starting to revolt. Lower back. Sore. Hands. Sore. Feet. Sore. Shoulders. Sore. Neck. Sore. I pushed a bit harder so that the discomfort in my legs could distract from all those other body parts clamouring for my attention.

I must add that I realise all of this talk of soreness and discomfort is entirely self-inflicted. I use words like ‘enjoyment’ and ‘fun’ to describe why I entered this ride. I’m very aware that there are many people who have soreness and discomfort as a part of their everyday life, with fun having nothing to do with it. I appreciate the difference. Also, Rhys (of racing ferret fame) carries a bit more weight than I do. He’s ridden up Mt Buffalo but it’s a prize that doesn’t come easy. He suggested that climbing it at the end of a long day in the saddle might give me a feel what it’s like for many people to achieve it with fresh legs. It's true. This was a challenge that included quite a big risk of failure. There was every chance that, like someone riding a big mountain for the first time, I might have bitten off more than I could chew and be forced to turn back before the top. I passed a man walking. ‘Cramps’ he said, and asked how far to the top. I answered truthfully. Four or five kilometres. So close, and yet so far. And I only remembered a few minutes later that that distance I gave him was to ‘the Gap’. After a short downhill, there were a couple more kilometres of climbing to the turn-around point at Dingo Dell after that.
Fortunately, my legs remained cramp free and I eventually reached the turn-around and started the descent back to Bright. Buffalo is a fantastic mountain to descend. Lots of sweeping curves and beautiful scenery. Unless you have a sore back that prevents you from comfortably getting into a down-hill tuck. And sore hands that hurt when you apply the brakes as you approach hairpin bends. And sore shoulders and neck that really don’t want to be part of your body any more if you’re going to keep doing things like this. The sun was going down, and the second set of lights that Audax requires you to carry for the 4am start were switched on. Have I really been riding since 4am? That’s 16 hours ago now.

On the flat road back into Bright, the finish was almost in sight. A few riders came streaming past. It would be much easier to jump in behind them and get a free ride to the finish. I look into my mental match box for an unburnt match to give me the kick I need to get on the wheel. It’s completely empty. Instead I limp towards town on my own, constantly changing position on the bike in an effort to be more comfortable. Out of the saddle. Hands on the hoods. Hands on the tops. Leaning forward. Sitting upright. Is that bloke trying to do the Macarena while sitting on his bike? As I hit the edge of town the gravity of the finish line started to draw me towards it and I knew I’d made it. The discomfort eased, and there was suddenly some power back in my legs. I stopped flopping all over the bike and settled into the kind of position that I wouldn’t have thought twice about hours ago. I get cheers from people on the edge of the road. I get applause from people finishing their dinner at the outdoor tables on the main street. I turn into the finishing chute with tears in my eyes. Big applause. Including family and friends who’ve been waiting patiently for a couple of hours, just in case I caught them by surprise and flew up Buffalo.  All I can say to the guy who cuts off my timing tag is ‘I’m wrecked’.
So, I’m lying on the couch shortly afterwards. I have a beer in my hand, but my stomach has had enough craziness for one day and isn’t particularly enjoying it, or any other food. ‘No’, I say. ‘I don’t think I’ll write about it’. But as you know, I don’t always stick to my word.

Crossing the finish line (photo credit: Laura Thomas, aka Mrs Racing Ferrets)

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