It's 4am on a Saturday morning, late January 2017, and I’m with my bike in down-town Bright, preparing to embark on my annual day-long pedal-powered tour of the high country.
It’s the third time a 320km option has been offered as a part of the Audax Alpine Classic, and it’s the third time I’ve been on the start line. The ride includes ascents of Mt Buffalo, Mt Hotham, Falls Creek and Tawonga Gap. Happily, I’ve finished both previous attempts at the ride. Unhappily, I’ve missed the time cut both times. Not by much, but by enough for me to feel that there’s unfinished business.
Last year I started in the dark and finished in the dark. It wasn’t that I suffered too much. We just had some bad luck (punctures, a riding buddy dropping out mid-ride due to illness) and were thinking more about finishing than the time cut. A few minutes too long at each of the check points adds up over a whole day.
As a result, I have a determination in my belly that has been brewing since I crossed the line last year. A determination that is giving me a nervous twitch even as I stand waiting for my riding companions at ten to four in the morning. Where are they? We don’t want to start too far back in the pack! We could lose minutes!
My riding companions arrive in plenty of time. Quentin and Chris who have also both done this ride before, and have both also danced with the time cut.
Mount Buffalo is first on the agenda. In the pre-dawn blackness, it’s like riding through a tunnel. You can’t tick off the visual landmarks along the way. Instead, you get sucked along with the stream of other cyclists, accompanied by headlight shadows and flashing red tail lights. Combined with fresh legs and a pre-ride caffeine hit, Buffalo feels like a gift. Ride 3 peaks and get one free.
We see the first returning rider as we ride over the Gap at the top of the main Buffalo climb, but we’ve made good time. The temperature drops by about ten degrees as we ride into the shallow depression that sits on top of the mountain, and past Lake Catani that has a layer of mist hanging over it. We turn around at Dingo Dell. I recognise a person I used to work with and who I haven’t seen for about 15 years. But my belly full of determination cuts off the conversation. I’m battling a time cut today. There’s no time for standing still and small talk.
The sun rises over the surrounding mountains as we descend back into the valley. A friend has lent me a camera that’s attached to the front of my bike. I turn the camera off and on during the day to create some pre-edited highlights. This footage was going to be the highlight of the highlights. The orange sunrise over distant blue hills, sweeping in and out of view as I wind my way through hairpin turns. Unfortunately I find out later that the footage I thought I’d captured here wasn't. You’ll just have to trust me that it was stunning.
We were back in Bright just after 7am, ready for the big ‘three peaks’ loop. The road to Harrietville is long, dull, and ever so slightly up hill. We have some company, but the field has thinned out. Most of the riders who started with us at 4am have taken the Tawonga Gap turn-off. They’re doing the 200km ride option and many of them will be back in Bright for lunch.
It takes an hour to reach the next mountain on our agenda. While there are some steep pinches on the lower slopes of Mount Hotham, the real leg-sappers don’t start until the trees thin-out and the summit comes into sight about 10 kilometres from the top. But my preparation has been good, and my legs are feeling strong.
I’ve been riding at my own pace most of the way up Hotham, and have distanced my two riding companions. I reach the Dinner Plain checkpoint on my own. My time-cut-induced twitch starts to reappear. Hopefully they’re not too far behind. I fill my bottles and eat some food. I start to apply some more sunscreen. Phew, there arrive, not more than a couple of minutes after me. But I leave the checkpoint before them anyway, so that they can catch me along the way. Being on a moving bicycle is the only thing that keeps my time-cut anxiety at bay.
The Hotham descent is wholly unsatisfying. There are no scenic twists and turns and the scenic sunrise has long gone. It goes down a little bit, but before you know it you’re working hard, riding through rolling farmland in the hot sun. We’re on the high plains, so it won’t get to the 36 degrees forecast for the lowlands, but it’s hot enough. I keep my legs ticking over, and eventually arrive in Omeo, once again ahead of my riding companions. Once again they arrive shortly after, putting an end to my twitchiness. I’m definitely not leaving before them from this checkpoint. The next couple of hours of riding between Omeo and the base of the Falls Creek climb is exactly where you need company and a wheel to follow.
First off, we tackle the climb out of Omeo. It’s not steep and it’s only about 4 kilometres long, but it’s very exposed to the sun, and by now it’s the middle of the day. I’ve heard the climb referred to as Bingo Gap. It’s always nice to put it behind you and get onto the lovely flat winding section of road to Anglers Rest.
Past Anglers Rest and we’re approaching the back side of Falls Creek. Long, steep and hot, it took its fair share of victims this year. We pass perhaps a dozen people off their bikes and walking. I was fearing the worst for our riding companion Chris, who was complaining of heat-induced all-over body tingles. But fortunately a water stop was in sight, and a long drink and a liberal dousing in water saw him bounce back.
Once at Falls Creek, the ride is almost over. We've beaten the intermediate time cut here by the best part of an hour. At last I start to relax. The descent of Falls Creek is always fun and beautiful. But after more than 12 hours in the saddle it hurts to get into an aerodynamic tuck.
We cruise into Mount Beauty, remembering being chased along the same roads by the sag wagon last year. We have time up our sleeves this year, so there’s no motivation to go too hard. Tawonga Gap is a slow grind, but it the late afternoon sun it’s actually quite pleasant. My riding companions drop me in the last few kilometres of the climb, but wait for me down the other side.
On the lower parts of the descent down Tawonga Gap we get talking. My riding companions are suggesting that they might sign up for a shorter ride next year. The 320 is no fun, they say. Now that we've ticked it off the list, we can move on. At this point of the day, I'm not going to argue with them. But deep down I also really like a challenging challenge. Something to test your physical and mental resolve. Something hanging over your head as motivation.
We ride into Bright together, pretty much spot on 8pm, 16 hours after starting. I'm sure I can do it in 15 next year....