I gasped for air and fell clumsily against my bike at the side of the road. I’d just won the fourth and final stage of the Three Day Tour with a 60km solo breakaway. Anxiously, I looked up the road to see if the chasing group were coming. I needed 51 seconds for the unlikely jump from sixth place to the general classification win in my grade. In what seemed like no time at all, the GC contenders came barrelling across the line, some small gaps between them. ‘It doesn’t matter’, I thought, ‘at least I got a stage.’ But they say you make your own luck in cycling, and my breakaway had seen me cross the line ahead of the chasers – by 51 seconds.
Of course it wouldn’t be a stage race without more confusion; time bonuses would still have to be accounted for. I fumbled with my phone, waiting an eternity for the data signal to pick up and take me to the timings site. Finally I got the news – I’d stolen GC by a mere four seconds. After three days of intense racing it was difficult to believe. I didn’t really accept it until I was driving home with the tour’s yellow jersey and a bottle of Chardonnay by my side.
The Northern Suburbs Cycle Tour, more commonly known as the Three Day Tour, is the standout event of the winter road racing season in Melbourne’s north, held over the Queen’s birthday long weekend. The race has been staged every year since 1959 and has seen A grade wins in recent years from such names as Will Walker and Mitch Docker. Back in 1994 there was a junior who was so strong he raced with the adults – in A grade – and took seventh place. It was his first stage race and he must have learned something as he got even better at them – seventeen years later he won the Tour de France. So you can see how special this race is to those of us who compete in the area. The race is also famous for being bitterly cold, and this year met all the expectations on that front.
Taking second place in the D grade Hell of the West was great preparation for me mentally. But I was still at a lower than ideal long-term fitness level, and carrying just a little extra winter weight. Working full time for the first time in ten years was taking its toll! Two weeks out from the tour I took some time off and tried to ramp up my stress levels, with my first 160km ride in some time (rewarded by the sight of six Wedge Tailed Eagles riding the ridge-lift together at King Parrot Creek). My fitness was still lower than it had been at the Mansfield Tour, but it would have to do. During the last week I tapered on the trainer and focussed on leg speed. I’d been reading William Fotheringham’s book on Merckx, and the recurring discussion of the Cannibal’s cadence made me realise I needed to readdress my own.
Stage 1 – Kyneton-Pastoria – 63km
Saturday morning. I drove out towards Kyneton for the first stage and just passed the Calder Raceway the skies cleared. It was a cruel illusion. All weekend, entry to the Macedon Ranges was marked by a bank of low cloud before the Woodend turn-off. Once on the other side, light rain and a piercing cold wind greeted the first two days racing.
Jamie Hanson, as Chief Commissaire, gave the pre-race briefing at Kyneton Secondary College while we shuddered and wished with some urgency to get the race going. On the start line I joked that holding us in place was an OH&S issue. But it wasn’t as painful as being held at the freezing sale yards for last year’s delayed Stage 3 start.
Soon enough we were racing, with a slight acceleration as we left the neutral zone. No one was about to burn matches just yet, with four stages in front of us. An awful sound started from my bike; a kind of rasping noise. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘a mechanical right at the start.’ The sound only occurred when I pedalled – a crank issue? By the time we approached the first KOM the noise had gone away, though I’d find its cause after the stage …
Approaching the first KOM I figured my game plan was to get some bonus seconds on the climbs and finish with the same time as the winners of the inevitable final sprint. Unless I could get away on the climb? But I didn’t know the field. As soon as we hit the climb three riders shot to the front – Paul, Jonathan and Ariel. Stephen, a fellow Coburg rider, also came past me. I maintained a steady effort reeling in Stephen and almost catching Ariel. I was fourth over the top – no prize for that.
Our bodies, warmed by racing, still contested a penetrating cold. The misty rain which greeted us at Kyneton was gone, but the roads were still wet. There were no significant tests before the second KOM which played out precisely as the first: Paul, Jonathan, Ariel and Stephen passed me. I got back past Stephen and almost caught Ariel. Fourth again. But this time we had more of a gap on the field. I saw the lead climbers backing off, rode up alongside and implored them to start rolling turns. We tried, but there wasn’t a lot of cooperation in the selection. We were gruppo compatto.
For the moment the bunch rolled together and my mind wandered. I considered how bike racing really satisfies primitive urges. The immediacy of danger, social exertion, targeted focussing. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, in his Fifty Degrees Below Zero, makes a list of things we should do to satisfy the evolutionary parts of our brains: staring at fire, throwing things, singing, etc. You could just say bike racing and be done with it.
