I almost didn’t race in the inaugural Mansfield Tour. Following the Tour of Bright I had managed to maintain the long-term fitness I’d reached, but wasn’t training with any focus. There were a few glimmers of hope in the numbers, and I was setting consistent, if not best times, on a range of local climbs. More of a problem was I was broke. Really broke. I couldn’t afford urgently needed components for my bike, let alone my race licence. I felt angry at Cycling Australia’s hike in licence costs (it’s $70 in the USA and £36 in the UK) and I questioned whether I’d race this year at all. When the Mansfield Tour was announced I could see it was right up my alley, but it was just as unreachable. Then my financial situation turned around. Now I had the cash, but no longer had the time to train like I wanted to. What the heck – I’d enter anyway.
A week out from the tour, we drove out to Mansfield and reconned each stage. I hadn’t climbed Mt Buller since the 2014 race and was surprised to go fractionally quicker than that ascent. The next day I had a dig on the TT course, averaging 38.5kph, and then rode the Stage Two course to Jameison and back which became a struggle against the wind and drained my enthusiasm.
I was under prepared – perhaps more so mentally than physically, but I couldn’t forego the race up Mt Buller after last year’s experience, and excitement was beginning to build.
Stage 1 – Individual Time Trial.
We’d left accommodation booking to the last moment and had to stay just outside Jameison. It was a lovely little spot but we didn’t get there until 9pm on Friday night. After trying to condense my pre-race tune-up routine into twenty minutes, immediately before bed, I slept restlessly.
So with a bit of fatigue in my head, if not my legs, I set off for the ITT. Historically, time trials haven’t gone smoothly for me. My first, at the Three Day Tour last year, saw me miss my start time by a minute. I rode better at the Tour of Bright but forgot to take my TT helmet. This time I was determined to make it all work. After my recon the previous weekend I assumed I could nudge 40kph in the race. I planned a good location to warm up, using the same Sky TT warm-up that worked for me at Bright. The Classix guys had picked the same spot and it was nice to have a bit of banter before heading out. But as I rode from the warm-up spot I began to realise I was cutting it awfully close.
My GPS time said I was a minute early when I got to the line, but an official told me I’d missed my start. ‘Our watch, not yours’ he said, and I knew the futility of protesting. ‘How late am I?’ I begged to know, but all I got was a sudden eight second count and a flat start from the side of the ramp. No complaints, and no excuses for making the same mistake twice, but it was hard to get going, not knowing how much time I’d already lost.
I imagined I was going to have to withdraw, and it wasn’t until I hit the west-bound Barwite road that I started to pick up a little momentum. Even then I had the rumbling swoosh of a disc-wheeled TT rig blast by me as if to underscore my plight! (that was Richard from Carnegie Caulfield who looked great and went on to take second for the stage).
I crossed the line, having ridden a demoralised average of 37.7kph, almost one kph slower than my recon and a lot slower than I imagined I’d go. But when I checked the timings site I was confounded to find I’d lost no more than thirty seconds and was was given a speed of 36.15kph. I’d really only just missed my start. I can’t know what time I would have done without that psychological distraction, but let it be a lesson … again. Next time I’ll be there ten minutes early!
St Kilda’s Darren Lever had taken the stage and once again I began to ponder the purchase of a TT bike …
So I was a bit disheartened but figured I could steal something back on the climbs. A similar pattern had unfolded at Bright, albeit from a better start. Quietly though, I was worried there wasn’t quite enough elevation on the second stage to really help me.
Stage 1 Strava file here.
Stage 2 – Mansfield – Jameison Return.
After the morning’s debacle I was extra careful to get to the start with plenty of time to sign on, and lined up early in the driveway of the Arlberg Hotel for the start.
We rolled out gently, with only a slight acceleration as the neutralised section finished at the turn off towards Jameison. I’d memorised the distances at which the various gradients kicked in, a little climb of 500m then a slightly longer rise before the Martins Gap climb proper. With a couple of kilometres to the climb I rolled up to the front. This was easy enough – most of the pack was single file and no one wanted to ride into the wind, so the lane was clear.
