I was pretty happy with my racing at the Mansfield Tour and assumed I’d build on my form. Then my luck changed. I got sick for the first time since 2013. I started to rebuild, planning to work a city commute into my training, but on my first commute I crashed in the rain. When I put word out that I’d crashed on the descending right hander on Banyule Rd, many people pointed out that the corner has its own form! One friend had even tweeted about this last year:
I wasn’t too hurt (though my feelings were hurt by all the drivers who continued on past me) but I’d done the best part of $900 damage (helmet, rear mech, shifter, labour costs, and a saddle I’m yet to replace) and with the subsequent time off my long term fitness dropped further still.
So by the time the Northern Combine season rolled around I wasn’t in the shape I’d hoped for. I raced the big loop at Metcalfe-Redesdale but missed the break and rolled in on the back of the chasing group. My new work-a-day reality made training hard and when I got hit by a car in the CBD I decided I was well and truly over that approach. I’d just have to ride the trainer (made more bearable, at least, now that we have Zwift).
So when the Hell of the West arrived on 23 May, it was fair to say my preparation had been messy. But this is a race you have to go in.
The Hell of the West
Sunbury CC’s Hell of the West is perhaps the most romantic race on the Northern Combine fixture. Featuring the toughest climb in the series and a flat blast along a rough unsealed road which evokes something of Australia’s bike racing past. That is, unless you race in D, which foregoes the dirt and reduces the course from 90 to 67km. This is what I did.
A quick note on grading.
Why race in D grade? Well, after copping a little flak for this at the start of the Combine season I feel I need to defend this. At state level I’ve found a really good fit in Masters C – take the under 30s out of the equation and I’m knocking on the top ten out of ninety or so riders, so long as there’s a bit of climbing involved. In vets racing (over 35s) I worked my way into B and Eastern Vets even threw me in A one time for winning a C grade race by breakaway. But Combine grading is different – it’s open age and amongst the fiercest road racing in the country.
I entered C in the Three Day Tour last year and despite picking up points in the KOM competition I got shelled out of the pack and was a DNF for the tour. After that I said I’d stay in D in the Combine until I won or had a solid podium at the least. Almost a year later, and after several thwarted breakaways and fourth places, I still hadn’t found the podium. This also has something to do with the Combine courses and my relative strengths. In the Combine we have a lot of undulation but almost no climbs of any note. The exception to this is the Hell of the West which features the brutal climb up Glenmore Rd – 15% for the most part, ramping up over 20% on the switchbacks.
Even then, it’s followed by another 40km of descending, minimising the potential advantage for climbers …
Ok, the race report!
Last year, with the race in August, it was bitterly cold. This year the weather was milder. A gentle northerly, broken cloud, cool but not too cold.
D is always an uneven grade. The front 10-20% of riders are faster than the back half of C, but perhaps half the grade are still finding their racing legs. As we rolled North from Balliang the pace was certainly not being pushed by the faster section. I was reminded of cynical jibes about D grade I’d heard non-racers make – comments which didn’t square with my experience, until now. I was getting cold and considering pushing off just to warm up. Thankfully I wasn’t alone. Eventually a rider in a Hawthorn jersey took off. I was on his wheel straight away but all we did was raise the pace of the group. I dropped back a couple of places, trying to do less, waiting to cover the next move.
As we approached the climb you could sense nervousness in the bunch. Some of this was from riders dreading the approaching effort, whilst others were keen to use it to their advantage. Unlike last year where I broke away from the group before the climb, this year there were half a dozen riders vying for the front position. Still, I backed myself to be at the front when the road turned upwards. My friend Andrew repositioned to the front with me and a moment later we hit the first ramp.
Here’s a recon video from before last year’s race. This was not max effort, and it was awfully windy that day, but you’ll get the idea – it’s steep:
Starting out, I struggled to find the right gear. The climb isn’t that hard to start with and you can hang on to the big ring for a bit so long as you’re mindful to shift before it’s too late. I felt like I shifted to the small ring too early and a handful of guys came past me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and started to feel pessimistic. My heart rate was climbing, stress levels were rising. Then I started to pull a couple of riders back; they’d gone in too hard – perhaps they hadn’t known what was in store. I was panting and grinding as my brain searched in vain for the easiest line through the steep turns. A group of spectators at the side of the road looked on with amusement. I counted the riders in front of me as we hit the last steepening pitch. There were five, a little strung out, but surely this would be the selection – assuming I could stay in touch.