I was sitting there philosophising in the cold when suddenly Stephen was off the front. His lead grew quickly. All at once we had a real breakaway. Taking the bend past the Pipers Creek Road turn-off, the stronger riders swung into gear and decided to reel it in. Stephen held the group off for most of the climb up Pipers Creek-Pastoria Road but near the old dry stone wall we caught him.
Gambling that the pack might not feel like chasing again right away, I went hard, getting twenty metres or so straight away. One rider bridged across and I assumed the bunch was with him. When he stopped talking to me I assumed he was on my wheel. I was completely surprised to look over my shoulder at the right-hand turn on to Baynton Road and see the group was thirty metres behind me. I tried to gas it, but they got me on the descent. After the race, several riders asked why I didn’t press my advantage. My honest answer is I didn’t know I had it. Once the first rider bridged, albeit momentarily, I doubted I could ride away from the guys who’d beaten me up the KOM each time.
One last time up the climb, no points on offer. Again the same arrangement. ‘Déjà vu’ I said to Stephen. Another rider, Grant, caught our lead selection over the top. As we accelerated towards the line I got squeezed at the side, almost off into the dirt. ‘Watch it!’ I shouted, ‘Watch it!’ In fact the words didn’t quite come out right as my facial muscles were frozen. I was in an awful position and like old times, I didn’t contest the sprint. I was lucky to get the same time as the other five at the end.
Stephen took a deserved win in the sprint after his attacking efforts. Grant and Paul rounded out the Podium. For me: sixth place on the stage, and sixth place on GC – 10 seconds down on Paul whose KOM bonuses put him on top.
Stripping off in the car, I found the source of my ‘mechanical’ noise. I’d changed my left cleat position during the week. I’d ridden the trainer with it but not tested with my Velotoze overshoes. I’d rubbed and melted a hole at the inside toe of my overshoe about the size of a fifty cent coin. Velotoze are an overshoe revolution – they actually work. At $25 I’m happy to treat them as disposable and buy new sets as necessary – which is what I did via Peak Cycles before getting home.
See the stage on Strava here.
Stage 2 – Carlsruhe ITT – 5.5km
Sunday morning: the individual time trial. Worse weather still; freezing, drizzle, a stiff northeasterly wind. The set-up area was the old disused weighbridge and gravel turning circle at Carlsruhe. I got there with barely enough time to set up my trainer before having to depart for the start line. Forget the usual TT warm-up, but then this was no typical TT. A mere 5.5km. Forget the usual TT pacing rules too; over such a short distance you basically have to go flat-out. Desperately trying to warm up against the clock and the conditions, I looked about – a chaotic spectacle as dozens of freezing cyclists hurried grimly about the weighbridge to prepare.
There had been some confusion about what kind of TT equipment would be allowed. I remembered last year TT helmets and aerobars were OK, but this year there was a much stronger emphasis on mass-start rules. What did that mean exactly? I looked it up and discovered, among other rules, ‘Your clothing must not have wings under the arms.’ Well there goes that plan then. Time to go.
Depart, at 30 second intervals, was by bib number, not GC. I was second last to depart in my grade, followed by Ariel. He had the right idea and wore a winter jacket to the last moment. Why didn’t I think of that? Waiting, shuddering, teeth chattering, the icy wind lashed any residual warmth from our bodies. Jamie Hanson made jokes about hypothermia. I hoped the muscle contractions involved in shivering might help tired legs. At least I wasn’t late this time.
Then I was away, hammering as best I could down Three Chain Road. I struggled in the crosswind and was all over the road. Fatigue from the previous day was now shouting loudly. Attempts at self motivation: ‘come on, every second counts, come on.’ Nearing the end, I was closing the gap on the rider in front of me. Across the line I was just a few meters behind him.’Well that was unpleasant!’, I called out. Ariel was right behind me – he’d beaten my time, but by how much?
It was hard not to push it on the way back, just to stay warm. I got in the car and basked in blasting heat. Outside my micro-climate the scene remained awful as more cyclists moved miserably to and fro. I wondered, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’
I’d taken fourth place on the stage, 15 seconds behind Ariel, who won the stage. My GC position was unchanged. I was interested in comparing our times to the next grade up. I would have placed 14th in C – not too bad. Ariel would have placed 5th – an indication he’s bound for bigger things.
See the stage on Strava here.
