Thursday, 28 January 2016

Lanterne Rouge

Red lights, high visibility vests and porta-loos at the summit of Mt Buffalo

Lanterne Rouge. It’s French for ‘red lantern’. The person in last place in a bicycle race. Most famously in the most famous of all the famous bike races, Le Tour de France. In that race the position of lanterne rouge holds some prestige. Elevated above common peloton-fodder, the lantern rouge embodies the physical and mental battle required just to finish.

On a slightly less grand stage, the Audax Alpine Classic is a collection of rides that have been held on the Australia Day weekend in and around Bright for the past 30 years. The event includes many different rides combining the various mountain climbs in the area, and each year a lantern rouge is celebrated.

Every year the event involves a festival atmosphere in the riverside park in Bright where the rides start and finish. Finishers sit around with family and friends eating, drinking and listening to live music. As the sun starts to set and the organisers want to start packing up, the imminent arrival of the lantern rouge is announced, people line the finishing chute, and the motorcycle marshalls escort the last finisher over the line to the cheers of the assembled crowds. People in the crowd say to each other ‘Geez, they’ve had a long day in the saddle’ and everyone goes home. I know this, and can recount it in such graphic detail, because I used to be one of those spectators.

For many of those 30 years the longest ride offered was 200 kilometres including the Towonga Gap, Falls Creek and Mt Buffalo climbs. A few years ago, with the sealing of the ‘back’ side of the Falls Creek climb, a 250km ride was introduced involving a loop around Mt Hotham, Falls Creek and Towonga Gap. And then last year they added a ride that included a return trip to Mt Buffalo at the end of the 250km loop, just for good measure. That makes a total of 320km in total, in one day.

The Alpine Classic rides have all traditionally had a time cut equating to an average speed of 15 kilometres per hour. So back when the 200km ride was the longest on offer, the typical lantern rouge was someone who met this average speed, ably playing the part of the tortoise. While the hares scampered away in their matching lycra with their lightweight bikes, the tortoises would set a steady pace on their more robust steeds wearing legionnaire caps under their helmets and keep going until they finished.

In order to shoe-horn the current longest ride into a single sensible day, the time cut has become more challenging. A 15km/hr average would allow over 21 hours to complete the course. Even with a 4am start, this would have the lanterne rouge arriving in the early hours of the morning. Instead, the sun-down lantern rouge arrival time slot has been maintained and the average speed required has been increased. It makes for a more challenging ride and in recognition of this you have to submit your credentials in order to be allowed to enter. Of the thousands of people who entered the various Alpine Classic rides this year, only around 100 chose to test themselves against the 320km option.

This year was my second attempt at it. Last year I finished the ride as the sun was low in the sky, not long before the lantern rouge rolled through. This year, I finished again, after the lantern rouge. I had a personal cheer squad on the (partially packed up) finishing line, so I didn’t miss out on a rousing welcome. But I missed the time cut. All while wearing fabulous matching lycra and riding my fabulous lightweight bicycle.

Last year, the 320km ride was run with the Mt Buffalo leg last. You did the 250km loop and then passed back through Bright before heading up Mt Buffalo. It was well advertised that you needed to make the 5pm time cut at the Bright checkpoint to be allowed to ride the final leg up and down Buffalo. The time cut at the Bright checkpoint was in the front of my mind all day (‘I must be in Bright by 5pm, I must be in Bright by 5pm’, repeated in my mind for 12 hours). I made the time cut and finished the ride.

This year, to minimise the impact of the rides on local roads and businesses, the Mt Buffalo legs were all run in the morning. So the 320km ride started with a warm-up return ride to Buffalo before heading off for the serious business of the 250km loop via Omeo. That meant that the last checkpoint before the finishing line was at Falls Creek. By that point in the ride the majority of the climbing for the day was out of the way, so it didn’t seem very important. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of what the time cut for the Falls Creek checkpoint was.