The climb kicked in and still we were together with no sign of action from the climbers. But the pace increased gradually as we ascended, building to a crescendo, and a selection of better climbers cohered at the front. Near the top there were about eight of us contesting the KOM before two guys got a jump, leaving the rest of us to fight for third. I went over the top in fifth place and was content with that, figuring the south side of the gap, on the return leg, would prove more decisive.
Of course everyone else thought the same thing and there was no effort from any of the climbers to get away early. The group came back together soon after we crested the KOM. I settled in behind Jules from Hawthorn, a safe wheel to sit on – and as he’s probably a foot taller than me, a bit of a slipstream for me too!
The rolling hills out to Jameison are serene and should be experienced by all cyclists, racing or otherwise. As we neared the town we found locals lining the edge of the road with their kids, cheering each grade as the riders passed. Whilst we maintained a reasonable tempo, just shy of 40kph, this middle section, after and before the gap, proved to be a reprieve from racing. This would change soon enough.
I was itching to have a go on the south-side of Martins Gap but when the peloton arrived we slowed to a crawl with no one willing to be the first to strike out. Worse still, I was boxed in, a few bike lengths back and was struggling to find my way through. I got on to the back of another Hawthorn rider, DT, who had impressed with a late surge past me on the first KOM. I figured he knew what he was doing and would be planning an attack so I waited it out. When he went, I went, and in a moment we were clear of the field. Another two riders pounced from behind us and in the final kick to the KOM I found myself fourth.
DT shot off like a bullet. I was in second place within a few seconds of the KOM but DT was already opening up a gap of a hundred meters. He really gassed it, and a few of us gave chase – aware that a real possibility had emerged for a small selection to get away. That chance evaporated quickly when the selection that did form couldn’t get turns rolling. There might have been a little confusion or miscommunication. Perhaps the peloton were closer to us than I realised – I wasn’t looking back. In any case, a bigger group came together up the fast little rise to the finishing descent, with the wind on our backs. It was going to be a sprint finish, and I would just have to hold on.
I saw the windsock of the airfield before I saw the adjacent finish line set-up, and dug deep. Only at the last moment did the front begin to string out. I was determined to get the same time as the sprinters. I shouted something about not letting gaps form but in a flash it was all done. At first the timings site had a number of splits and it even put Jules a second behind me when I finished on his wheel – proof the transponders aren’t always right. But later the times were amended and the first twenty-two riders were given the same time. As it turned out, we had opened gaps of a couple of minutes, or more, over the other half of the field. Rhys Buzza took the win for Mornington, and it looked like GC for this race would be contended by guys who could both TT and climb.
I’d crossed the line in sixteenth and had moved five places up GC to eighteenth. I could live with that after such a lousy start to the race. The stage had given me a bit of confidence in my climbing and that boded well for the next days third and final stage, ascending Mt Buller.
Stage 2 Strava file here.
Stage Three – Mansfield to Mt Buller.
Like last year, it was freezing as I rolled to sign on for the last stage, maybe worse given the clear skies we’d had all night. I’d always figured I’d better my 2014 Buller Road Race performance at this year’s race, but then I hadn’t counted on it being the third stage of an all-weekend event. My legs felt good, but I was struggling with lack of sleep. I’d felt excited after stage two and hadn’t quite managed to quiet my thoughts. On the plus side I’d been working on a theory that a little sleep deprivation might, through dulling your senses, increase your pain threshold. We’d see!
As we signed on, one of the officials asked us to note a ghost bike on the Mt Buller Tourist Rd, placed there for a local cyclist, named Alain, who’d lost his life at the spot last year. I asked the official if he was referring to Alain Guerin, whose name I’d noticed on the start list last year (there aren’t that many of us named Alain in Australia, so you tend to notice another). I was saddened to hear that this man, who had taken on the race last year at the age of 75, and had then ridden some of the great climbs of the Tour de France, had been struck down on such a well worn cycling route (later I found this article about the accident and was vexated by the police remark near its conclusion, given Mansfield’s important and historic place in Australian road cycling). In any case, hearing of the achievements of this local cyclist gave impetus to the task in front of us.
Rolling past the Jameison turn off and on towards the mountain I was still shivering. The occasional energetic flourishes which punctuated the route to the mountain’s base last year, weren’t repeated and it wasn’t until we were past half way to the mountain that the first serious move was made. A small group went off the front, with a couple more deciding to bridge the gap moments later. I wagered none of these guys were going to get away on the mountain and took to the front of the pack in an attempt to control an easy pace. A couple of guys rolled up alongside me and asked what was happening. Each time I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get them on the mountain.’ Though it was a gamble – I didn’t know who they were.
