Monday, 5 February 2018

Alpine Classic 2018 (320km, over Buffalo, Hotham & Falls Creek)

I’ve been riding the Audax Alpine Classic for around 20 years. There have been all kinds of extremes including scorching heat and fires. But I can’t remember ever seeing more that a couple of drops of rain. So after I stumbled out of bed to prepare for the 4am start of my 320km bicycle journey and heard a rattling noise, my first assumption was that the toilet exhaust fan was playing up. The noise persisted. I looked out the window. A flash of lightning illuminated the torrential rain.

This was not what I’d mentally prepared for.  Earlier in the week the forecast for the day had been for 38 degrees – the exact temperature at which the extreme weather policy kicks in and the long rides are cancelled. I’d kept a close eye on the forecast as it had been revised downward as the day approached. 34 degrees. With a chance of thunderstorms. I’d been so focussed upon the temperature that the rest of the forecast hadn’t fully registered.

I nimbly initiated a quick change in pre-ride procedure. Find a zip lock bag to put my phone into. Forget the liberal dousing in sunscreen, because it wouldn’t last until sunrise in that downpour. Assume brace position before stepping out into the deluge.

Usually waiting to meet friends at our designated meeting point before entering the starting corral is a pleasant time. Other riders rolling past in the dark, lights flashing. A few stretches and last-minute checks of the contents of my pockets. It wasn’t quite the same while getting wet in the rain.

Apart from the weather, the other pre-event chatter had been about my usual riding companion’s back. A few months before the ride he’d ended up lying on the floor, unable to move. He’d made good progress, but wasn’t keen to find himself in a similar situation on the remote roads beyond Omeo. He’d opted instead for one of the shorter rides, but was starting at 4am so we’d get to ride Buffalo together. I’d started to mentally prepare for a long solo loop over Hotham and Falls Creek when he introduced me to a friend who was riding the 320 for the first time.  A strong A-grade racer.

We all headed off in the dark. We crossed paths with a jaywalking wombat on a short descent before we hit the Buffalo climb, fortunately without incident. Riding the climb in the dark is like being in a spin class in a dark room. Today, with the added interest of having someone periodically entering the room and giving us a hose-down.

Our A-grader became frustrated with the little bunch we were riding with about half way up, and left to find more space in another dark room further up the hill.  My usual riding companion did his best to box me in, and prevent my customary early morning enthusiasm from getting the better of me and joining him.

The rain had stopped by the time we reached the top and it was getting lighter. But it was going to be a very wet descent.  Surely everyone would be taking it nice and easy.  Except the guy I found picking himself up off the ground on the very first corner. As I crawled my way through the first downhill corners, I was calculating how much time this was going to add to the day. If we were descending in the wet all day, it could easily add an hour of riding time. I’ve been known to dance closely with the time cut on this ride in past years. Every minute counts.  But as we progressed down the mountain and became attuned to the conditions, our speed was good. At this speed, we wouldn’t lose more than a couple of minutes.

Having ridden back through Bright we came to the Tawonga Gap turn-off, and the majority of riders turned off to tackle Tawonga Gap and Falls Creek. 320 riders like myself looked around and wondered where all of those good wheels to follow went. The 30km to Harrietville is slightly uphill, an annoyance before the next proper climb, Mt Hotham. Fortunately, I was picked up by a couple of riders and we became a group of three. We kept picking up riders all the way to Harrietville, doing turns on the front but spending most of the time conserving energy, drinking and eating. The last rider we picked up just as we hit the ‘Welcome to Harrietville’ sign was the A-grader, rueing having had to ride the whole way solo.

We rode most of the climb together and used the flattish middle-sections of the climb to have a chat to pass the time. At the end of the day I knew his maximum heart rate, his best race results, the average power output he recorded on his fastest ascent of Hotham, details about the process of heat-moulding the soles of his bike shoes, and the arguments for and against replacing his 20-year old titanium frame with a new carbon fibre number. At the end of the day my partner didn’t ask me about any of these things. She asked if he had kids and I had no idea.

The A-grader left me behind on the steeper sections at the top of Hotham, but we regrouped before reaching Dinner Plain and headed on toward Omeo. Concerns I’d had earlier in the day about wet descents were a distant memory. The roads were dry but a cloud cover lingered keeping the temperatures down. Sections of the route I’ve come to dislike over the years because of their exposed locations in the heat of the day were actually pleasant. There was definitely a silver lining to the clouds that gave us a pre-dawn drenching.

On the flatter roads beyond Omeo, the true benefits of the A-grader revealed themselves. I’m taller than my usual riding companions, but he and I are about the same height. It was an armchair ride tucked on his wheel. 

At the Omeo checkpoint, someone had mentioned how much they were looking forward to a Coke at the Blue Duck Inn at Anglers Rest. The idea of buying a cold drink there is an idea that had never entered my head before, in all the times I’d ridden this route. Suddenly it was something that I felt like I wouldn’t be able to live without. When we arrived, I stopped and headed to the bar, figuring I’d get the sugary drink, pour it into my bidon and we’d be on our way in a minute or two. Of course the Blue Duck Inn was quite busy when I arrived, and doesn’t employ many staff. I joined the motley crew of aging bikies in leather ordering chicken parmigianas and beer, and the other aging bikies in lycra, ordering coke and tonic water. I sized up the queue and had second thoughts. But by this time, there was no backing out. After rushing the A-grader through the previous checkpoints, I left him waiting on the roadside to obtain my precious, fizzy, drink.

As the drink fizzed in my bidon, periodically breaching the drip-proof valve to release amusing farty noises, we motored on toward the ‘Back o’ Falls’ climb. The cold liquid and sugar hit had me feeling good about the steep climb. The sun made an ill-timed entrance. I saw my shadow for the first time all day and had plenty of time to observe it, head down, riding along at not much more than walking pace.

I made a rule years ago when I first rode this climb. No stopping. Just keep turning the pedals. Stopping just extends the discomfort. I stick to the rules. The A-grader is breaking them, stopping to stretch out his back, which is clearly giving him some trouble. We’d agreed at the base of the climb it was every man for himself up here. So I concentrate on my shadow and grind forwards, metre after precious metre.

Eventually the climb flattens out. I wonder how the A-grader has fared. I passed a few other people off their bikes and walking. I gave some encouraging words as I passed, but it’s a long way from the finish to be looking so broken. The tight time cut for this ride means that the sag wagon is never too far behind.

I don’t have to ponder his fate for too long. He turns on the turbo across the flatter high plains, and we’re together again before Falls Creek Village. The sag wagon won’t be seeing either of us today.

On the final climb of the day, Tawonga Gap, we played a game of tortoise and hare. I plodded along, using whatever was left in the tank to claw my way over. The A-grader played the hare, bursting off up the hill, but stopping every few minutes to stretch. I discover that riding with someone who is suffering more than you is a great distraction. The top of the climb came around quicker than expected, and we were on the descent into town. We joined up with a few other triumphant 320 riders and barrelled into town as the sun started to think about setting.

A special thanks to the organisers and hard-working volunteers, who once again put on an amazing event. With new organisers next year, we’re hoping they can live up to the very high standards set over the past decades. 

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