So, I departed Bright at 4am with a group of 4 (Nick, Quentin, Chris and I) and rode up and down Mt Buffalo. The sunrise and moon-set were both beautiful, and the mist rising off Lake Catani was stunning, but the riding passed without incident. Things became more interesting as we came back through Bright.

Soon after the first pneumatic tyre for a bicycle was invented, someone put something sharp in the path of the newfangled machine and enjoyed watching as their simple and undetectable actions made the thing unrideable. It’s been happening ever since. And so, just out of the Bright town limits, our group of four suffered three punctures, all caused by drawing pins. We’d only just passed someone else also mending a puncture who later confirmed that they had also removed more than one drawing pin from their tyres. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I suspect some foul play. Repairs made, we continued on.

The road to Harrietville is long, mostly straight, and slightly uphill. Normally I’ve ridden it in a large bunch with very fresh legs at the start of the event. This year it felt wrong. The field by now was well spread out and other riders were few and far between. It felt like we’d slept in by 3 or 4 hours and missed the start. To add to this, one of our number, Nick, announced that he was not feeling good. Normally the mountain goat, he’d been knocked about with a chest infection for the month prior, so it hadn’t been an ideal preparation. He turned around at the water stop 16km into the Hotham climb and returned to Bright.

We continued on with a strategy of conserving energy for the hardest climb of the day up Falls Creek. In hindsight, our pacing strategy could have done with a bit more hare and a bit less tortoise. By the time we reached the Omeo checkpoint the volunteers there reported that there were only about 10 of the 100 riders who started the ride behind us. We weren’t too concerned. Our plan was to finish the ride, not beat records.

As we reached the dreaded steep Falls Creek climb, the clouds came over and cooled things down. We grunted our way to the top, feeling good and knowing that the hardest parts of the ride were now behind us.

I was riding happily at my own pace through beautiful forest (‘is that a wombat I can see in the clearing over there?’) about 100 metres behind Quentin and Chris when two motorcycle marshalls came into view. One stopped and spoke to them, the other to me. We were told that we weren’t going to make the Falls Creek time cut. The sag wagon was about to commence picking people up, starting at the back, and when it came past we’d have to jump in. We didn’t need to talk to each other to come to the same conclusion. It was every man for himself as we rode as hard as possible for the 15km across the Falls Creek plateau trying to beat the sag wagon to the descent. Once on the descent, the van towing a trailer wouldn’t have a hope of catching us until after the road flattened out at Mount Beauty, if at all. 

This is when it became very evident that our pacing strategy had worked too well. While other people given the same message were mostly looking cooked and happily stopped by the roadside waiting for the van to save them, we rode like the clappers. The thought of sitting in the van and slowly trundling down the hill with legs that were feeling good was too much to bear.

Frequent looks over the shoulder as I time-trialled across the plateau showed no sign of the dreaded trailer-towing van. I passed another rider at the end of the descent into Mount Beauty and he confirmed that he too was fleeing the sag wagon. We were spotted by some different motorcycle marshalls who seemed surprised to see us, but gave us the thumbs up and sent us on our way.

The final climb is Tawonga Gap. From the Mount Beauty side it’s only 7km long, but relatively steep. I was concerned that any sign of struggle or weakness might make the marshalls change their mind and throw me in the van. So I pushed myself and tried to give the impression of someone doing it with ease. Surprisingly, my bluff also seemed to fool my legs and I was soon at the top. The sag wagon caught me just a kilometre from the summit.  One of the volunteers hung out the window and asked if everything was OK. It was. I could smell the finish line from here.

So I rode into town, behind the lanterne rouge, but feeling very happy to have had the opportunity to have finished. If you take out the punctures, I did the ride in pretty much the same time as the year before. And despite the 70km time trial I did at the end running away from the sag wagon, my body felt in much better shape.

For 2017 I’ll be using the mental image of the sag wagon chasing me as a way to inject a little more hare into my pacing strategy. I’m looking forward to finishing in time to watch the lantern rouge cross the line and to say, ‘Geez, they’ve had a long day in the saddle. Time to go home’.

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