Stage 3 – Newham – 60km
Three hours after the ITT we were lined up at Newham for the start of Stage 3. I shivered and chatted race-talk with the guys as we waited. Thankfully, we weren’t held for long, and this time I wore my fleece hoody until the last moment. As soon as we were moving I realised something was wrong with my set-up. I’d forgotten to change my saddle position back from the TT, where I’d moved it 20mm forward. It was going to be a long stage.
Up to the first KOM, and it was essentially a return to the previous day’s pecking order. Jonathan, Paul and Ariel took the points in that order. I hustled back on to their selection as we descended down into Lancefield, then got gapped on the left hand turn after an unexpected surge from the bunch. I could barely find the strength to get back on, even as the bunch calmed. I was a bike length off the back as we passed the applauding juniors, racing their own tour with a Lancefield start. ‘Don’t applaud me’, I thought. As Tim Krabbé says in The Rider, ‘where does a winning rider get the right to revel in applause if the crowd isn’t obliged to hiss him when he fails?’
Somewhere after the KOM, one rider, Joel, had slipped off the front almost without notice. Perhaps no one considered him a threat as he was more than a minute down on GC. By the time we were around the back of the course, on Three Chain Road, he was barely visible in the distance.
Then Stephen attacked. From my vantage point, about five riders back, he seemed to simply float off the front without catching anyone’s attention. The GC leaders should have noticed this. Stephen had lost a little time on the TT but was still in a threatening position. He pressed his advantage and linked up with Joel. They seemed to really step on it down Dons Road into Newham and we lost sight of them for the first time.
I was torn. I didn’t want to sit back and watch Stephen ride away, taking my podium aspirations with him. But I didn’t want to do all the work just to carry the top three power-climbers – Paul, Jonathan and Ariel – to a final drag I couldn’t win. If they were my only options, then I wanted the breakaway to win. I was trying to bridge back and rooting for Stephen at the same time!
The break took the first two KOM positions, of course, but as we approached the line our established triumvirate shot off from the bunch. I threw an arm up in exasperation. I was beginning to feel they were unbeatable.
What became clear is that these three guys were marking each other and very unwilling to waste energy pulling the bunch. At one point, with Stephen and Joel off the front, the bunch slowed right down and they just looked at each other. Of course this can make a rider who has been doing more work feel frustrated. But equally, it means these guys know how to race bikes. Again, I’m reminded of The Rider, where Krabbé describes the scene at the end of his race:
Lebusque in denims. A nod towards Reilhan. ‘Little prick, didn’t pull one meter. Not one. That’s not racing. Lets me do all the work. And I’m forty-two!’
Lebusque has reached the age of forty-two without ever understanding that Reilhan, for all his wheel-sucking, is more of a racer than he is, no matter how much he pulls.
Or, as Allen and Coggan put it, ‘In bike racing, awards aren’t given to those who can produce the greatest number of watts per kilogram; they are given to those who finish first.’
Now to be fair, when it came to the crunch these guys turned it on. Hurtling down Three Chain Road they tore the group apart, catching first Joel and then Stephen, just moments from the line. It was a cruel end to a courageous breakaway – for Stephen especially. Over the course of the race he’d shown the greatest willingness of any of us to attack and to take risks.
There were splits all through the grade. I finished in 13th place. I was with a group of seven riders; the closest thing left to a bunch, 23 seconds behind the winner, Ariel.
What a day Ariel had had. Both stage wins and now sitting on top of GC with four seconds from Paul and six from Jonathan. The next closest rider was Stephen, 25 seconds back. I’d held my sixth place on GC but I was 51 seconds back. Surely it was time to let go of podium ambitions.
See the stage on Strava here.
Stage 4 – Metcalfe-Redesdale – 85km
I’d slept better each night of this tour than during my previous stage races, but the final night was something of an exception. Five hours is better than none; in a block of two, then three. But I felt fatigued as I stepped out of the car at Kyneton. A little despair was setting in about the general classification and my inability to match the top three guys on the KOMs. As I got ready I complained to one rider that I felt I was basically out of the competition; and to Stacey (who would go on to win Women’s C) I said, ‘I’m coming sixth, but that’s third if you don’t count those guys!’
The weather, at least, was looking up. Tenuous glimpses of sunshine punctuated the otherwise overcast sky. Really, I didn’t feel too bad. The situation was not great, but I still hoped. Like the guiding motto of the political theorist Antonio Gramsci: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ I had to breakaway on this stage, or die trying. I’d seen how unwilling the GC leaders were to work the day before, preferring to rely on their superior strength at critical moments. Perhaps I could turn that strength against them. A kind of cycling jiu-jitsu?