With a kilometer to the gates, I tipped out most of the water I had left, and got ready to go for it. The pace had lifted a bit, and I was ready for the big surge that would come. Building a little speed on the last little downhill run to the climb, I passed the gates and attacked. I didn’t think to look around for several hundred meters and when I did, I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. All the guys with a chance of GC were looking at each other as I rode away. Of course I felt a moment of excitement in seeing this, but there was no plan to execute, all I could do was climb as hard as I could and see what happened.
At each bend it seemed I was increasing my lead on the pack and after a few turns I could look back and see empty roads. Now I was beginning to believe I could win the stage. Soon I had caught the riders from the break. One of them called out ‘340 is the leader.’ I gave a thumbs up and pressed on. One more turn and I’d caught 340 and now sat behind the lead car. We passed the Women’s B Grade bunch together and after another turn I looked back and saw only empty road. ‘Where are you on GC?’ I asked 340. He was doing a whole lot better than me and sounded surprised when I said I was only eighteenth. He replied: ‘Well if we get to the end together, I won’t challenge you for the stage win.’ Deal!
As soon as I began to think we were getting away, however, I looked back and saw a group gaining on us. It wasn’t the grade together anymore, but a selection of GC guys who could climb and were beginning to get serious. Come on, dig deep, you can do it – I told myself. I went into a harder gear and lifted the pace. 340 called out an apology – I was on my own now.
For another couple of kilometres the selection behind me seemed to stay at about the same distance. I knew I wasn’t riding well by the standards of previous personal efforts, but all that mattered was how I rode compared to the guys behind me. I reached the hairpin rise where I went from fourth to eleventh in 20 seconds last year. With that memory at hand I accelerated and tried to sprint up the straight stretch that opens up after it. I began to tire and at that moment I heard wheels, gears, breathing, and then Hawthorn’s Adrian Vandenbergh flew past me. All I could say was ‘well done.’ For the briefest of moments I entertained the notion of holding his wheel, but he was away. We had five kilometres of the 15.5 km climb left. The chasing selection hadn’t reached the straight behind me. Maybe I could come second?
My head was swimming with fatigue, my body was disobeying instructions. As usual, my heart was plodding away slowly and my lungs were fine, but the fitness gap between my cardio/respiratory systems and everything else was getting exposed. The chasing selection was getting closer.
I stopped looking back, and just kept hoping I could hold on. At 2.5km they got me. Some acknowledgement came from the guys but it only served to spell out my fate. I held on to the back of the group but at Hell Corner I was done for.
Now with only the last steep kilometre to eek out. My body felt like it was going to shut down, and here the cheers and encouragement along the side of the road really did make a difference. Here’s a note to all the wives, husbands, parents, partners, kids etc: please keep doing this. Buoyed slightly then – why not shift back into the big ring and try to sprint out the last hundred meters? My body obeyed the signal to shift gears but then grinded at what felt like a near stand-still across the line.
I’d lost 30 seconds on the group. I’d come thirteenth – two places worse than last year. I’d moved up to fourteenth on GC. It didn’t feel like those numbers told the story.
The full Stage and GC results are here.
Stage 3 Strava file here.
I wasn’t altogether disappointed with the weekend’s effort. I was nowhere near as prepared as I had been for Bright. Without the time lost from my late TT start I would have finished twelfth on GC, a spot up from my finish at Bright. After a bad start I’d really thrown myself at this race and I enjoyed the skirmishes. Perhaps with more effective training later in the year, some better results might follow.
The race itself is a winner as far as I’m concerned. A serene landscape with courses of very manageable length. Just right for this time of year when most of us have minimal road racing in our legs. I hope they continue the event and don’t change it too much.
Special thanks to Dion Jelbart who has permitted me to use his photos here. Over the weekend Dion took some of the nicest race photos I’ve seen. Check out a wider selection on the Cycling Vic facebook page and see more of his work at his site.
Finally, congrats to Phil Smith from my club, Coburg. Phil won Stage Three and GC in Masters B with a huge effort on the mountain.