By the way, last year I was over the top in second place, and some way ahead of the bunch, with a time of 5:44. This year I was fifth with a time of 5:17. Our first rider to the top did a sub five minute time. The conditions were not noticeably more favourable – I think the grades are getting faster …
Over the top, my arms were burning and my legs were reluctant to get going. A group was cohering up the road with a solo rider ahead of them. Surely I’d get across … but now they were distancing me … then Andrew came past me. I jumped on his wheel and he dragged me across.
I’d come into contact with Andrew after my open letter on the Kinglake climb gained traction. I enjoyed watching his Strava rides and realised we had similar abilities – at one point we climbed Mt Donna Buang with times that were a single second apart. This was my second race with him after Metcalfe-Redesdale which was his first. Since then he’d won a C Grade race with Southern Masters. I felt he’d be a pretty good wheel to hold in this race.
Heading for the Geelong-Ballan Road we had a group of five or six with one guy up the road, just within sight. Luckily we got straight on to the often busy road without interruption for the blast along the ridge and back down to Balliang. We got the turns rolling and appeared to be gradually hauling the lone rider back in. There was no sight of the pack behind us. Through some of the tenuously undulating sections of the highway we maintained our speed and a couple of riders dropped off. Now it was me, Andrew and one other rider, Sebastien, chasing down the lone rider.
We could see our guy in the distance and I noticed he was losing ground to us on the little rises but getting away again on the descents. I weighed this up and shouted to the other two – ‘We attack on this next rise – as hard as you can – we’ll get him!’ Chewing my stem and burning my legs we halved the distance to bridge, but now it was just me and Andrew.
Rolling TT turns, I was determined to get us across, but my legs were feeling the effort now. As we rounded the left hand bend at the Stony Creek dams, Andrew surged across the remaining gap. I couldn’t do the same but luckily our leader, Patrick, sat up and the three of us began a renewed effort towards the podium.
It was about this time last year when my breakaway with Hamish got caught by a group of about eight chasers. This memory was powerful and I urged Patrick and Andrew not to slow down or relax too much. My memory from last year, however, also seemed to jump from getting caught at Stony Creek to racing down the final descent into Staughton Vale Rd. But now there seemed to be a lot more road to get through first. It just went on and on. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see the group baring down on us. At one point traffic banked up behind us, blocking my view – would the line of cars work for or against us? When it cleared we were still out there on our own.
Then we hit the descent, tore down the hill and turned on to Staughton Vale Rd. I spent a long time looking back up the hill. Patrick saw and understood – he asked if we were well clear of the rest. ‘I hope so!’ I called.
Here’s another video from last year’s recon. Just imagine it’s sunny the whole way and you’ll have an idea of our final ten kilometres.
We actually lifted the pace and by the time we reached the last straight five kilometre stretch to the finish line it was clear we were the podium. But in what order?
We continued to roll turns. I felt I was obviously tiring and struggling to pull through smoothly. I wondered too if Patrick was tired or if he was saving himself for a sprint. Andrew still looked pretty strong.
With about 600 meters to the line we stopped cooperating. We knew this was going to happen and we waited to see who would make the first move. Then Andrew went – hard. We were a way out from where I thought the jump would be made and I hesitated, missing the chance to grab his wheel. I’m such a poor sprinter that I usually don’t even contest these finishes – last year I sat up and let the chasing group go over the line ahead of me. I did the same at Metcalfe-Redesdale. This time I resigned myself momentarily but then thought – ‘hell, I’ve come this far, give it a go!’ Patrick went first and I was a wheel behind him as I got out of the saddle (Andrew already had a couple of lengths on us). With about twenty metres to the line I sensed I was gaining ground and dug deeper: second – by about half a wheel!
I called to Andrew: ‘Hey! You just won the Hell of the West!’
‘I can’t believe it!’ he said. We high-fived and congratulated Patrick, then turned to see the bunch coming in. We’d beaten them by a minute.
You can see my Strava file for the race here.
So the next stop is the Three Day Tour, into which I’ve made a late entry. My experience in the tour last year, getting dropped by C, was pretty awful. But I feel like I’m at the end of a long journey back to the kind of ability I thought I had a year or more ago. I’ve requested D – it’ll be better for me to fight for the podium than to fight to finish. But a second place in Hell of the West might tempt the handicappers to bump me up. I’ve made my case anyway, and look forward to the racing, whatever happens.