We rolled on to the course for the 85km Metcalfe-Redesdale loop. It was still cold, but now we could savour the illusion of warmth which teased through thinning clouds. Just before the descending bends on Kyneton-Metcalfe Road I surged off the front momentarily. ‘It’s a long way to go by yourself’, said one rider, Mario, as the group came back together. We were 10 kilometres in. ‘Just trying to wake everyone up’, I said. But I was testing my legs, which felt OK, and the bunch, which seemed equally ready to respond. There could only be one right moment to go, to get the kind of gap I needed. This wasn’t it. I only hoped I’d recognise the right moment when it came.
We passed through Metcalfe and I got chatting with George from Preston CC. He told me he had celebrated his 67th birthday on the first stage of the tour. He was still going strong and sitting in a respectable place on GC. He’d crossed the line in front of me the day before. ‘I hope I’m still racing when I’m 67’ I said. ‘I’m sure you will be’ replied George. Then with a rush of excessive seriousness I said, ‘If the world’s still in one piece.’
‘That’s true’ he said. I wanted to inject some levity back into the chat so I said, ‘Well I hope I get a win before I’m 67!’
Nearing the KOM the pace quickened sharply. Stephen attacked, again, and got a bit of a gap, but the GC guys were on his wheel. I couldn’t match their turn of speed and fell back through the bunch. A lull right before the KOM enabled me to work my way back.
With less than 1km to the top I was on the front, holding a steady pace, when Mario launched a strong attack. I was climbing at close to maximum effort as the KOM leaders came flying past again. Two of them got ahead of Mario but he held on doggedly for third. In Mario’s race report he describes me as a rider who didn’t contest the KOM. As far as I’m concerned I did! I even came close to setting best ever 2 min power – I just couldn’t match those guys. I’d always considered myself a climber, relative to my grades, but this tour was forcing a reassessment, at least when it came to these shorter pinches.
Then I found my moment. Over the crest I was on my own with the lead selection 20 metres ahead of me and the rest of the bunch 20-30 metres behind me. I saw the front group sit up to wait for the bunch. I’d been chasing to get back on – I just held my speed and went past.
We were 25km in, with 60km to go. Only one rider reacted. It was Mario, taking a truly attacking spirit into today’s race, and in a moment he was on my wheel. We had 20-30 metres on the bunch when I heard him say, ‘I’m sorry … good luck!’
This was it. I had to back myself. I got as low as I could, pressed as hard as I could. Seconds later I approached the marshaled right-hand turn onto Heathcote-Kyneton Road. Red flag! ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I thought. But it was only a single car and as I slowed, the marshal withdrew his flag. Back on the gas, look over the shoulder, still can’t see them, go go go!
Now here was a challenge: Heathcote-Kyneton Road is the straightest, flattest, bit of the course until the last kilometre, and I had to hold off the group on my own, testing the weakest point of my abilities. I felt some relief as I took the left-turn on to Bendigo-Redesdale Rd – hills in front of me and no one behind.
Just after the roundabout, at the continuation on to Sutton Grange Road, the follow-car came up alongside and the driver called out, ‘you’ve got at least 45 seconds.’ Far out – I had ridden myself on to the virtual podium. What were the chances I could hold this for another 50km?
The westbound section of the course can drag on forever, with its constant little twists and undulations. But here I had an advantage. This was the fourth time I’d ridden the course, with one race and two recons under my belt. I could plan with some foresight where I would expend energy and where I’d conserve it. It was working. The follow-car returned: ‘two minutes and twenty seconds!’ Now this was unbelievable. Alright then, keep going.
I hit the bridge over the Coliban River and remembered precisely the shape of the climb that followed, with its long false flat after the initial ramp. I told myself, ‘don’t you dare back off until you’re over that final rise.’ Then the follow-car came back again. The driver looked like he couldn’t quite believe his own words as he shouted out, ‘Three minutes and thirty seconds!’ This race was mine to lose now.
Taking the left-hand turn on to Allendale Road, I joked to the marshals, ‘feel free to red flag the others.’ The longest climb of the stage was in front of me now. In the first road race of the season I missed a break here and ended up on the back of a chasing group. I couldn’t afford to back off here, but I was definitely tiring.
Could I lift my pace up the climb? No. Insubordinate legs. I’d held around 4 W/kg since my move an hour earlier. Ok, so those numbers won’t earn me a contract, but at my level, on the fourth stage of a three day race, with tired legs, it’s an effort.
At the crest of the climb, the follow-car returned: ‘They’re pegging back a bit but you’ve still got 2:50.’ Got to keep going.
Undulating, mostly descending, the stretch to Metcalfe-Elphinstone Road gave me some respite. What I couldn’t add in watts I could compensate for with aerodynamics – or so I told myself as I tried to sink into the top tube. Though my Roubaix isn’t exactly a go-to aero bike!
‘Is he on his own?’, the corner marshal at Metcalfe-Elphinstone Road asked. ‘He is!’ These volunteers, standing still in the bitterly windswept cold, were just about the only human contact I had. Well, them and the follow-car driver, who was back now: ‘Holding steady at 2:50.’ Some relief – I was fading, but perhaps they were fading too?
I started to pick up stragglers from the back of C grade. Each time I saw one in the distance I hoped that the same sight might confuse the chasing group, that they might think they’d caught me and slow down.
Back through Metcalfe, seriously tiring. An empty road behind me, but for how much longer? The course map had shown a second KOM. Surely I get that? I’d get caught but at least my name would be listed amongst the climbers where I’d imagined it would be. But I was dying now, and so it seemed was my bike. The shifter was jamming every time I tried to move beyond the middle of the cassette. For the next several kilometres I had to ride in the small ring to find a workable combination. Where was the bloody KOM?
I was climbing now, the same ‘descending bends’ I described at the start. Wasn’t this the KOM? Where were the signs? The judges? I caught a C grade group including Scott who would win the ‘most courageous’ award in his grade for his efforts on the stage. Slowing to a standstill at the top – ‘where’s the bloody KOM!?’, I called. One of the riders called back, ‘There’s only one – just go for it – get aero!’
Imagining surging off at this instruction did not translate to actual motion. I was fading fast. Then one last call from the follow-car. I didn’t quite catch it, but it sounded like encouragement rather than a gap reading – probably not a good sign.
Then the distance markers started to appear. 5km to go. 2km to go. Struggling. But here the wind that tore across the open landscape arrived at my back. 1km to go. One last head check. I can see the finish line. Keep pushing … no? Ok, just fall across the line.
See the stage on Strava here.
See all the results here.
It was hard to accept. For days a certain order had been imposed on the race. My getting away had upended all of that. The disappointment of one GC rider was particularly apparent. Ariel had been so strong on Sunday and looked safe at the top of GC. I beat raw talent with guile, a bit of luck, maybe a bit of experience. I am twice Ariel’s age. But with youth on his side I’m pretty sure he’s on his way to menacing A grade.
For me, this was pretty big. I’d ridden in D for two seasons in the Northern Combine and never had a win. My second place at Hell of the West told me it was just about time to move up to C. The Tour was to be my last stab at reaching the top of the D podium. Looking set to miss out was dispiriting. Coming from behind to make up the difference was especially satisfying.
At the presentations I asked Phil, who’d just won the stage and overall in B grade with the very same move as me, how his legs were holding up. I asked because I felt like I was going to fall over! I was dazed, still surprised, imagining there’d turn out to be a mistake with the timings. But I’d really won it, and the validation of my peers at that presentation was one of the best experiences I’ve had in cycling.
It’s easy to doubt your sanity in this sport. Why would anyone subject themselves to so much physical discomfort? This is particularly amplified in Melbourne where, like the rest of Australia, we have no off-season, but where, unlike much of Australia, we have seriously wintery conditions. Transplanting a European summer sport to these conditions, however, is part of what gives racing here its character.
Standing with that buoyant community, their suffering over (the sun finally broke out once the racing finished), provided the best answer to what that suffering is for. As much as solitude is something which defines my riding, and which I relish, the sense of community makes all the pain worthwhile. And everyone here had a story to tell. Like Tom McDonough, who’d raced in the Tour yet again, having missed only one since 1989. Like Richard McCorkell, who won A grade twice in the 1980s and won the fourth stage in C grade here – off the front at the age of 61. Sure, we can speak of Cadel entering his fist stage race here, but the experience and competition across all the grades at the Three Day Tour speaks to the heart of competitive cycling. I’m thrilled to be a part of the community and I hope this long-winded account of my little escapade can belong somewhere in its social history.
Now, if we can just get some heaters on the start line next year …